It’s a Norman Rockwell-esque scene. A young woman holds up her baby to blow out the candles on his first birthday cake as his older brother looks on. A bespectacled man in his late fifties stands next to them, beaming. What an adoring grandfather, you could be forgiven for thinking.
The man in question isn’t a grandfather, though; he’s 57-year-old John Rose, a U.S. congressman from Tennessee and rabid “pro-lifer.” The young woman—Chelsea Doss Rose, 24 years his junior—is his wife.
It’s not entirely clear when the Roses’ courtship started, but we know that Chelsea was only a freshman in high school when she started winning statewide awards for her work with Future Farmers of America, an organization in which Rose was deeply involved. Their first documented meeting occurred when she was 18 and a college freshman, attending school on a scholarship Rose administered. By age 20, Chelsea was speaking warmly and publicly about how Rose had “coached” her during her time working with FFA in college. Almost exactly a year later, the two announced their engagement.
Rose’s repeated decision to showcase his marriage to a much younger woman might seem perplexing, even hypocritical, given his membership in a MAGA coalition obsessed with the supposed sexual grooming of public school students by LGBTQ teachers, Ketanji Brown Jackson’s (nonexistent) coddling of child sex predators, and imaginary Democratic Party-run child sex rings. In reality, it is entirely consistent with the forced birth agenda he so enthusiastically embraces on the floor of the House.
The sexualization and grooming of young women and teenage girls into early heterosexual marriage and pregnancy fulfills a far right fantasy: From incels to Christian nationalists, these extremists see this practice as not only acceptable, but as a moral and political necessity. And the militant vanguard (and, increasingly, institutional backbone) of the Republican party is embracing evangelical-style fetishization of very young marriage, often in ways that overtly reveal their misogyny and white supremacy. With constitutionally enshrined abortion rights dead and contraceptive justice under threat, this is a pedophilic, patriarchal vision the far right will be increasingly able to force upon vulnerable women and girls.
Evangelical Christians in the United States have a documented history of not just tolerating, but embracing marriages between very young women and teenage girls to much older men—a phenomenon highlighted during the brief Senate candidacy of Alabama G.O.P. stalwart Roy Moore, whose alleged inappropriate contact with underage teenage girls made national news in 2017 (he denied the allegations). “There is a segment of evangelicalism and homeschool culture where the only thing Roy Moore did wrong was initiating sexual contact outside of marriage. Fourteen-year-old girls courting adult men isn’t entirely uncommon,” Kathryn Brightbill, a policy analyst for Coalition for Responsible Home Education, said at the time. When the allegations against Moore emerged, Alabama’s state auditor, Jim Zeigler, went so far as to cite biblical precedent in his defense: “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”
“When the girl getting married is literally legally a minor, she gets married and at that point she loses certain legal rights because she’s not yet an adult,” Chrissy Stroop, a former evangelical who serves as a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches and columnist with OpenDemocracy, told me. “So in some states she can’t hire a lawyer, she can’t get a divorce, she can’t gain access to battered women’s shelters… She’s been granted one of these perks of adulthood, that is marriage, but she’s legally disabled for at least the period of time until she becomes an adult.”
Though evangelicals like Rose and Moore may not say it outright, they seemingly share a specific reproductive goal with more overt white supremacists. And when it comes to gender politics, the far right faces a major challenge: Their vision for the white reproductive family royally screws the women. These guys understand that their model of the family is a raw deal for AFAB (assigned female at birth) folks and that few rational adult women would voluntarily subject themselves to such a reproductively taxing, fundamentally abusive, and inherently unequal arrangement. To them, the obvious solution is to entrap very young women and girls in marriage and parenthood. Unwanted pregnancies and forced birth—now the law of the land in some states—help them further these goals. They are also able to protect rapists and pedophiles within their communities.
“It is not uncommon for young women in conservative Christian communities… to be forced or coerced to marry if they are impregnated,” activist Ashley Easter, a survivor of the Quiverfull movement, told me. “This is presented as a way to fix the problem of not remaining ‘pure,’ but can be a cover for statutory rape or assault. In some communities, the ‘purity’ of a woman is so required that an unmarried pregnant woman may have great difficulty finding a spouse, so pressuring her into marriage with the impregnator is sometimes seen as the only way for her to perform her ‘God-ordained role’ of bearing children and becoming a submissive wife.”
Relatedly, in the minds of the far right, a teenage girl left to her own devices is a teenage girl biologically destined for not just sexual but also racial impurity, owing to both her supposed feminine weakness and to the far right’s racist perception of nonwhite AMAB (assigned male at birth) bodies as animalistically magnetic. One of their deepest fears (a phobia among incels in particular) is that, left to our own devices, women will mate with stronger, more primally appealing men (some will say the quiet part aloud: They mean Black men), despoil ourselves (some will illustrate this with “roast beef sandwich” imagery), and then only consider pursuing a white traditional family structure after we are past our supposed reproductive prime, if we do at all.
Men on the far right believe that women have to be brainwashed into submission early, before we’re able develop enough of a sense of self to assert some semblance of agency. For many evangelicals, particularly but not exclusively the hardline Christian nationalists who comprise the far right arm of today’s evangelical movement, this is a no-brainer. To them, women are fickle, terminally immature, and emotionally volatile creatures. We are liabilities to community and order, and only when we are completely under the dominion of a father or husband do they consider the threat we pose to be even somewhat neutralized.
This read on women dovetails conveniently with far right anti-abortion arguments. If women and girls can’t be trusted to make rational decisions, we certainly can’t be trusted with a choice as monumental as abortion. That leaves the choice to the patriarchs in our life, whose influence we are made unable to escape.
“We see women staying in dangerous marriages much longer than women who do not attend churches that view divorce as sinful,” said Easter. Young brides are notably vulnerable to entrapment: “Many domestic violence prevention centers are not allowed to provide care to clients until they turn 18, and may be required by their state to treat child marriage victims as runaways who need to be returned to their guardians, which may be their husband.”
Forced birth furthers this control, as does the financial abuse that usually accompanies these violent situations. “This is amplified when a woman has young children she wishes to take with her when leaving. For many women, this means leaving is not a viable option until the children are grown,” Easter said. “I had known women who had had to plot their escape for five-plus years before it became a realistic option because of the children involved.”
The specter of unwanted children also can also be used to protect the institution of child marriage itself. “There’s a real fear of pregnancy outside of marriage,” said Stroop. “Some conservative legislators… essentially think that if child marriage is outlawed, then a teenage girl who is pregnant is going to terminate the pregnancy.” (Only six states have outlawed child marriage with no exceptions.)
Additionally and quite crucially, child marriage and forced birth in the early years following menstruation maximizes a girl’s productivity as a vessel for white children. Forced birth is very importantly a white patriarchal project. As such, many of its proponents are particularly interested in its application to white AFAB people, whose production of children (whether wanted or unwanted) is understood as necessary for the replenishing the white race’s dominance. As even relatively mainstream leaders within the right are now willing to admit, it’s a numbers game.
Given that the far right and especially evangelical Christian nationalists are so attached to child marriage as both a patriarchal dream and a strategy of racial and cultural reproduction, you might expect them to ignore the issue of child sexual exploitation. Instead, spaces ranging from QAnon forums to school board panics over imaginary LGBTQ “grooming” of students are rife with reactionaries screaming about made-up pedophilic threats.
So what gives? Two words: projection and misdirection.
Far right grooming discourse “ignores the real problems that we have, which is that sexual abuse… overwhelmingly [is done by] men within their own household,” said Stroop. “That gets erased a little bit when we talk about the supposed threats of LGBT identity.”
The vast majority of sexual exploitation of minors targets teenage girls: Trafficked children are overwhelmingly AFAB and have an average age of 15. When sexual abuse of younger children does happen, that abuse is most likely to occur at the hands of a close family friend or relative, usually a man, as Stroop said. Acknowledging these very real tragedies, however, would put the far right on the defensive about the epidemic of sexual abuse in the evangelical movement and threaten Christian nationalist men’s ability to wed teenage girls and assert unchecked power over the resulting children within their families.
To counteract that threat, the far right has gone on the offensive, leveling wild and unfounded accusations of pedophilia and support for sex crimes against political enemies and marginalized people. QAnon and its Pizzagate predecessor, for example, agitated with sensationalistic conspiracies about ritualized sexual abuse of prepubescents. This strategy works extremely well.
During the Ketanji Brown Jackson hearings, Rose self-righteously stood on the House floor and delivered a polemic about her supposed sympathy for “child sex offenders.” A video supporting Trump’s border wall distributed by his campaign intoned ominously about the supposed threat of sexual predation by immigrants. A white boomer seemingly grooming a vulnerable teenage girl into marriage, though? Well, that’s just romance.
It’s not a coincidence that Rose is a prominent face in the radical push for forced birth, couched as “pro-life,” within the conservative movement. Nor is it a coincidence that other Republicans in the state he represents attempted to use an anti-gay marriage bill to quietly abolish minimum age limits on marriage, or that Republicans routinely oppose legislation banning child marriage, back extreme abortion bans lacking even rape and incest exceptions, and pepper their campaign rhetoric with Christian nationalist language. The valorization of child marriage, the institutionalization of forced birth, and the repression of queer and gender-nonconforming people are all core components of the far right project, intimately linked and mutually reinforcing.
Rose doesn’t plaster photos of his wife across his website and social media—carefully contrived personal posts feature Chelsea, who alternately gazes lovingly at her aging spouse or smilingly performs motherhood—out of naivete. This imagery appears strategic, evoking the popular far right fantasy of courting, then controlling, a woman from an early age. Just watch Rose’s “Next Generation” ad, with its natalist imagery and talk of protecting his (white) babies from unprotected borders and cultural degeneracy. The youth of his wife is an indicator of success.
Forced birthers want to keep girls and very young women married, barefoot, and pregnant, and the defeat of Roe was their biggest victory in decades. Another win would be making it impossible to prevent pregnancies from happening in the first place. That means contraception bans, and, as Clarence Thomas made crystal clear, access to contraceptives is on the chopping block in the near future. Unless we effectively counter them, they won’t stop until every fertile, uterus-bearing person in this country is pressed into the service of reproduction—teenage girls included, and especially.
Gwen Snyder (pronouns: she/they) is a Philadelphia-based researcher, organizer, and writer. She served as the executive director of the direct action economic justice coalition Philadelphia Jobs with Justice from 2009 to 2017. She now focuses on researching, writing about, and organizing to counter far right reactionary violence and build accountable, liberatory movements. Follow her on Twitter at @gwensnyderphl.