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--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."
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."
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