The draw of nearly 3,000 teens to the Manatee County Civic Center in 1994 was Ian Eskelin, a Christian rock artist a couple years shy of his first Grammy nomination. But the message of the rally, which featured radio talk show host Dawson McAllister, was clear: Wait for marriage to have sex.
The moment stands out in Kathryn Brightbill’s mind as the time she began to learn the “true love waits” message and about courtship. She was 13.
The Christian and legislative policy analyst from Bradenton often writes on her blog about issues close to her: homeschooling, the LGBT community and her faith. When she began posting five years ago, she did so to “process different thoughts” without expecting anyone to read it. When she started gaining more readers, Brightbill says, she honed her writing focus on more current topics.
A thread of Brightbill’s tweets about Alabama’s U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore recently went viral and has been retweeted more than 5,000 times, and it morphed into an op-ed she penned for the Los Angeles Times. Moore has been accused of seeking relationships with or molesting at least five girls, all while he was an assistant district attorney.
The headline on Brightbill’s column: “Roy Moore’s alleged pursuit of a young girl is the symptom of a larger problem in evangelical circles.”
“I’ve been thinking about writing that for a while,” Brightbill said in a recent interview with the Bradenton Herald. In conversations with her homeschooled friends across the country, each knew of people who started courting when they were young.
“It just happened that mentioning it in context, that it went viral.”
While Brightbill was raised Baptist, it was her homeschooled upbringing in Manatee County and Bob Jones University textbooks that would expose her to lectures sharing the idea of early courtship. As she discusses in the op-ed, it’s when girls are taught at a young age how to best serve their future husbands. It wasn’t all that odd, she says now, as it was during a time in her life when “purity rings” and “abstinence pledges” were the norm.
Brightbill says she had a positive experience being homeschooled, and she now works as a legislative policy analyst with Coalition for Responsible Home Education to advocate for oversight to protect children from abuse and neglect.
Her blog posts range from discussions on the rights of homeschoolers to the Duggar family — featured on the TLC show “19 Kids and Counting” that was canceled after one of the children admitted to molesting some of his siblings.
Another thread of tweets that recently went viral, as discussions and marches about Confederate statues happened nationwide, was her 140-character dissertations of her homeschool literature referencing what she called the “Christian white nationalist version of history.”
“The evangelical world is overdue for a reckoning,” Brightbill wrote in the Times op-ed. Most of society, she continues, hadn’t a clue about these abuse issues until Moore’s story broke.
“I was surprised about the reaction because I’ve been talking about it for a long time, and people sort of wrote it off as a fringe issue that doesn’t really affect people in the real world, other than in small fringe communities,” she told the Herald.
Brightbill received hundreds of replies on the original thread from Twitter users. The platform, she says, gave people a space to share their personal accounts.
“I knew people had similar experiences, but after hearing all the stories, I’m starting to think I underestimated how prevalent it is,” she said.
In her op-ed, she wrote that “14-year-old girls courting adult men isn’t uncommon,” a phrase that got a lot of backlash from online commenters who wondered if she meant the opposite. Brightbill went on to explain that because of the early courtship teachings and “parent-sanctioned relationships,” if teens are found with older men, the victims are blamed. In one example, a former minister in Hammond, Indiana, who had been jailed for molesting a girl, claimed that he should be released from prison “due to the aggressiveness of (the girl) that inhibited impulse control,” according to The Times of Northwest Indiana.
“It was quite normal when a 16 year old went to a JR/SR banquet with a 24 year old at my IFB (Independent Fundamentalist Baptist) high school. No one blinked an eye,” wrote Twitter user Mandi Livingston in reply to her thread.
Actress Felicia Day, who acted in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and author/journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates also shared Brightbill’s tweets. “God this thread makes me sick but is worth reading,” Day wrote.
Brightbill says that not all churches are promoting the idea of early courtship, but “there are families in those churches who believe that and don’t necessarily advertise that they believe that.”
“I think it’s important to note that not all of the men who end up in those courtships are themselves predatory,” Brightbill added as a disclaimer. “They are also products of that culture. They have been raised believing it has been normal.”
Sexual assault and harassment claims have been tumbling out since producer Harvey Weinstein’s victims spoke publicly about how he interacted with women. It’s not just happening in the entertainment industry, but in politics and workplaces around the country. Brightbill says it continues to happen in the evangelical circle “because it’s not well known.”
“It needs to be an understanding of consent and women’s autonomy in the evangelical culture as a whole that isn’t really there right now,” she said.