Last week, the Washington Post reported that four women have accused Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore of pursuing them romantically when he was in his 30s and they were just teenagers. Moore has denied the most shocking allegation, that he initiated sexual contact with a 14-year-old but will only say he didn’t “generally” date older teens in his 30s. Over the weekend, a former colleague of Moore’s said it was “common knowledge” that he dated high school girls. On Monday, a new accuser came forward to allege that Moore groped and assaulted her when she was 16 years old.
Most of Roy Moore’s dwindling group of defenders at least acknowledge that a thirtysomething man “dating” a girl in her midteens is wrong. Many of them simply deny the allegations, or argue that the accusers are out to get him. When an Alabama state auditor defended Moore by comparing the relationships to Joseph and Mary, seemingly the entire country, including theologically conservative evangelicals, recoiled in horror.
But there’s a group of Moore’s allies for whom the basic idea of an unmarried older man “courting” a teenage girl is not anathema at all—fundamentalist home-schoolers. Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson, who endorsed Moore in the contested Republican primary and has spoken at his rallies, told an audience in 2009 that girls should marry when they’re “about 15 or 16.” Moore has appeared several times on a radio show hosted by Kevin Swanson, an ultra-conservative Colorado pastor who defended Robertson's notion that girls should be marrying at 15 because it helps them avoid sexual sin.
Moore has an even deeper relationship with Doug Phillips, a disgraced leader in the “Biblical patriarchy” movement. Phillips was president of Vision Forum, a Texas-based organization devoted to the “restoration of the Christian household.” In Phillips’ world, men ought to be self-sufficient by the time they marry, but women live under their father’s authority until they marry. Ideally, in fact, a woman would live under her father’s literal roof until her wedding day. Phillips promoted the concept of “stay-at-home daughters,” in which girls live at home until they marry, often forgoing formal education and focusing on homemaking skills. Independence is essentially a flaw in a Christian wife, who, Phillips taught, should be willing to call her husband “Lord.”
It’s not that Phillips and those in his circle promoted relationships between teenage girls and older men per se. But if brides are prized for their purity and meekness, and ideal grooms are capable and commanding, relationships like the ones Moore allegedly had are deemed natural. Phillips was a giant in the world of fundamentalist home schooling, which, as Kathryn Brightbill pointed out this weekend in the Los Angeles Times, has a record of condoning “courtship” between teen girls and older men. (A blogger named Libby Anne has also written extensively about this pattern.) Phillips’ CDs and video series included “Marrying Young,” “How to Evaluate a Suitor,” and “What’s a Girl to Do?,” which urges parents to resist the “feminist model” of raising girls. Vision Forum also repackaged the 19th-century book series Elsie Dinsmore, which then became wildly popular among conservative home-schoolers. The series follows a pious young rich girl in the pre–Civil War South, who marries her father’s best friend when she is still in her teens. He has been romantically attracted to her—and flirtatious—since she was a pre-pubescent child.
Moore’s entanglements with the Vision Forum are complex. He contributed frequently to its publications, usually on topics relating to law, policy, and government. Starting in 1999, he served as a “faculty member” at the group’s Witherspoon School of Law and Public Policy, a misleadingly named four-day conference open only to men. Moore’s legal foundation, the Foundation for Moral Law, has published recommendations of Phillips’ work, and Vision Forum likewise frequently supported and published Moore. In 2004, Moore flirted with the idea of running for president on the ticket of the Constitution Party, a fringe, ultra-conservative party with which he has a long relationship, and which was founded by Phillips’ father, Howard.
Doug Phillips’ empire crumbled in 2013, when he confessed to carrying on an “inappropriate” relationship with a young woman who was not his wife. (Phillips is a father of eight.) His initial statement was vague, and implied an emotional affair with an adult. But the situation became clearer the following year, when the woman filed a lawsuit against Phillips and his ministries. Here’s how religious studies professor and religious-right critic Julie Ingersoll summed up the accusations in the suit:
According to her legal complaint, Phillips began grooming her for their relationship when she was 15 years old. … The complaint alleges between 1999 and 2006 Philips fostered increasing emotional intimacy, with Phillips telling her she was part of his family and that they worked and traveled together with and without his family. It alleges that their sexual involvement (that remained just short of intercourse) was one-sided and that it began in 2007.
For his part, Moore told Sean Hannity on Friday that he doesn’t remember dating any teenagers “without the permission of her mother.” The idea that a parent’s permission changes the moral dynamic of such a relationship is straight out of the Vision Forum playbook. He also said he recalled two of the accusers as "good girls”—suggesting that he wouldn't have crossed any lines with them because of it. The implications for “bad girls" are not as sunny. In this small, sordid corner of conservative Christianity, a dramatic imbalance of power between men and the women they choose isn't just a matter of custom, it’s part of God's divine design. These are the waters that Roy Moore has chosen to swim in for his entire adult life.