Courting trouble

The controversy over Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore sheds light on the fundamentalist Christian practice of marrying off teen girls

The first time Samantha Field was allowed to wear makeup was at a wedding in her ultra-conservative Christian community two weeks after her 16th birthday.

The bride was a friend around her age from the nearby Faith Independent Baptist Church in Niceville, a sunny northwest Florida town billed as “the nicest little city in the South.”

It was a humid fall day in 2003, and Field wore a dress she picked out for $10 from the Waterfront Rescue Mission. She twisted her toffee-coloured hair into a French braid, and her mother helped her apply a stroke of mascara, a dab of lip gloss and a little CoverGirl blush.

At the reception, Field gabbed with friends amid clinking glasses of sweet tea and soda in the church’s fellowship hall. At one point, the other girls left the table to refill their plates at the buffet when an older woman touched her shoulder. “Sweetie,” the woman called her.

Field, who is now 30, remembers the woman appraising her looks before introducing her son, a bachelor.

“She asks how old I was, and I'm like, '16,'” Field recalled. “And she says, 'Oh, that's perfect!'"

The woman’s son was a fully grown adult who looked to be at least in his mid-20s and an aspiring police officer. It became clear to Field what was happening. "She was throwing him at me," Field said.

'Girls I knew started courting when they were 15, but hearing stories of children who were 13 or 14 years old would not have been all that weird.'

The matchmaking proposition was discomfiting to her even then, but also not wholly uncommon in the fundamentalist evangelical circles she knew down South, where some parents advocated “courtship” — the ritualized practice of encouraging girls in their mid-teens to pair up with adult men with a view toward marriage.

Preached for decades in parts of Christian fundamentalism, which takes the stories of the Bible as literal truth, courtship culture has gained greater prominence in recent weeks with reports that Roy Moore, the Republican candidate in the special state Senate election for Alabama on Dec. 12, dated teen girls when he was in his mid-30s.

The allegations against Moore have been far more serious than mere courtship, however. His youngest accuser said she was 14 when Moore — then a 32-year-old assistant district attorney — kissed her and guided her hand to touch his genitals through his underwear. Another accuser said she was 16 when Moore offered to drive her home and then locked her in his car. She said she fought him off during an alleged sexual assault.

Moore denies the allegations. When asked on Sean Hannity’s radio show in November if he dated teenage girls in the 1970s and ‘80s, while he was in his 30s, Moore said, “Not generally, no.” He said that he didn’t remember “ever dating any girl without the permission of her mother.”

Alabama's state auditor, Jim Ziegler, brushed off claims of Moore’s immorality by citing a Biblical example: “Mary was a teenager, and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”

Samantha Field said that Moore was a "big name" at an independent fundamental Baptist church that she attended in her teens. Now a feminist activist, Field recoils at the familiar Biblical defences of Moore’s alleged sexual assaults. But the rationalizations of his romantic pursuit of teens line up with what she experienced as a teenager.

"Girls I knew started courting when they were 15, but hearing stories of children who were 13 or 14 years old would not have been all that weird,” she said.

While many Americans are concerned that a potential Senate representative may have sexually assaulted underage girls, his alleged pursuit of teenagers appears to have been — and may still be — an accepted cultural practice among a subset of the fundamentalist Christian community.

Nick Syrett, who teaches women's studies at the University of Kansas and has written about child marriage in the U.S., said a teen dating an older, established man for religious or class reasons "might be seen as economically in her best interests, if marriage might be on the table — squeamish as it might make us."

II.

Child brides exist in many fundamentalist sects and also in some Asian cultures and Mormon communities in the U.S. and Canada. The idea of child marriage has even cropped up in pop culture recently. In 2014, Louisianan Phil Robertson, star of the reality TV hit Duck Dynasty, advised men "to marry these girls when they're about 15 or 16" because by age 20, "the only picking that's gonna take place is your pocket.”

It’s unclear how widespread courtship is in the U.S. Syrett said he has never come across statistics, nor is he aware of any academics who have tried to quantify its prevalence in North America.

Sarah Morton recalled her own experience with courtship in her Mennonite Brethren household in New Hamburg, Ont., a rural township near Kitchener. When she was 12, Morton’s parents invited a 24-year-old man and his family over for Sunday dinner while she demonstrated her homemaking skills: baking a cake and washing dishes.

“I just remember being aggressively auctioned off,” she said.

According to people who saw it firsthand, the courtship phenomenon in fundamentalist communities appears to have gained wider prominence in the late 1990s after the publication of Joshua Harris's 1997 book I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

“God and his Word talks about ‘rejoice in the wife of your youth.’”

Often cited as a “wisdom manual,” this bestseller helped codify courtship practices and launched a movement beyond a few fringe pastors. Among other things, Harris’s book suggests casually dating a range of people is "a training ground for divorce" and akin to “giving away pieces of your heart.”

Morton remembers her friends poring over Harris’s book in the early 2000s.

“Everyone around me was reading it, all the kids got into it,” Morton said. “It got quite threaded into the fundamentalism that I saw.”

In most provinces in Canada, a person must be at least 16 to get married. A minor under 18 years old, in most places, requires the consent of both parents.

Marriage under 18 remains legal in all 50 U.S. states, through various loopholes. Some states have no age requirement if parental consent is given. For example, in 1971, Sherry Johnson, an 11-year-old girl in Tampa, Fl., was forced to wed the 20-year-old man who raped her, on the ruling of a judge and the consent of her parents.

The Unchained At Last project, a nonprofit group dedicated to ending child marriages, estimates 248,000 children — some as young as 10 — were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010.

Asked why an adult male would even consider pursuing underage girls, North Carolina Rev. Rusty Thomas, a friend of Moore’s and the national director of the anti-abortion movement Operation Save America, quoted scripture.

“God and his word talks about ‘rejoice in the wife of your youth,’” said Thomas. “And I will tell you, my wife, I’m 12 years older than she is, and she encourages my daughters to look more towards an older man — not ancient of days, but a man who has a record, a standing, who is able to take care of them.”

Thomas’s daughter Cassia began courtship in 2007 when she was 17, and her husband is about seven years her senior. They now have 10 children. Thomas and his wife are “training” their 15-year-old twin daughters “to be godly wives and mothers.”

Indeed, child marriage arranged through Christian courtship is idealized in some fundamentalist quarters of the U.S. South. In conservative homeschooled households, many children grew up reading a series of 19th-century novels by Martha Finley. The books follow the life of Elsie Dinsmore, a devout girl in a fundamentalist Southern Christian environment who ends up marrying her father’s best friend, Mr. Travilla, while she’s a teenager. He’s presumed to be at least 15 years older. (Once married, Elsie continues to address him as “Mr. Travilla.”)

The books have sold 1.2 million copies and have enjoyed a second wave of popularity after the Texas-based Vision Forum Ministries, a now-defunct fundamentalist Christian organization, republished the collection for a more modern readership.

Vision Forum, where Roy Moore once held a faculty seat teaching Bible-steeped legal principles, closed in 2013 after its founder, Doug Phillips, confessed to a “lengthy inappropriate relationship” with a woman.

Until its demise, Vision Forum held major sway in the so-called Christian patriarchy movement and widely promoted the courtship of Matthew and Maranatha Chapman. According to Texas marriage records, the Chapmans wed in 1988, when Matthew was 27 and Maranatha was 15, and their story was used to promote the sanctity of teen-adult courtship rites.

Samantha Field confirmed that in her church, the Chapman romance was held up “as a big to-do.”

Lauren, one of the Chapmans’ daughters, married in 2008 when she was 16; her husband was 26 at the time. Lauren documented her experiences on her blog Wearing His Purity, which is no longer online.

The Chapmans have since distanced themselves from the movement. Reached by phone in Texas, Matthew Chapman denied endorsing courtship and declined to speak on the record.

* * *

As adults, some of the evangelicals who left fundamentalism have come to re-evaluate what they witnessed in their youth and thought was the norm.

Samantha Field said that in her congregation, teen girls swooned over "godly" adult men and were in some cases "groomed" to welcome the possibility of dating them.

"None of the girls were ever interested in the core teen boys around," Field said. “It was always, ‘Look at this man, he’s leading his soul-winning teams on Thursday nights, and he's preaching on Sunday nights.’”

At his fundamentalist church in South Carolina in the 1990s, Bill McClellan said he and other "pimple-faced" boys his age competed for dates with the teen girls in their congregation. While courtship wasn't routine in McLellan's church, "it was not uncommon, either."

He recalled parents inviting adult men interested in their daughters over for supper. Potential suitors submitted questionnaires about politics, values and religious worldviews.

"Fathers would almost interview guys in their late 20s or early 30s," McLellan said. "There were girls who, what they wanted most, was to find somebody great, somebody older. They’re not working at McDonald’s. They’ve got careers.”

Catherine Brown, who is now 38, grew up attending an ultra-conservative church that functioned as a social centre in South Carolina. She said that in the wake of the Moore allegations, she's seen an outpouring of stories from former members of her congregation who were reminded of their experiences of “early courtship.”

Homeschooled on an island in Charleston and without friends, Brown said she herself fantasized about marriage by the age of 15 to escape her social isolation.

"In my 15-year-old mind,” she said, “it seemed this could solve a number of problems.”

III.

That Roy Moore allegedly dated teenagers as a 30-something is one thing; that his accusers say Moore sexually assaulted them is another.

According to numerous reports citing locals in Alabama’s Etowah County, Moore was banned from Gadsden Mall in the 1980s for flirting with teens. One of Moore's former colleagues in Etowah County, former district attorney Teresa Jones, said it was "common knowledge" that Moore "dated high school girls."

Last month, pastor Flip Benham, a Moore supporter, suggested on a radio show that the former judge would have been naturally inclined to seek the “purity of a younger woman,” even someone as young as 14.

Rev. Thomas of North Carolina said that after returning from the Vietnam War and having given “the fruit of his life” to military service, Moore would have been pressed to find an unclaimed woman to marry.

“You work with what you have,” Thomas said. “These were the girls that were available. Young ladies. He wants to settle down, he’s going to the parents, he’s pursuing courtship.”

According to Thomas, “The point of the matter is the Lord, in his wisdom, when it comes to building strong families, knows that it’s good to start young. Start young so you can build a life together. So you can have strength to conceive and bear children.”

Debbie Gibson, an Alabama woman who said Moore solicited her for dates when she was 17, told the news site AL.com that when she told her mother in 1981 that the then-34-year-old assistant district attorney was pursuing her romantically, her mother replied, "I'd say you were the luckiest girl in the world."

Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination sometimes described as having embraced fundamentalism, takes great issue with Roy Moore’s alleged behaviour.

In a tweet addressing his fellow Christians, Moore said, “if you cannot say definitively, no matter what, that adults creeping on teenage girls is wrong, do not tell me how you stand against moral relativism.”

After weeks of evading the issue, U.S. President Donald Trump fully endorsed Moore in the week prior to the Senate race despite Republican leaders such as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell saying they believed Moore’s accusers. The Republican National Committee has since followed the president’s lead and resumed funding Moore’s campaign.

While former fundamentalists said the Moore allegations have rekindled discussions about teen-adult courtship, most evangelical families would find the practice appalling, said Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, which gathers and analyzes statistical information on marriage in the U.S.

"I imagine that would be frowned upon — and worse. Fathers might go get their shotguns," he suggested.

Age of consent varies depending on the jurisdiction. States set their own ages of consent, which typically range between 16 and 17. The legal age of consent for sexual activities in Alabama is 16.

Ashley Easter, an advocate against child abuse who grew up attending a fundamentalist Baptist church in Virginia, said Moore's alleged pursuit of teens speaks to a larger problem related to "church-sanctioned patriarchy" that puts women in submissive child-rearing roles and pushes them toward marriage.

Easter likens the idea of courtship for child marriage to a form of slavery. "In many states, she's too young to get a divorce until she's 18, so she may be legally trapped in a marriage," Easter said.

Just as certain fundamentalist pastors might reject the idea of adolescence as a social construct, reasoning that teens can become “adult enough,” Easter said that what it means to be an adult is too often blurred in fundamentalist circles.

"I was able to search the scriptures and see how this courtship culture was destroying lives."

"Victims of abuse may not question the abuse because of the grooming process that takes place, the subtle behaviours that desensitize them to different types of abuse," she said.

Joshua Harris now questions the advice he doled out in his influential book, and has begun apologizing to people on Twitter who blame I Kissed Dating Goodbye for ruining their lives.

He has gone so far as to post readers’ criticisms of his book on his website. Here’s one example: "As I watched young people walk away, saw their isolation, experienced the same isolation when I began questioning courtship, and watched my own daughters go from being confident, young teens to women who walked in fear of disappointing God, I was able to search the scriptures and see how this courtship culture was destroying lives."

In an interview with Slate last year, Harris said he has been grappling with how his books may have hurt people. "It's like, well, crap, is the biggest thing I've done in my life this really huge mistake?"

Brown, the South Carolina woman who dreamed about marriage at 15, became disillusioned with the impersonal and authoritarian nature of courtship. It felt forced and unnatural to her. By the time she got married in her 30s, she felt that the movement had not served her well.

Although Brown said she’s aware the courtship subculture is very niche, she believes Roy Moore’s supporters within the fundamentalist community will come to his defence. It seems they already have.

“Of course, there’s pride in Roy Moore. There’s an assumption that his intentions must be good,” Brown said.

She said that for many of Moore’s most pious supporters, defending his behaviour could mean justifying some of their own cultural practices.

“Honestly, there’s a sense that if someone is of that culture, and they have success in the broader culture — being a lawyer, a judge, a politician — there are a lot of people who want to defend him. There's a sense of, 'He's one of us,'" she said.

"I just think there's a sense that person can do no wrong.”

Editing: Andre Mayer