Saturday, February 1, 2014

Child Marriage and Christian Fundamentalists

Until a few weeks ago, I assumed that the practice of child marriage was confined to impoverished and rigidly patriarchal corners of the globe. While the occasional American cult such as the FLDS might compel adolescents to marry, I doubted that the practice was prevalent outside of fringe groups. Not only was I wrong about the prevalence of child marriage in the U.S., but I was oblivious to the attitudes of some Religious Right figures about the practice.

First, some background. UNICEF defines child marriage as marriage before the age of 18, a practice that disproportionately burdens girls around the globe. Child marriage is both a product of poverty and a contributing factor to continued poverty, as girls who marry early often find their educations truncated, thereby reducing their economic opportunities. Girls who marry before age 18 tend to have lower educational achievement, lower literacy, and more negative reproductive health outcomes. Pregnancy and childbirth can have devastating impacts on an underage girl's body, increasing her risk of maternal death, premature delivery, eclampsia, and postpartum hemorrhage. Adolescent girls who marry before age 18 are more likely to experience physical or sexual violence from their husbands. Indeed, compelling an adolescent girl into marriage and sex can itself be understood as a form of sexual violence. In short, child marriage is an affront to children's rights, one that human rights activists are striving to stamp out around the world.

Over the past few months, the ex-fundamentalist blogosphere has shed light on some American Religious Right figures' attitudes toward child marriage. Love, Joy, Feminism and Homeschoolers Anonymous discussed one homeschooled teenage girl who was married off to an older man. At Bridging the Gap, Kierstyn King wrote about her parents' pressure on her to marry while still a teenager.

Phil Robertson, star of the A&E reality show Duck Dynasty, courted controversy due to his comments about non-Christians, gays, and African Americans in an interview with GQ. Equally shocking were his comments about child marriage several years before. According to Raw Story, at a 2009 Sportsmen's Ministry talk, Robertson told the audience, "You got to marry these girls when they are about 15 or 16, they’ll pick your ducks. You need to check with mom and dad about that of course.” He warned men against waiting until their brides are adults, claiming that "you wait until they get to be 20 years old, the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket.”

Finally, Homeschoolers Anonymous posted commentary on the January 8th edition of Generations with Vision entitled "Sexting and Christian Modesty", in which Kevin Swanson and Dave Bruehner made unsettling comments about child marriage. Swanson and Bruehner fumed over the alleged hypersexuality and independence of women and girls in our "post-Christian, feminist society", which has supposedly contributed to the breakdown of the family. The two men devoted several minutes to blasting feminism, Wendy Davis, the Girl Scouts, Planned Parenthood abortion, and sexting. While caricaturing society as a depraved Sodom and Gomorrah, Swanson and Bruehner championed a Christian Patriarchy interpretation of women's Biblical role, citing Titus 2 and 1 Timothy 2.

At the 18:35 mark, Swanson and Bruehner reflected on the controversy involving Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson's comments about marrying teenage girls. Bruehner spoke of underage marriage as preventing "a whole life of fornication" for girls, while Swanson claimed that the practice is not intrinsically immoral.

SWANSON: Remember that one concern people had over Duck Dynasty? When the guy came out and said the girls, 15 or 16 years of age, she’s able to get married, they got all mad. Because boy, you get a girl married at 15 or 16 years of age, that’s a sin!

BRUEHNER: Well it is, because she doesn’t have a whole life of fornication ahead of her anymore.


BRUEHNER: I mean, there’s a whole junior high, soon to be a high school. There’s the staff, there’s the janitors, ... there’s the police department, there are so many sexual opportunities for a young woman that are cut off if she actually commits to one guy and tries to live a pure life.

SWANSON: Yeah! Yeah! So see, again, the liberals are really excited about getting the kids doing as much fornication as possible, but the rest of us are saying, “Hey, what about God’s law? What about God’s law?” By the way, nothing in God’s law that would prohibit a young girl who’s ready to get married, at 15 or 16 years of age. Now it takes some wisdom, it takes some wisdom, but nothing in God’s law that forbids. It’s not like immoral. There’s nothing in God’s law [that says] it’s immoral for a 15 or 16 year old to get married.

Swanson added that his grandmother married at age 15 to escape poverty, baffled that modern society would dismiss the practice as a sin. The idea that this was an act of desperation by a girl living in poverty escaped him.
"My grandmother was married at 15. I think it was 15. My grandmother on my father’s side was married at 15. It was during the Great Depression. Her father had died and her mother was trying to provide for the 5 kids or whatever. So you know it just made sense. She was 15 years old, she was ready to get married. So that kind of thing has happened, friends. But a sin! A sin in a modern world!"
Swanson and Bruehner's opinions about child marriage must be understood as an outgrowth of their Christian Patriarchy ideology. In a belief system that values girls only as chaste daughters, fertile housewives, and submissive subordinates to men, little importance is placed on girls' educational and economic opportunities. The result is that underage marriage is seen as less harmful and even positive, since it curtains a girl's independence and introduces her early to submissive, fecund wifehood. Kevin Swanson outlines his approach to girls, women, and marriage at the 9:24 mark.
"If you're going to give your daughters a godly raising, or a good raising,  you've got to define character properly. When I was interviewed by the mainstream media on this issue of the Girl Scouts, the guy asked me, "Well, what kind of values would you promote? What exactly is it that you're interested in? I said, a Biblical value. I'm interested in establishing a Biblical value for raising daughters, not just the feminist values, but the Biblical values. He says, "What are those?" I say, Titus 2 and 1 Timothy 2 talks about how women ought to be meek and quiet, and they ought to learn in silence, and they ought to be modest in dress and saved in childbearing, and she fears God."
Swanson and Bruehner also stress that women should be submissive wives at the 13:27 mark, where they also caricature and denigrate "selfish pig little boy" men who marry late.
SWANSON: Friends, if you're interested in the kind of character traits that God requires, and if you're interested in rebuilding the nuclear family, functional nuclear family with husband and wife where the wife is trained to respect her husband--

BRUEHNER: Calling him lord!

SWANSON: --submit herself to her husband, and the husband is trained to give himself up self-sacrificially for his wife, he's not the selfish pig little boy that's doing porn in the basement and learns how to be self-centered with his masturbation when he's 18 or 19 years of age, and then he lives a self-centered lifestyle until he's 29 years of age, then he finally gets married, and then he gets divorced at 36. Okay, that's the other worldview."
I think Kierstyn King hit the nail on the head when she wrote, "I wonder if some of the logic of Swanson, Maranatha’s dad and husband, and Creepy Duck Guy wasn’t part of the logic my parents had too: female independence is bad, marry them off young so they can do what god commanded women to do – be fruitful and multiply."

Child marriage fails to offend fundamentalists such as Swanson, Bruehner, and Robertson because they see female worth primarily in terms of sexual purity and submissive wifehood. Underage marriage locks a girl into that role before she can conceivably exercise independence or sexual autonomy. The problem is, a girl is more than her chastity or her future wife role. The idea that girls should strive to be more -- that girls deserve more -- never occurs to them. While most Christians would rightly reject the idea of marrying off underage girls, the fact that some fundamentalists entertain the idea is troubling.

Fundamentalist homeschooling and the Christian Patriarchy Movement already put girls and women at a disadvantage, making it difficult for them to find independence, articulate their goals and needs, receive a quality education, secure employment outside the home, and make educated sexual and reproductive choices. Underage marriage would only exacerbate this ugly state of affairs, curtailing girl's options even earlier.

I can't say this enough. Child marriage is an affront to children's rights. No one should be forced or pressured to marry, and certainly not before one is old enough to give meaningful consent. No girl should be compelled to marry young and suffer truncated educational opportunities, abuse, early pregnancy, or reproductive health problems. We need to closely watch the Religious Right, especially the Christian Patriarchy Movement, to see how their attitudes toward marriage are taking shape. We cannot allow underage marriage to become an accepted practice in these communities. In short, we must work to prevent underage marriage through anti-poverty efforts, educational opportunities, empowerment of girls and women, and scrutiny of fundamentalists who advocate it.

To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

The Wartburg Watch: Kevin Swanson and a Homeschool Conference: Weird Views on Early Marriage, Homosexuals and Virtue

Homeschoolers Anonymous: On Child Marriage: Kevin Swanson and Dave Bruehner Defend Phil Robertson


  1. Great post. I saw this philosophy in certain homeschooling families I came in contact with. Since the highest goal for a girl is to marry and have lots of children, best to start when they are in their prime childbearing years. In one case, a girl age 18 married a 40 year old man. ( they started "courting" before she was 18) this girl was quite naive and there is no way she would have married this man on her own.

    While I think the age 18 is a cultural norm rather than a hard fast age, I am more concerned with the underlying philosophy that leads girls to conclude that all there is for them in life is marriage and children. While Polly and I were 19 and 21 when we married, we certainly were not ready to marry. We were quite immature. Polly went to college for one purpose....marry a preacher and have children. In the IFB church, girls were told that they had no higher purpose than to marry and bear children. This is why many IFB girls married quite young.

    1. Bruce -- Thanks for stopping by. Early marriage and underage marriage in fundamentalists subcultures do seem to stem from a narrow vision of women's lives. If fundamentalists realize that girls and women can strive for more, and that marriages will be healthier if both partners are older, maybe this practice can be reduced.

  2. I didn't watch the video, but I read your commentary. Now I'm sick to my stomach. The exchange between Swanson and Bruehner sounded like some kind of spoof. Sadly, it isn't.

    "BRUEHNER: Well it is, because she doesn’t have a whole life of fornication ahead of her anymore.

    SWANSON: Yeah.

    BRUEHNER: I mean, there’s a whole junior high, soon to be a high school. There’s the staff, there’s the janitors, ... there’s the police department, there are so many sexual opportunities for a young woman that are cut off if she actually commits to one guy and tries to live a pure life."

    What the hell does this even mean? It's incoherent. If a girl is in school and she's not taught godly virtues she's doin' the janitor, the teachers, and the entire police department? Do they really believe if a girl doesn't marry young it's just so she can fornicate? And be damned if she's independent and has an opinion.

    Okay. Now I'm officially sad. And angry. :(

    1. Ruth -- I'm sad and angry too. Swanson and Bruehner love to caricature mainstream society as depraved, and Bruehner seems to be assuming that teenage girls in public school will be promiscuous or preyed upon. They need a reality check and a heavy dose of critical thinking.

  3. I know that the CP movement doesn't care about marital happiness, but young marriage doesn't guarantee a happy or lasting marriage. I've had students were married at age 16-18. Five married teenagers have lead to 5 divorces before age 25. We live in an area where many, although not universal, adults marry between 20-24. My husband was receiving a lot of teasing about being a bachelor. He started telling people that he was going to skip his first marriage and just start on his second marriage. People thought that was hilarious - until the divorces started. We met in our late twenties and married at 30. I'm pretty much everything the CP guys fear....and yet, I'm happy.

    1. NatureLover -- I'm glad you're happy and that you waited to wed. I'm surprised that young people weren't seeing those divorces and realizing they should wait. I worry that family and community pressure to marry may have played a role in their early nuptials.

  4. Ahab, this is such a thoughtful, well-written, and well-researched post. Of course the topic is also disturbing and enraging. But unfortunately the truth about the RR is always disturbing and enraging. Nonetheless, your posts always hit an emotional chord that inspires me to do something about it. Thank you for this important information.

    Another excellent post bookmarked for future reference. Now I'm on to read part 2.

    1. Agi Tater -- Thanks. I'm always happy to see you stop by the blog.

  5. I think Swanson sums it up perfectly by his ignorance. when he said something like "In modern society it is considered a sin."

    Yes, it is. As we are no longer living in the stone ages when your moral book was made.

    1. Christian -- Swanson just can't accept the idea that morality has evolved since ancient times.

  6. I'm a bit late to this but....
    I am a 37 year old Australian women, I am not married but in Australia there is no stigma or shame if you cohabitate, it's called a ' de facto relationship' and is legally recognized. My partner and I have 2 children and have been together since we were 18 and 19 years old. Everything we have done has been our choice and what we believe is the right this for us. I am an atheist, he is a believer ( sorta) and our kids are finding there own ways by us teaching them about the good and bad of every religion and belief system. Our daughter is nearly 17, she is very bright and her main goal is her education and career so she can always be independent and informed. Our son who is 11 is a feminist and will point out when someone says either men or women are better at something as wrong because as he say everyone should be equal. He is also a tough dirt bike riding, footy playing boy.
    I always wondered if the fundamental Christian men are like those in the post because they are insecure about their own intelligence and that if they can stop women from being able to do anything the get rid of 50% of the competition..

    1. Anonymous -- Men like Swanson and Bruehner are EXTREMELY insecure. Men in the Christian Patriarchy Movement feel threatened by independent women.


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