Anyone who pays attention to the current Supreme Court knows that, to quote Senator Diane Feinstein’s description of her most recent addition, “dogma lives noisily within” a majority of justices. They manifested their theocratic nature in explicitly religious cases, endowing Catholics with the right of “free exercise” to discriminate against same-sex couples seeking to foster children and demanding (I predict, based on arguments) that government-issued school vouchers be usable in religious schools, despite government opposition. But the religiosity of the Court also emerges in theoretically non-religious controversies, including Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case in which the Court, based on the statements of a majority during oral argument, is likely to rule that women have no right to object to the government forcing them to remain pregnant against their voluntarily and thus involuntarily transforming raw materials (which many religious people consider as a whole person) into babies. Ironically, those who blithely impose their Creator’s rules on other lay people generally refuse to recognize that during pregnancy, women are the creators; they take a cell that bears no morally significant resemblance to a living baby and, little by little, transform that cell into a baby that feels, thinks and experiences. Yet secularists have long treated with respect the counterintuitive religious view that the fusion of sperm and egg essentially completes the process of reproduction.
Abortion, LGBTQI+ rights and school vouchers are getting a lot of attention. But a less public reflection of religious hegemony in this country is found in the realm of marriage. Until the 1990s, there were still states that excluded marital rape from criminal coverage, as the law across the country had done decades earlier. The law recognized marriage as an arrangement in which the man provided material support and the woman was sexually available according to her husband’s will. The Bible, which names countless transgressions—like cross-dressing, for example—treats rape as a crime against the victim’s father by devaluing his daughter, a crime for which the rapist pays by marrying his victim.
Perhaps the most disturbing reflection of religious influence in the law emerges in the near universal legality of child marriage in the United States. According to finally unleashed (UAL), an organization working to end child marriage, the following was true in April 2021: Forty-four states allow child marriage, defined as marriage to a partner under the age of 18. Nine states, including Massachusetts, Michigan, and California, set no minimum age for marriage, and some of the UAL estimates are the hundreds of thousands of American women and girls currently in what began (or continues ) while child marriages were married at the age of Ten.
Sasha K. Taylor gives a moving account of her own marriage in “To get a visa, I was forced to get married in Arizona when I was 15. She mentions that after moving in with her husband, she could no longer see her family, even though she lived only 15 minutes away. Isolating a partner from outside sources of potential support is practically a calling card for domestic abusers. The impact of domestic violence would likely be even more devastating for a married child young enough to still be a freshman in high school. And as Taylor tells us, “Let there be no doubt about it: girls forced into marriage are raped.
The shameful persistence of child marriage combines rape and forced pregnancy and childbirth. It is no coincidence that these three misogynistic phenomena coexist. One of the ways child marriage occurs is when a parent or parents decide that there should be an arranged marriage between their daughter and a grown man. In Taylor’s case, the man needed a visa, and I suspect the parents might have received some sort of financial compensation for providing him with his marital green card. In other cases, parents see marriage as an essential part of fulfilling their religious commitments, and marrying a girl to the “right” family will benefit the reputation of the girl’s family. The reasons for “marrying off” a girl often have nothing to do with promoting the girl’s psychological or physical well-being.
Consider this fact: as of 2016, all states had laws setting an age of sexual consent. These statutes mean that if a person has sex with someone under that age, the law treats the sex as rape. The reason for this treatment has to do with the likelihood that below a certain age girls may say “yes” even if they are not ready to have sex or do not fully understand what is involved; they could, in other words, say yes but mean no, contrary to the misogynistic and defamatory stereotype that women systematically say no when they mean yes and then accuse of rape. Now consider the reality that in many states, especially the nine that do not have a minimum age for child marriage, a girl’s father and mother may decide to allow what would otherwise be the rape of their minor or even prepubescent child with the blessing of the law. What distinguishes child marriage from statutory rape is that the child bride will not suffer one sexual assault but several, with all the foreseeable mental and physical health consequences.
How to interpret this authorization that parents can give for the rape of their daughters? Once again, religion comes to the rescue. If we look to the past (and not even the very distant past), the law in the United States treated girls and women as living property of great value. Just to avoid objections here I am not comparing the blanket to slavery. Slavery brought with it a particular form of brutality, cruelty and humiliation that was beyond the plight of free women, even though free women were, in fact, not so “free”.
Religion is a human institution, which often survives the values expressed at the time that originally gave rise to its rules. In the past, the law considered a daughter as the property of her father. If she was his property, then he had the right to choose her husband and do so when he saw fit, without interference from the state. Rape, whether of a child or an adult, was only recognizable as a kind of property crime against the girl’s father or husband, not as a violent outrage against the girl or woman.
In the religious narrative, the girl’s subjective mental, emotional, and physical experiences are completely irrelevant. The only actors that matter are the two owners, the father and the rapist. The girl’s trauma after a rape and her continued trauma after becoming the rapist’s sexual property have no place in the story. What if she was 10 years old? The parents probably know they won’t do better than the family in question, and the man, who is 25, 30 or 60, wants to get married and force sex on their 10-year-old child now. It is child’s play to identify the role of religion in this practice; Parent-arranged marriages, after all, remain a central part of religious life for many devout people to this day.
Religion lends an air of respectability to many cruel and reprehensible practices. Forced pregnancy and childbirth would be gross violations of human rights were it not for the religious idea that cells are also people. To refuse to consider same-sex couples as foster parents would be offensive and impermissible discrimination if the religious idea that sex must be potentially procreative were to be sanctified. And a marriage between a 10-year-old child and a grown man would be human trafficking without the religious veneer. It may not be until Americans overcome our love affair with “respect for one’s religion,” as coercive, violent, or misogynistic as true respect for bodily integrity, freedom, and privacy of women, LGBTQI+ people, and girls will become enduring and no longer subject to state-sanctioned or court-sanctioned violation.