By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
There's a tire swing hanging from the big stout tree in the yard, a hundred head of cattle wandering the grassy fields in back, and wide open sky that seems to stretch from here to El Paso.
Tom, the patriarch of the McMinn clan, settles in on the couch near a crackling hearth in his living room. The 56-year-old, whose blue eyes and craggy visage evoke Robert Redford, runs a small company for oil and gas exploration. Dianne, 54, has on a Christmas sweater. She pulls out photos of their seven children and 12 grandchildren. A few minutes later, their ten-year-old little girl springs into the room, a flash of blond hair and blue eyes.
"This is our youngest daughter, Molly," Dianne says, hovering over her. "Some handsome young man'll have to wait a very long time for her She's seen each one of her big sisters have their knight in shining armor come along."
Tom chuckles, but the thing is, Mom's not kidding. When Molly becomes of marriageable age, Tom will begin entertaining offers from young men who wish to woo his daughter along strict, old-fashioned lines. Until then, she will not date. The McMinns reject dating. They instead believe in and practice something called courtship, an underground movement among radically conservative Christians who seek to roll back romance to its antediluvian state.
You may one day meet a girl -- or boy -- like Molly, whose rules of engagement are dramatically different from your own. For young people who practice courtship, sexual abstinence is but a point of departure. They don't do dating, but they don't really do arranged marriages either. If you want to get in the game with them, you'd better learn the rules.
1. Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior
That's simple enough, isn't it? Christianity -- preferably of the evangelical, spread-the-Word, we're-on-fire-with-Jesus variety -- is a prerequisite for courtship candidates. It's non-negotiable. And while you're at it, read your Bible literally.
2. Remember, dating is practice for divorce
The McMinn family wandered into courtship before the subculture had a name. It was the late 1970s, and with two adolescent girls at home, Tom and Dianne watched with great concern what was considered a "normal" part of growing up: the evolution of boy-girl relationships.
"We saw the little heartbreaks that girls had," Tom explains. "So we just said, you know, we're gonna try not to do that and spare our kids. It developed into a concept of us really thinking about dating and going back and doing some historical research and finding out that dating is somewhat of a modern concept. And even if you go back to the 19th century, the concept of courtship is a real common idea In order to preserve the purity and morality of our girls particularly, that we just weren't -- we were gonna step out of the culture a little bit and we weren't gonna date."
Dianne remembers a "red flag" moment that happened when her oldest daughter, Melissa, was five. She came home from Sunday school one day and asked, "Mommy, who is my boyfriend?" Other girls her age had boyfriends, so what did it mean, and who was hers?
It was a playfully precocious use of the term, but from that point on, Tom and Dianne taught the girls that, unlike kids from other families, they wouldn't have boyfriends until it was time to get married.
Courtship families -- especially the fathers -- consider it a God-given duty to protect their daughters. Tom says, "Dating is a hazardous occupation for kids in this country," adding, "I wanted to protect her from herself as well as any young man that might come along." Dating was not meant for entertainment, he concluded; not that romance couldn't be fun, but it shouldn't be for fun.
"As they got to be young teenage girls, the concept of -- you are a royal gem, you are a precious ruby -- and you don't want a jerk to come along, you know, and hurt you in any way," says Dianne. "It was just common knowledge among our acquaintances and everyone that the McMinn girls don't date. And so at the early age of 13, 14, 15 and 16, no one really approached them. So they were protected in that way."
The girls say they witnessed regular drama among their friends who did date, and that it only reinforced the courtship mentality that had been inculcated from an early age.
"I began to see more clearly the results of dating relationships with my friends. The main thing they learned was how to have their heart broken and get over it," says Sarah Starnes, the McMinns' third daughter. "They learned how to accept: 'I can break a commitment; he can break a commitment.' "
Which brings us to another precept of courtship, that dating is a "prescription for divorce." That's how Lori Crank termed it, though she was hardly the first to put it that way.