We need to talk about the segment of American culture that probably doesn’t think the allegations against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore are particularly damning, the segment that will blanch at only two accusations in the Washington Post expose: He pursued a 14-year-old-girl without first getting her parents’ permission, and he initiated sexual contact outside of marriage. That segment is evangelicalism. In that world, which Moore travels in and I grew up in, 14-year-old girls courting adult men isn’t uncommon.
I use the phrase “14-year-old girls courting adult men,” rather than “adult men courting 14-year-old girls,” for a reason: Evangelicals routinely frame these relationships in those terms. That’s how I was introduced to these relationships as a home-schooled teenager in the 1990s, and it’s the language that my friends and I would use to discuss girls we knew who were in parent-sanctioned relationships with older men.
One popular courtship story that was told and retold in home-school circles during the 1990s was that of Matthew and Maranatha Chapman, who turned their history into a successful career promoting young marriage. Most audiences, however, didn’t realize just how young the Chapmans had in mind until the site Homeschoolers Anonymous and the blogger Libby Anne revealed that Matthew was 27 and Maranatha was 15 when they married. Libby Anne also drew mainstream attention to Matthew Chapman’s writings, in which he argued that parents should consider marriage for their daughters in their “middle-teens.” At that point the Chapmans stopped receiving quite so many speaking invitations.
Child marriage advocate Vaughn Ohlman followed more or less the same arc. He made a career out of speaking at home-school conventions until the wider world heard tell — again thanks to Homeschoolers Anonymous — of his planned retreat for families to arrange child marriages.
“Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson advocated for adult men to marry 15- and 16-year-old girls and deemed age 20 too old because “you wait until they get to be 20 years old, the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket.” Home-school leader Kevin Swanson, whose 2015 convention was attended by several Republican presidential candidates, defended Robertson on his radio show after the story broke. Advocating for child marriage hasn’t slowed down Robertson’s career. He just got a new show on the conservative digital network CRTV.
As a teenager, I attended a lecture on courtship by a home-school speaker who was popular at the time. He praised the idea of “early courtship” so the girl could be molded into the best possible helpmeet for her future husband. The girl’s father was expected to direct her education after the courtship began so she could help her future husband in his work.
In retrospect, I understand what the speaker was really describing: Adult men selecting and grooming girls who were too young to have life experience. Another word for that is “predation.”
Much of the sexual abuse that takes place in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist, or IFB, churches involves adult men targeting 14- to 16-year-old girls. If caught, the teenage victim may be forced to repent the “sin” of having seduced an adult man. Former IFB megachurch pastor Jack Schaap argued that he should be released from prison after being convicted of molesting a 16-year-old girl, asserting that the “aggressiveness” of his victim “inhibited [his] impulse control.” In the wake of the Schaap case, numerous other stories emerged of sexual abuse cover-ups involving teenage girls at IFB churches. In another high-profile case, pregnant 15-year-old Tina Anderson, who was raped by a church deacon twice her age, was forced to confess her “sin” to the congregation.
Prominent conservative Reformed theologian Doug Wilson has a documented history of mishandling sexual abuse cases within his congregation. Nevertheless, he continues to be promoted by evangelical leaders such as John Piper, whose Desiring God site still publishes Wilson’s work. When a 13-year-old girl in Wilson’s congregation was sexually abused, Wilson argued that she and her abuser were in a parent-sanctioned courtship, and that this was a mitigating factor.
There’s no shortage of such stories. A Presbyterian Church in America, or PCA, pastor attempted to discipline a woman who warned home-school parents of the convicted sex offender in his congregation. (The sex offender had gone online to solicit a 14-year-old girl for sex.) Another PCA church allowed that same convicted sex offender to give the invocation at a home-school graduation ceremony. He wasn’t perceived as an attempted child rapist, and he was “repentant.”
Growing up, I witnessed an influential religious right leader flirting with some of my teenage friends and receiving neck and shoulder massages from one of them. I’ve been expecting a scandal to break with him for years, but in the meantime, this man has put significant time into campaigning for anti-trans bathroom bills while deeming trans people “predators.”
The allegations against Roy Moore are merely a symptom of a larger problem. It’s not a Southern problem or an Alabama problem. It’s a Christian fundamentalist problem. Billy Graham’s grandson, Boz Tchividjian, who leads the organization GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment), believes that the sexual abuse problem in Protestant communities is on par with that in the Catholic Church.
The evangelical world is overdue for a reckoning. Women raised in evangelicalism and fundamentalism have for years discussed the normalization of child sexual abuse. We’ve told our stories on social media and on our blogs and various online platforms, but until the Roy Moore story broke, mainstream American society barely paid attention. Everyone assumed this was an isolated, fringe issue. It isn’t.
Kathryn Brightbill is legislative policy analyst at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a nonprofit advocating for the interests of home-schooled children.