One of the more horrifying examples of American evangelical culture has, thankfully, not yet reached our shores. I am referring to habit of some evangelical parents to release their daughters for marriage in their mid-teens to a groom who may be twice their age. This apparently is one of the ideas put out by Christian lecturers on the home-schooling network in the southern states of the USA. This institutionalised child abuse is part of the background which we need to understand when hearing about the accusations being made against the Senate nominee, Judge Roy Moore. He is accused by three women of molestation when they were underage. Many Republicans both Christian and not, are horrified at these allegations and want him removed from the ballot paper. Others, who are accustomed to the existence of very early marriage by girls of godly evangelical families, see nothing unusual in his behaviour. This is the way that things are done in the American Christian bible-believing South. The argument goes that if a girl is chosen young, she will be amenable to being more easily trained up to be a good obedient Christian wife. She will other words fulfil her task of complete subservience and conformity and this is in accordance to an ideal of Christian womanhood.
This blog post is in many ways an overlap and continuation with the last one. But the topic raised helps us further to emphasise the appalling mindset which some biblical Christians absorb as part of their formation. Most of my readers will have already anticipated my objections to this way of thinking. In the name of Christianity half of humanity is considered somehow more godlike if the maturing process is terminated halfway through the teens. They are not expected to develop any further. Things like skills, interests, academic training and maturity of character are all supressed. All that they are good for is to bear children, worship a man and try to please him in every way possible.
I have been trying to imagine how these ‘godly’ marriages develop over the years. In the first place the wife, totally dedicated to the needs of her husband, will have a very limited understanding of her own needs and desires. She will not, for example, have developed any outside interests beyond that of caring for the home. Her children will grow up without experiencing much from her in the area of life experience. Even when the children leave home the mother may still be in her forties and the marriage could then settle into a state of extreme apathy. What will such a couple find to talk about? I would expect that in some cases a wife trapped in such a situation would try to escape such a marriage. The obscenity of the original marriage arrangement was so appalling that it is hard not to applaud a woman who chooses to walk away. A woman trapped in this kind of patriarchal relationship is like a member of a cult, unable to think or feel for herself. The cultic mind-set that has been absorbed over the years may in fact make a breaking away very hard to achieve.
A further reason for encouraging these very young women to marry is that they fulfil another ideal of evangelical thinking – that of sexual purity. It is difficult to know what is the ideal in a Christian context for sexual behaviour before marriage, but enslavement to an older man at the age of 15 or 16 cannot be a proper answer. Whatever we think about sex before marriage the case for equality between men and women must be made loudly and vocally. The institutions in the church which seem to encourage a state of inequality must be scrutinised and exposed for their hidden misogyny. As a long-time supporter of the ordination of women I am becoming increasingly impatient at the way that such misogyny is being buried under apparently sophisticated theological argument. One hopes that the court of public opinion will eventually completely outlaw areas of inequality that still exist in parts of the church. While we do not tolerate Alabama Christian traditions towards women, we still have our own cultural battles to fight against forces which discriminate against women in the church.
Child marriages for religious reasons do not exist in this country, but we must continue to resist the kind of thinking that makes such an institution possible. In the meantime, let us hope that the liberal backlash in the States against Judge Moore continues. These ugly forms of child abuse supported by fundamentalist readings of Scripture must be defeated. Women of every age and background deserve better. Nothing in the words of Jesus supports the idea of women being subordinate to men. The enforced subservience of women over the centuries seems to have been a way to flatter men and help them to retain their sense of importance and power. Let us strive to preserve equality and mutuality between the sexes. This will require us to challenge the misogyny of past centuries especially in societies and places where it has become deeply entrenched.