Dirty John and Evangelical Christianity

Recently, I read the 6-part story in the L.A. Times about a man nicknamed Dirty John. If you haven't read the story or listened to the companion podcast, I highly recommend that you do so. In brief (and without spoiling the ending), it's about a con man named John who marries a woman, Debra, and victimizes her and her family.

The aspect of the story that jumped out at me was Debra's evangelical Christian faith. Years before the events of this story occurred, Debra's brother-in-law murdered her sister, and their mother pleaded for the whole family to forgive him immediately. She felt that it was required by her faith. She passed this ideal down to Debra, who was extremely quick to excuse, overlook, and forgive her husband John's many misdeeds. She believed that she should always look for the best in people, always give them the benefit of the doubt, and always forgive, no matter how heinous the crime.

I'm not trying to blame the victim here. No one is responsible for John's crimes except John himself. However, I do believe, on the basis of my own experiences and observations, that evangelical and fundamentalist churches prime women to be victims. Granted, I don't know exactly what doctrines Debra's church taught, but if it's like most evangelical churches, there is a huge emphasis on family and marriage. Women are taught, either overtly or subtly, that their primary role in life is to be a wife and mother and that their lives will be incomplete if they don't marry and have children. This emphasis on marriage primes women to feel that their self-esteem hinges on their relationship status. It doesn't matter what a woman has accomplished--how well educated or financially successful she is--if she doesn't have a husband, she is a complete failure and her life is essentially worthless. Women who feel that they have no inherent worth without a man are much more likely to settle for a sub par relationship, and they usually will stay in that relationship even when they should leave.

Furthermore, in most evangelical and fundamentalist churches, a patriarchal model of marriage is usually considered to be the only correct model. The husband is in charge, and the wife submits to him without question. Many scriptures are quoted to prove that this is what God wants (honestly, I do not feel like typing them out right now, so you can look that up yourself if you're so inclined) and that a woman who does not obey her husband is sinning against God.

It's easy to see, then, how women who grow up in this environment have low self-esteem and think that they have to be subservient to their husbands, even when those husbands are abusive (or even just not being very kind). I knew a few women in the church of Christ congregation of my childhood who were being emotionally and verbally abused by their husbands. In a couple of instances, I witnessed the verbal abuse first hand. I was horrified, and I shudder to think what was going on behind closed doors. But those women stayed in those relationships because they believed they had to and they tolerated the abuse because they believed it was a sin to get divorced. In one case, the wife became very depressed by the shabby way her husband was treating her, so she started going to a counselor, who advised her to stand up to her husband. The husband then complained to the men of the church, who ordered the wife to stop going to that secular counselor and to just obey her husband. What could she do? She knew if she didn't give in, they would kick her out of the church, so she quit going to the counselor and continued being verbally and emotionally abused. Even though that happened decades ago, it still makes my blood boil to think about it.

There is no doubt in my mind that Dirty John exploited Debra's faith. He was a sociopath, and like most sociopaths, he was good at reading people. He went with her to her evangelical church to show that they were on the same page spiritually. He knew that marriage was important to her, so he proposed very early in their relationship. And I'm sure he also figured out right away that she would forgive almost anything, and he pushed that as far as he possibly could, with terrible consequences for the whole family.

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