The case of the Iowa high school wrestler who cited his Christian beliefs in forfeiting a recent match against a girl in a state tournament seemed to be another one of those skirmishes in the culture wars that clearly pit religious tradition against modernity.
The sophomore wrestler, Joel Northrup, said his decision to default his match against freshman Cassy Herkelman in the 112-pound class was based on his religious convictions -- he didn't think it was right for a boy to try to subdue a girl physically or to touch her so intimately.
Even Cassy and her family said they respected Northrup's integrity in putting his principles over the chance to compete for the top prize in a state famed for churning out some of the best grapplers in the country.
But when pressed, Northrup and his father, Jamie Northrup, also conceded
that they couldn't actually cite chapter or verse in the Bible to justify Joel's decision.
"Even though there's no specific Scripture that addresses wrestling with girls, there is the biblical Christian principle of treating women with respect and dignity and not looking at them as objects to be defeated on the wrestling mat, or in some cases, to be groped or slammed," Jamie Northrup told CNN.
But given that lack of scriptural foundation, some Christians argue that the Northrups -- and their many cheerleaders among conservative Christians -- are confusing Gospel teachings with culturally conditioned traditions that don't do justice to either the Bible or to Cassy Herkelman.
"When Joel refused to wrestle Cassy, he took an opportunity away from her. An opportunity for her to shine using her own God-given strength and ability. An opportunity to win or lose, fair and square," Caryn Rivadeneira
, a popular Christian writer, wrote at the "Her.meneutics" blog
of the evangelical monthly, Christianity Today.
Rivadeneira made a point of applauding Joel's decision to stress his opposition to violence toward girls.
"But I wonder," she added, "why he thinks the Christian faith smiles on violence-for-fun against fellow boys. I'm confident that it doesn't. My guess is that his decision to default has more to do with his view of who is against him on the mat than it does with actual violence. And I think his refusal has more to do with his cultural view of girls than his Christian faith."
Her post, like the story of Northrup's decision, has generated a huge amount of commentary among Christians, both in support and opposition to Joel's decision.
Joel's defenders said that in refusing to wrestle Cassy the 16-year-old boy was "only expressing what would have been taken as common sense and common decency just a few years ago," as R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, put it in a column on the Iowa wrestling controversy.
"This is insanity masquerading as athletic competition," Mohler wrote
. He said the episode represents "a clash of worlds and worldviews" pitting modern liberals who see Joel as "a religious nut" against traditionalists who see Joel "as a young man of brave and noble conscience." Joel's actions were "moments of temporary sanity in a world going increasingly mad."
Similarly, Mark T. Mitchell at Front Porch Republic
found it "heartening to see a young man attempt to uphold the ideals of the gentleman" against what he called "the leveling impulse of the age."
"Perhaps that singular ideal can be sustained during our long sojourn through the wilderness of liberalism," Mitchell wrote. "If and when we emerge on the other side, it may provide a hopeful reminder of what is possible and how a decent society might be constructed around ideals that foster acts of nobility, deference, propriety, and kindness."
Yet Mitchell and Mohler and other conservative defenders of Joel's decision invoked the medieval notion of "chivalry" to frame their argument rather than citing any specific Gospel inspiration.
That seems to bolster the view that Northrup's decision was more a matter of good manners than biblical teachings -- not that there's anything wrong with that. There is widespread and understandable nostalgia for the days of old when knights were bold, as well as being honorable and upstanding men who eschewed vulgarity and treated a lady as if she were the Virgin Mary.
Interestingly, it was European contact with Arab Muslims, whose soldiers were seen not only as gifted fighters but also as pious, courteous, and literary men of honor, that helped create the virtues of chivalry eventually adopted by medieval knights. Christendom baptized chivalry as a moral and religious code, and centuries later the idealized knight was transformed by the rising middle class into the role of the respectable gentleman.
In theory, anyone willing to discipline themselves could be a gentleman, and for the Puritans and then the Victorians, Christianity proved to be a useful tool in that training.
"It has been said that no man can be a gentleman who is not a Christian," the 19th century author and moralist T. S. Arthur wrote in one of his popular books. "We take the converse of this proposition, and say that no man can be a Christian who is not a gentleman."
But the connection between the Good Book and good behavior seemed to grow more tenuous the more it was asserted. "Good" Christians should not drink, it was claimed, and that gave birth to the temperance movement that led to Prohibition, despite the fact that Jesus and the apostles all drank wine, and quite frequently. Movie-going was off-limits, of course, and the length of skirts was regulated as if according to a rule set out in Leviticus.
Such scrupulous concern for outward probity led to the quip that Baptists were against premarital sex because it might lead to dancing.
Baptists still aren't big on drinking
, actually, but movies are okay and born again Christian girls across America are encouraged to strut their stuff in beauty pageants that would have made their Victorian forebears blanch. (O tempora! O mores!
The concern now seems to be that wrestling between a boy and a girl might lead to transgressions of a physical nature. (There is apparently no analogous outcry against boys touching each other's private parts while on the mat, nor of girls wrestling as long as it is with each other -- an activity that hardly seems in keeping with chivalrous notions of female modesty.)
But Caryn Rivadeneira notes that Jesus frequently broke the customs of his day when it came to dealing with women. He healed the bleeding woman who would have been considered unclean by standards of the time, for example; he talked with the Samaritan woman who Jews were supposed to avoid, and he allowed a prostitute who the Pharisees said he should completely avoid to wash his feet with her tears.
"That was the way Jesus behaved in a terrible-case scenario for women," Rivadeneira writes. "He provided opportunities. He didn't shirk away because things could be awkward. He didn't ease up because women were weak. Jesus treated women like humans. Like breathing, feeling, thinking, capable people."
Cassy herself seemed to echo that view, saying after winning her match by default that she should not be treated differently because she is a girl.
"The fact that I'm doing the same sport as them [boys], that I'm doing the same things as them, I don't think they should be much different," she told reporters.
Cassy Herkelman and Joel Northrup lost their subsequent matches in the tournament and so are done for the season. But the debate seems destined to go on.
Herkleman and another girl were the first of their gender to wrestle in Iowa's state tournament, but thousands of girls are competing
in wrestling tournaments across the country, and their numbers are growing. That has led some to call for separate tournaments for girls and boys, but that may not happen anytime soon.
And it seems unlikely anyone will solve the riddle of whether Jesus would wrestle a girl, or whether his modern-day followers should. The discomfort factor for a teenage boy grinding a girl into the mat -- or being ground into the mat by her -- is certainly understandable, and maybe that should have been the single, and sufficient, criteria for Joel's decision, and the arguments of his defenders.