The ugly little game of white evangelical divorce

Sarah Pulliam Bailey does a good job reporting the facts for Religion News Service: “Woman sues InterVarsity after firing over her divorce.” Let me chip in by reading between the lines a bit, because I’m familiar with this ugly little game, having experienced it firsthand.

A Michigan woman has filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, saying she was fired because of her divorce even as two male colleagues kept their jobs as they went through divorce and remarriage.

Alyce Conlon worked for the evangelical campus ministry as a spiritual director at the Grand Rapids office from 2004 until she was let go in December 2011, according to a suit filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

A spokesman for InterVarsity said no one from the organization would be able to comment on the case, but provided the following statement:

“A vital element of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty is the freedom of religious employers to make hiring decisions through the use of faith-based criteria,” the statement said.

“As a Christian organization, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s credibility and witness depends on its ability to hire and retain personnel who share and abide by InterVarsity’s faith commitments. It is deeply regrettable that a former employee has chosen to challenge this key constitutional liberty.”

IVCF’s response is obtuse, at best, but most likely it’s exactly what it appears to be — a transparent bit of ass-covering evasion and dishonesty, mixed with a big dollop of sanctimonious faux-lamentation.*

This case hasn’t had its day in court yet, so we don’t yet know all the facts from both sides, but IVCF comes out of the gate trying to change the subject and that dodginess makes them look guilty. We know and they know that this suit isn’t about “religious liberty” or the First Amendment or a “key constitutional liberty.” It’s about gender discrimination.

IVCF’s religious freedom to fire people for divorce is not being challenged. IVCF’s apparent practice of having different standards for men than for women — standards that privilege men over women — is what is being challenged. Their slippery refusal to defend those differing standards in this statement is a big tell that they recognize such differing standards are indefensible.

My guess is that InterVarsity’s larger problem here is that it may have been unaware that it had different standards for male and female employees until this lawsuit forced them to confront that fact. The group only has one written policy for dealing with employees who get divorced, and the men applying that policy were likely less than wholly conscious of the way they applied it differently for male employees than they did for female employees. That has to do with the fuzzy, elastic, discretionary aspects of such evangelical policies regarding divorce — a subject I’m unfortunately quite familiar with.

Conlon was placed on paid leave early in 2011 after informing supervisors that she and her husband were considering separation or divorce.

“During this leave of absence, plaintiff followed each and every requirement of the Separation and Divorcing Staff Policy including counseling sessions and continuing communication with her supervisors as to her progress,” attorney Katherine Smith Kennedy wrote in the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, during the absence, InterVarsity employees contacted Conlon’s husband to discuss the marriage without informing her. Despite following InterVarsity’s requirements for divorce procedures, the ministry let her go because she was not successful in reconciling her marriage, her lawyer alleges.

The lawsuit claims that she was treated differently than two male colleagues, who went through separation, divorce and remarriage and were allowed to stay on staff.

So the question is why was the woman fired for not being “successful in reconciling her marriage” whereas the two men — equally unsuccessful at that — were treated differently?

Divorces are like snowflakes — no two are exactly alike. It’s possible, then, that there are identifiable differences between Conlon’s divorce and those of her two male former colleagues that might explain or justify their different treatment.

“When there are significant marital issues, we encourage employees to seek appropriate help to move towards reconciliation,” InterVarsity says, according to the lawsuit. When dealing with employment issues and divorce, ministry leaders take into consideration who initiated the divorce, the impact on work competency and funding and the effect on colleagues, students, faculty and donors.

In the white evangelical church, there are good divorces and bad divorces. If your spouse skips town, abandoning you for a new lover despite your unwavering commitment and fidelity, then yours will be a good divorce while your spouse’s is a bad divorce. That’s what IVCF’s bit about “who initiated the divorce” is all about. “No fault” divorce may be a legal category, but for the evangelical tribe, someone is always at fault. If that someone is you, then it’s a bad divorce. If that someone is the other spouse, then you’re probably OK.

What that means, in practice, is that you’re expected — and required — to demonize your estranged spouse. This requires a radical pivot, because right up until that moment, you’re also expected and required to be wholeheartedly working for reconciliation. Not everyone has it in them to make that pivot — from pleading for reconciliation to vituperative demonization. No matter how ugly and War-of-the-Roses a divorce may be, every divorce also occurs between two people who once loved each other. For some of us, what remained of that love made it impossible to blame and scapegoat our former spouse with the enthusiasm required to satisfy the evangelical wisemen gathered to judge whether or not ours qualified as a good and acceptable divorce.

My guess — and this is only a guess — is that this was part of Conlon’s problem with InterVarsity. My guess is that she didn’t hate her former husband enough to be able to play the ugly game one has to play when applying for official evangelical accreditation of an acceptable divorce. (Although I hope she handled this more graciously than I did.) My guess is that one big factor in the difference between how IVCF treated her male colleagues and her was that they were more willing and able to play this game.

And if that is true, then not only is IVCF guilty of gender discrimination, but it’s also guilty of doing a real disservice to the students it serves. Because the more willing and able one is to play that ugly game, the less qualified one is to minister to others as a mentor, a leader, a servant, a counselor or a friend.

Consider, also, the countless ways that general male privilege and patriarchal assumptions could have biased IVCF’s judgment in these cases. Could we with ink the ocean fill and were the skies of parchment made, we still couldn’t list all the ways that gender bias could have played a role in IVCF’s differing determination that its two male employees had experienced acceptable divorces while its female employees divorce was unacceptable.

One of the most obvious and least defensible entry points for such gender bias comes from the bit I’ve bolded in the quote from Bailey’s article I’m repeating below:

“When there are significant marital issues, we encourage employees to seek appropriate help to move towards reconciliation,” InterVarsity says, according to the lawsuit. When dealing with employment issues and divorce, ministry leaders take into consideration who initiated the divorce, the impact on work competency and funding and the effect on colleagues, students, faculty and donors.

What does it mean to “take into consideration” how a given employee’s divorce will have an “impact on … funding“? Or it’s “effect on … donors“? The donors providing this funding are mostly dudes. More than that, they’re mostly dudes whose response to the news of a male employee’s divorce will be, “Oh, that poor guy,” while their response to the news of a female employee’s divorce will be, “Oh, her poor husband.”

Evangelicals vary on issues surrounding divorce, including in cases of adultery or desertion, as illustrated in a book published by InterVarsity Press, “Divorce and Remarriage.”

Both the Old and New Testament address divorce. “‘For I hate divorce,’ says the Lord,” states Malachi 2:16. “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery,” Jesus says in Matthew 19:9.

These are, in fact, the key clobber verses that will be used to bludgeon Christians, usually women, like Conlon. And this is piss-poor biblical work.

Malachi 2 is not a treatise on marriage, it’s a prophecy of judgment against Judah for idolatry (one that, by the way, seems to include feminine imagery for God). “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord.” Of course God hates divorce, for the same reasons God hates cancer. Is IVCF also firing people for getting cancer?

That passage in Malachi is one of the many places where the prophets say in effect what Jesus would later say, “You have heard it said … but I say.” It’s a critique of the earlier law — a critique that, like Jesus’ own similar statements in Matthew 19 and Matthew 5,** cannot be understood apart from understanding how Moses’ laws on divorce had become a tool for the oppression of women. Neither Malachi nor Matthew wholly forbids divorce. What they forbid is the use of divorce to punish women while privileging men.

The apparent disparate impact of InterVarsity’s policy, in other words, seems to be a flagrant disobedience of the biblical teaching on divorce in both Malachi and Matthew.

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* It’s not my main point here, but this “deeply regrettable” garbage needs to stop as a form of corporate/political/religious damage control. This feigned sadness never, ever works. It always reeks of disingenuous pretense. Always. Unless you can afford to hire, say, Cate Blanchett, or some other ridiculously gifted actor to deliver those lines, then please stop trying to pretend you’re just deeply, deeply saddened. No one believes you. It doesn’t help your case — it just makes people want to punch you in the neck.

** I mentioned Matthew 5 there as well as Matthew 19. Bailey’s article, correctly, didn’t mention that passage because most evangelicals have learned not to mention that passage either. Matthew 5:32 seems like just the sort of unambiguous statement, directly from the mouth of Jesus, that Christians opposing divorce would find useful: “Anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

But that’s in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, and the last thing most American Christians want to do is to suggest that unambiguous statements directly from the mouth of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are in any way binding for Christians today. That way lies madness — love for enemies, turning the other cheek, non-retaliation, lending to all with no expectation of repayment, poverty, pacifism and an end to public prayer.

Much, much safer just to stick to Matthew 19 and to continue keeping as far from the Sermon on the Mount as possible.

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