Roy Moore allegations prompt reflections on fundamentalist culture in which some Christian men date teens

 In U.S.
Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore has made many righteous comments about morality, God and sex in his past as a jurist and politician. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

When Roy Moore, then 34 years old, asked 17-year-old Debbie Wesson Gibson whether she would date him, Gibson asked her mother what she would think.

According to The Washington Post’s investigation into Moore’s alleged pursuit of teenage girls, which was published Thursday, Gibson’s mother replied, “I’d say you were the luckiest girl in the world.”

That attitude of encouraging teenage girls to date older men, rather than shielding girls from men’s advances, sounded familiar to some people who read the Post story that has shaken Moore’s bid for the U.S. Senate.

“It’s not so uncommon that people would necessarily look at it askance,” said Nicholas Syrett, a University of Kansas professor who recently published a book on child marriage in America. “The South has a much longer history of allowing minors to marry, and obviously there’s some courtship or dating — whatever you want to call it — leading up to that.”

That courtship of underage girls is especially common in conservative religious communities.

“We should probably talk about how there is a segment of evangelicalism and home-school culture where the only thing Roy Moore did wrong was initiating sexual contact outside of marriage. 14 year old girls courting adult men isn’t entirely uncommon,” Kathryn Brightbill, who works for the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, tweeted Friday, prompting a flurry of responses from other people who also had watched teenagers date much older Christian men.

Ashley Easter, who grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist church where courting was the norm for teenagers, said, “That was the first thing I thought of with Roy Moore.” In her church community in Lynchburg, Va., Easter said, fathers had complete control over whom their daughters were allowed to date, and she could see how a father might set his teen daughter up with a much older man.

“A woman’s role is to be a wife, a homemaker and someone who births children. The man’s role is generally to be established and someone who provides the full income,” said Easter, who runs the Courage Conference for survivors of church sexual abuse. “It may take longer for a man to reach stability. While a woman of 15 or 16, if she’s been trained for a long time looking after her younger siblings, in their eyes she might be ready for marriage.”

The culture of courting that Easter and Brightbill described is one limited mostly to fundamentalist religious communities, including certain Christian groups and those of other religions, such as some Orthodox Jewish or Mormon communities. For most evangelical Christians, relationships between older men and teenage girls are viewed as wholly inappropriate.

Moore, who was reported in the Post story to have initiated a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old when he was 32 and to have dated three other teenagers when he was in his 30s, has long established himself as a staunch defender of conservative Christian beliefs. Evangelical leaders’ responses to the allegations that came out this week ranged widely, from Ed Stetzer, who wrote in Christianity Today, “If Roy Moore did what he is accused of, he should be out of this race and face the consequences,” to Jerry Falwell Jr., who said to Religion News Service, “It comes down to a question who is more credible in the eyes of the voters — the candidate or the accuser,” and added, “I believe the judge is telling the truth.”

Most prominent evangelical pastors did not immediately reflect publicly on whether the evangelical culture Moore embraced in Alabama contributed to his pursuit of teenage girls.

Every state allows youths under 18 to marry in certain circumstances, such as with parental consent or judicial approval. More than 167,000 children, of numerous religions, were married in the first decade of this century in the United States, including girls as young as 12. At least 31 percent of those children married a spouse who was older than 21 years old, according to a Washington Post article from February.

In the 1970s, when Moore was in his 30s and reportedly dating teenagers, the laws on child marriage were changing, Syrett said. That’s when all states changed their laws so the minimum marital ages were the same for men and women. Previously, women were allowed to marry younger than men; in some states, men as old as 21 needed parental permission to marry.

Residents of Gadsden, Ala., Roy Moore’s hometown, have mixed feelings about the sexual misconduct allegations against the Republican Senate nominee. (The Washington Post)

“You didn’t want to lose your strapping 19-year-old son if he was working for you on your farm,” Syrett said. “Generally speaking, daughters’ labor was not as valuable as sons’ labor. Girls were destined for marriage, and doing it at a young age was appropriate. A parent was interested in having her marry and move on.”

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