If Only We Were All In Middle School Again…In the 1930’s. A Response to Thomas Umstattd Jr.’s Straw Men4
My cousin Doug Hodges (pretty much a big brother to the Phillips kids), pointed me to an article he had come across recently by a gentleman named Thomas Umstattd Jr. regarding why he felt like courtship, as opposed to traditional dating, was fundamentally flawed. Since the article was very thorough, if haphazard, and encapsulated a lot of the criticism I have heard of courtship over the years, and Doug had made the mistake of asking what I thought, I decided Jake and I should write an article in response. You can find the Umstaddt’s original article here.
We are not going to go through his article line by line since you can read it for yourself. We are going to respond to most of his main points in the course of this article.
Mr. Umstattd, like a lot of folks who grew up in conservative Christian homeschooling circles, was greatly surprised when the parenting methods of the folks in his particular circle didn’t produce the expected results.
“Each year I waited for courtship to start working and for my homeschool friends to start getting married. It never happened. Most of them are still single. Some have grown bitter and jaded. Then couples who did get married through courtship started getting divorced. I’m talking the kind of couples who first kissed at their wedding were filing for divorce. This was not the deal! The deal was that if we put up with the rules and awkwardness of courtship now we could avoid the pain of divorce later. The whole point of courtship was to have a happy marriage, not a high divorce rate.”
Because of this Umstaddt, after years of supporting the concept of courtship, became disillusioned and argues that dating, even beginning in middle school, is a better idea. This is understandable. Bad experiences, either our own or those we know, tend to inform the way we view things. However, this is not really an excuse to create large, impressive straw men.
From the beginning, Umstattd admits that he began favoring courtship only after it became a fad amongst evangelical Christians (thanks Josh Harris), and it appears that he disfavors it now that it is a fad to critique the courtship model amongst evangelical Christians. He then says that there is no real definition of courtship and tries to list several things that mark a typical courtship. We can help him with the definition – it’s in the dictionary and everything. “A period during which a couple develops a romantic relationship, especially with an eye towards marriage.” Umstattd probably should have just considered this perfectly reasonable definition of courtship, since he immediately pivoted into the troublesome waters of attempting to construct his own definition, and in doing so achieved the dictionary definition of building a straw-man argument. Here are what he thinks defines a courtship, with our comments following:
-The man asks the father’s permission before beginning romantic relationship (sometimes, but sometimes not. We don’t think even the most hard-core advocate of courtship would expect two thirtysomethings to be talking to parents before beginning a relationship. We’ll address this ubiquitous problem in the way courtship is critiqued later in the article.)
-High accountability (As opposed to those biblical approaches that do not require accountability? Ahhh, but he said ‘high’ accountability. Maybe he is from Colorado like Doug).
-Rules about physical contact and purity (this seems true, but it seems true about anyone who is trying to follow their conscience and the Word of God about any relationship)
-The purpose of the courtship is marriage (this might just be poorly-said, and needs explanation). -High relational intentionality and intensity (compared to what?)
-High parental involvement (again, this probably depends on the couple, their age, whether their parents are involved in their life etc.).
Umstattd is constructing a hypothetically and potentially legalistic courtship from the outset, and then spends the rest of the article criticizing this construction. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I suppose), his construction is of his own making. We could criticize dating by saying that dating meant lots of premarital sex, promiscuity, a lack of commitment, and frequent trips to the forest to worship Satan, and it would be a fair critique only to the extent that dating actually meant all those things. Umstattd is facing the same problem. Saying that courtship as a one-size-fits-all model is fundamentally flawed is wrong both philosophically and practically. It’s wrong philosophically because it fits at least one size (and thus isn’t fundamentally flawed) and it’s wrong practically because courtship isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. The problem seems to be more about Umstattd’s perception of courtship than with courtship.
After criticizing his personally constructed model of courtship, Umstattd then pivots to praising a mostly non-existent form of dating. Apparently Umstattd believes that dating looks a lot like what his grandmother did while in middle school. If dating looked like what it looked like in the 30’s and 40’s for middle-school students, it would probably get less of a critique from evangelical Christians. But in the same way that it’s argumentatively fallacious to create a bad courtship straw-man and then criticize it, it’s also argumentatively fallacious to create a beautiful dating straw-man and then praise it. Umstattd continued in this section, but he started getting into things that marked women as “off the market” and belonging to individual guys in a way that was supposed to be admirable (he called it “going steady”) but was actually just possessive and condescending towards women in a stereotypically patriarchal 1930’s sort of way.
There is one main concern behind all of Umstaddt’s various critiques and it’s the concern we have heard expressed just about every time the issue of courtship comes up. It is the idea that the courtship approach makes relationships so serious, important, and formal and always seen as marriage-prep that it’s no wonder all these other problems arise. Problems such as boys simply not pursuing girls at all because they don’t want to jump through a million hoops for a girl they don’t really know if they want to marry. Problems such as girls rejecting guy after guy because she views saying yes to ‘courting’ as pre-engagement, so she isn’t going to say yes unless she is sure the guy is ‘the one.’ Problems such as dad turning down suitor after suitor because HE IS THE PROTECTOR AND HIS BABY GIRL IS NOT READY TO BE MARRIED! All these problems, so the argument goes, would go away if what was being sought was simple, casual dating. We are of the opinion that that the vast majority of the angst about courting vs. dating stems from people not thinking through the transition from child to adult clearly. This article, as most do, fails to address the fact that a 16 or 17-year-olds approach to these issues should not look the same as a 25-year-old college graduate’s approach to these issues. If a 27-year-old has a dad chasing away well intentioned suitors despite his daughter’s wishes (whether they are asking to ‘court’ or ‘date’) the problem is not with ‘courtship’ the problem is an overbearing father who needs to repent. If a father of a 17-year-old daughter is chasing away young men who want to go out with his daughter but they have no vision beyond ‘she’s pretty and I want to hang out alone with her,’ despite the fact that they know enough to couch it in terms of “courting,” then that dad is doing his job.
The whole point of the movement toward courtship was a reaction to the ‘casual’ part of casual dating; making exclusive guy/girl relationships for teenagers something that required work, and seriousness was the entire point. It was supposed to be a deterrent, because parents grew up seeing all the problems with casual dating (problems Umstaddt ignores by going back to the 30’s and 40’s for his examples of dating). This becomes less of a concern as children turn into adults and need less leadership to think long-term, make biblically informed decisions, and have well-formed convictions regarding sex outside of marriage etc.
Toward the end of his article Umstaddt compared dating and courting, and listed several reasons why dating is better. We’ll go through a couple of them.
First, he says dating is better because there is less temptation. He says there is less temptation because “how do you get emotionally involved with Bill on Tuesday when you know you are going out with Bob on Thursday?” In doing so, he was referencing back to the way that his grandmother dated in middle school. Again, this seems somewhat confused. If dating equals being at the same place as another guy sometimes - but not exclusively, and not very often - then it probably will result in less temptation than an exclusive courtship. But that’s not what dating actually is. It’s also a bizarre reason to promote dating as better than courting, since he later says that dating is better than courting because it will result in more marriages. Although this is anecdotally and statistically unsupported, it seems even stranger assuming that we are still talking about going out with Bill on Tuesday and Bob on Thursday. If Umstattd seriously believes that’s the dating model, it seems difficult to imagine that he actually thinks it will result in more marriages than courtship. (Side note: We’d like to stress that we’re not necessarily saying that courtship involves less temptation than dating. We have no idea if it does, but it probably depends on the individuals. The point isn’t to say, “You’re wrong! There’s less temptations in courtship!” The point is to say “I have no idea if you’re right, but I know your argument isn’t very good.”)
We’ll skip several of his reasons (getting asked out more, less heartbreak, more marriage etc.) because his support is entirely anecdotal and personal (and could be refuted by our anecdotes and personal experiences) and has nothing to do with whether courtship, more broadly, is fundamentally flawed as a concept. He later lists “more fun” as a reason why dating is better than courtship. There’s a couple of problems with this section. First, it is entirely unprovable. But it’s still worth responding to because under “More Fun” he then blames courtship for the crumbling of marriage as an institution. It was honestly the weirdest part of the entire article. His argument is basically that courtship is less fun than dating, that marriage relies on things being fun, marriage is crumbling as an institution which means it must be becoming less fun, THEREFORE COURTSHIP MUST BE THE PROBLEM! There’s a myriad of problems with his argument. First, how could anyone possibly know whether dating or courting is more fun? It’s an entirely subjective question and answer. Second, it’s a circular argument. Third, blaming courtship (almost as exclusively an evangelical Christian phenomenon) for the breakdown in marriage is an interesting argument given conservative Protestants who regularly attend church are 35% less likely to divorce than the rest of the U.S. If marriage was breaking down as an institution within conservative evangelical churches, but not in the world generally, it would still be a flawed argument but it would at least be a decent debate. Fourth, if the key to a lasting marriage is ‘more fun’ then no married person should be reading this article; they should be scuba diving with their spouse to save their marriage.
In conclusion, Umstaddt’s argument suffers from faulty premises, illogical and fallacious argumentation, misconceptions about both dating and courting, poor structure and ultimately a conclusion that is somewhere between false and simply confusing. Other than that we loved it. This doesn’t mean that Umstaddt didn’t point out where some particular group had gone awry or that he didn’t mention some things that have been problematic in the way certain people have approached courtship. But he was trying to do a lot more than that and, in our opinion, he failed to tie any anecdotal problems to any sort of meaningful conclusion or helpful solution. Of course, this doesn’t mean that courtship is therefore better than dating, and one thing we can say with confidence is that our #CulturalValue as a church is not to prop up courtship as an ideal at the expense of dating. Our #CulturalValue is to be consistent, fair and open-minded in our discussions about debatable issues. When it comes to courting, dating and relationships, our #CulturalValue is to pursue God, follow Scripture, seek to maintain purity and our convictions, and listen to the prodding of the Holy Spirit in our relationships, romantic or otherwise.
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