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, 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 recently, 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, Virginia, 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 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 younger than 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.
“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.”
Even as farm economics became less relevant to most families, Syrett said, the conservative religious emphasis on preventing girls from engaging in sexual activity outside marriage caused the cultural preference for girls’ marrying at a young age to continue.
Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who studies marriage and families in the United States, said that while people tended to date and marry younger in the 1970s and 1980s, when Moore allegedly was dating teenagers, an age gap such as that between Moore and the girls would still have been highly unusual. “In the South, in general, younger marriages would have been more common. But we’re talking here about . . . teenagers going steady in high school – maybe a year or two or three between him and her,” Wilcox said. “You don’t have 30-year-old guys dating a 14-year-old. It may have happened in some occasional context, but it would not have been a cultural norm.”
He said the reaction of most Southern evangelical communities would be “extraordinarily negative. ... I would imagine a shotgun involved.”
Randy Brinson, an influential evangelical pastor who ran against Moore in his primary race in this election, said that the evangelical Christians he knows in Alabama would generally not approve of such a relationship. “People kid about some of this in rural areas. There are very conservative communities where some of that is condoned, where you have these teen brides and all that sort of thing. But for the vast majority of evangelicals, that’s not accepted behavior,” he said.
He said he’s not sure what to make of the report about Moore, and he’s not sure whether he’ll vote for him. “It’s been so many, so many years. People’s recollections are different. You don’t know if somebody’s embellishing,” Brinson said. “I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and say let’s see what the truth is.”
He said he wants to talk to Moore and his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, and then send his personal conclusion to his email list of 3 million evangelical Alabama voters.
For most of them, a relationship such as the ones Moore is reported to have pursued with teens is far beyond the norm. But the idea recurs frequently. Even “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson, a conservative Christian who married his wife when he was 20 and she was 16, caused a firestorm years ago for advising men, “You got to marry these girls when they are about 15 or 16.”
Easter said she experienced this courtship culture herself. As a woman in a fundamentalist Christian church who was expected to remain under her father’s roof until he handed her over to her husband, Easter became a “stay-at-home daughter” after high school. She said she understood the pressure a teenager might feel to marry an older man as a way to gain some measure of independence.
Easter left her fundamentalist community four years ago, at age 21, after breaking off a relationship with a man her father selected for her. Now, she helps run Courage Conference, a gathering of people who have left abusive religious communities, and listens to the struggles of the women who attend. “Their lives are very difficult now that they’ve gotten free. When you have never learned to make your own choices, you haven’t learned how to be in charge of your life. Working through that can be very scary,” she said.
She said she’s also heard from many women that the purity culture – the strong emphasis placed on female virginity – harms survivors of childhood sexual abuse in these Christian communities. “When you’re taught that if you don’t dress modestly enough, that a man could lust after you and fall into sexual sin, then if a man has an abusive sexual relationship toward you, you could believe that it was what you were wearing or what you said or how you walked that caused him. Of course, that’s untrue, but surely somebody could internalize that shame,” she said.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of abuse in those patriarchal communities,” she said. “It’s crazy how many child marriages happen in America.”