How Trinity Western University (unintentionally) promotes divorce


Trinity Western University has been in the news recently, as law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia voted to not recognize lawyers trained at the religious university’s soon-to-open law school. These two law societies – like your blogger and the vast majority of Canadians – recoiled in horror at the university’s community covenant (“covenant” is just a fancy way of saying “contract”) clause forbidding students from having sex outside straight marriage.

While discriminatory and immoral, TWU’s policy is not illegal. If I understand correctly, several years ago the Canadian Supreme Court agreed with the BC Civil Liberties Union that, as a private university which does not receive government funding or subsidies, TWU’s right to a discriminatory code of conduct trumps attendees’ right to sexual equality. (After all, people can choose not to attend that university.) Part of the ruling apparently included the statement that the Court found no evidence that TWU’s 21st-century-BC sexual ethics actually affect the behaviour of their 21st-century-AD graduates, once they enter the “real” world. Which is comforting, and de-fangs some of my concerns.

So, while I find its policy abhorrent, legal precedent tells me TWU must be allowed to have their own law school. On the flip side, the ruling also means that an atheist group could found the “Richard Dawkins Law School” with a community covenant forbidding students from engaging in religious practise, as long as they don’t take public funding either. (In a terrible case of “do unto others…” Dawkins has argued that religion is a form of mental illness, in the exact same way religious fundamentalists have argued that homosexuality is. While the guy’s a scientific genius, he’s as religiously illiterate as the people he rails against.)

As a semi-related aside, the Moral Majority movement started when the US Federal Government threatened to withdraw tax-exempt status from Bob Jones University, a religious college which forbade interracial dating. Until the year 2000. Which was forty-five years after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. As recounted by the Episcopal (Anglican) priest Randall Balmer, the Moral Majority’s founders quickly realized that – this being the 1970’s, not the 1870’s – no one would fund a group committed to keeping black boys away from white girls. So they made abortion their central issue.

Traditional marriage has always been between two men

TWU’s law school probably could’ve saved itself this trouble if it had simply forbidden sex (after all, celibacy was the ideal in early Christianity). But it offered a marriage exemption, and then restricted its definition of marriage to a contract between a man and a woman.

And that’s revisionist history. Traditional marriage is, and has always been, a contract between a man and his father-in-law, over the transfer of property (the woman) from the latter to the former.

We see vestiges of this in western ceremonies, where the groom walks himself to the altar… but the woman is led by her “owner” (father, or brother, though in a pinch any other male relative will do) and given to her new husband. I really, really hope that if Leo gets married, his partner will walk herself (or himself; that’s fine too) to the altar to meet him. Some traditions deserve to be pruned off the cultural tree…

In ancient societies, women rarely had property rights, because they were property. Perhaps the most-overlooked proof of this comes in the first of the three sets of Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”). (Found at Exodus 20:2-17, Exodus 34:11-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6:21)

In the tenth commandment, God tells the Jews, “thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house [property]… or wife [X]… or manservant [property]… or maidservant [property]… or ox [property]… or ass/donkey [property]… or any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”

The woman is included in a list of things that belong to the neighbour. Or, to be mathematical about it, X = property.

Worse still, the list is in descending order of worth, meaning the wife isn’t even considered to be the neighbour’s most valuable possession!! (Happily, in the third set of Ten Commandments, the wife is listed first. The second set completely bypasses the issue.)

Not that we moderns can afford to chortle at our ancestors, though. In 1928, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that though they could vote, women were not legally considered “persons” — a ruling that was only overturned by a higher British court!

Because they peer into the past with rose-coloured ignorance, TWU and similar groups are trying to recreate something that never really existed. It’s kind of like how there’s a whole mythology that’s developed about the Japanese samurai being a noble, selfless warrior class. But by and large, they were opportunistic bastards more loyal to financial bribes than feudal warlords! It wasn’t until after Japan was unified – and the process of (very bloody) elimination left only one faction standing – that they reinvented themselves. (When you’re in the middle of an interminable civil war, you don’t generally have the time to worry about luxuries like honour and practising spiritual disciplines…)

How TWU’s code unintentionally promotes divorce

Studies show that born-again Christians are more likely to get divorced (about 32%) than even heathen atheists (30%). Which proves the truth of the old adage, “families that pray together, don’t stay together”.

That’s bad news. It’s not “study after study has one-third of pastors self-reporting they’d committed sexually inappropriate behaviour with female parishioners” bad, but it’s still pretty bad, considering that many churches see their role as upholding family values.

And wow, that pastor stat is horrific. It means pastors are one and a half times as bad as men in general, and twice as likely to philander than secular therapists. And you just know it’s the morally boisterous ones. A baseball example comes from vocally-Christian ex-Yankee Chad Curtis, who threw away teammates’ porn and turned the clubhouse TV when Jerry Springer was on. He’s now a convicted serial sexual predator. Meanwhile, his intensely Christian (but not a dick about it) Yankee teammate Mariano Rivera is by all reports a gracious, humble gentleman: the kind of role model I’d like Leo to idolize, if he gets into sports.

As an atheist I’m oblivious to the problems this would cause, but I sincerely think the best long-term solution would be to restrict religious leadership positions to gays. A straight pastor will be sexually compatible with all the straight women in his flock, so the risk of exploitation will always be there, even if he tells them to cover their hair, veil themselves, and/or dress in sackcloth. But a gay pastor would only be sexually compatible with a few percent of his parishioners. (We could throw in a few token straight pastors, when gay congregants need counseling.)

And there’s even precedent for this arrangement! If you were a young male nobleman in feudal Europe who had, ahem, no interest in women, the only place way you could live an unmarried life without raising eyebrows was to join the Catholic church. And once you were there, you might try to avoid suspicion by moralizing against homosexuality. A lot. (I think I’ve heard this called “the Ratzinger gambit”, a reference which will no doubt fly over most readers’ heads.) Curiously enough, medieval Christian attitudes on homosexuality got worse as the dragged on. Go figure.

But back to marriage. The problem of Christian divorce isn’t a personal failing, but a policy failing. Christians who get married at any given age, are no more likely to get divorced than their fellow citizens. And as I’ve written before, there’s evidence that they’re more generous with time and money than their secular neighbours.

What distorts the numbers is that a disproportionate number of very naive but very earnest, very conservative Christians get married in their early 20’s, because they want to stay virgins until they’re married. (We might call this “Jessica Simpson syndrome”.) The odds of you divorcing if you marry at 20, are a hell of a lot higher than if you marry at 30.

And that’s how TWU’s conduct code promotes divorce: by deeming premarital sex as immoral, it will cause more innocent young Christians to get married so early in adulthood that they’re at high risk of divorce — with all the tragic consequences that follow. To be fair, this isn’t nearly as destructive as the way some religious groups (and secular New Age know-nothings) shun immunization shots, but it’s a family value well past its best-before date.

From what we can tell, the no-sex-outside-marriage thing was a social rule that only ever applied to daughters of the wealthy or powerful, who were the only social class with enough possessions to worry about losing them.

If you were a noble with a grown son, the the only way to ensure that his heir was actually his heir, was to marry him to a woman who was definitely still a virgin. Which often meant marrying him to a teenaged girl.

Sex-before-marriage was never an issue for the sons. A fairly recent example was the case of George HW Bush (GWB’s father). While Barbara Bush married the first man she ever kissed, GHWB’s Yale club nickname was “Magog”, which was given to the member with the most sexual experience. To apply the infamous female dichotomy, that made Barbara the virgin, and George the whore. But since he was a guy, this was cause for celebration and envy. (Sometimes, I feel like a Martian anthropologist…)

As I see it, devoted Christians deserve better from the institutions of their faith. Religions — if they can lift themselves out of the mire of in-group/out-group tribalism and other problems of their own making – can serve as a powerful counter-balance to the self-serving social and economic ideas of the powerful and wealthy. (When they haven’t been co-opted by powerful and wealthy sponsors, that is.) They have tremendous, almost unlimited, positive potential. It’s why a lot of atheists like me are cautiously optimistic about Pope Francis. Now, if he could just turn a few hundred (thousand?) child-molesting priests over to the authorities…

See, a lot of people will automatically tune out if they hear that unions, lefty groups, minorities, scruffy students or academics are complaining about something. But a general respect for religion in broader society (Richard Dawkins & fanboys excepted) means that when faith leaders lend their voices to a cause, more people are likely to listen. And that makes it easier to build the broad coalitions at the heart of our most meaningful, most precious social progress. Which is, in the end, what I’m so passionately after, too…

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  • Ellen Yessis  On May 26, 2014 at 7:04 am

    TWU does accept public funding. The Harper government allocated $26,000,000 to religious universities such as TWU and Heritage Christian University in Ontario.

    • EclecticLip  On May 26, 2014 at 12:58 pm

      Hi Ellen, it seems you’re correct, the university has benefited from government research grants, tax-deductible donations (a form of subsidy), and $2.6 million in infrastructure funding.

      It would be hard to deny a learning institution research grants (as long as they’re conducting bona fide research), and you get a deduction for any donations. But the infrastructure funding is more troublesome. I would have thought the university would have steered clear from government funding to keep its more excitable members from worrying about secular influences creeping in.

      But it would be accurate to say that they don’t receive ongoing government subsidies, which is what most people think of when they think of public funding. All the same, it’s very disappointing to see that the government allowed our collective savings to assist a group which seems to uphold traditional beliefs as superior to the law of the land (the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). I rather doubt that an institution from another Middle Eastern religion which held to its own “community covenant” would have been apportioned funding.

      I’ll try to make some edits tonight — thank you very much for the catch!

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