Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Does Christian Fundamentalism Contribute to Domestic Violence? (Part 3)

Final Installment and References....

The Evidence

With this philosophical and logical support of my presuppositions, I turned to empirical studies, fully expecting to find scientific support for my conclusions. However, it was not as easy as I thought.
I began to conduct a thorough search for studies dealing with the relationship between religious beliefs and domestic violence. There wasn’t much there! It seems to be an area with much psychological, philosophical, and theological reflection, but very little in the way of a research base. I ended-up having to enlist the services of the research librarian at the college where I teach. Even then, only a few statistical studies could be found. These are reviewed here.

In a survey study by Ellison and Anderson (2001), domestic violence was found to be inversely related to church attendance across the board, without regard to theological persuasion. It seems that religious attendance enhances social integration and support and is associated with decreased substance abuse and psychological problems such as low self esteem.

In another study by Cunradi, et al. (2002), approximately 1400 married couples were surveyed to explore the relationship between religious homogany/heterogamy or denominational affiliation and domestic violence. It was discovered that religious affiliation did not have a significant relationship with intimate partner violence. In fact, liberal religious orientation was found to have a greater correlation with domestic violence than moderate or fundamentalist orientations. Fundamentalist views were associated with the lowest occurrence of domestic violence. Patriarchy as it accompanies fundamentalist views was not significantly related to the occurrence of domestic violence.

Brinkhoff and Grandin (1992) in a study of approximately 2000 men and women found denominational affiliation was not related to domestic violence. Those more religious were less likely to abuse. And, surprisingly, conservative women were more likely to engage in spousal abuse than their nonreligious or liberal counterparts, whereas men were not.

In an interesting study by Burris and Jackson (1999), ninety subjects were surveyed in regard to religiosity. Then, they were presented three scenarios that ended in an abusive act by the male intimate partner. In the first case, a woman turned down a lover’s proposal of marriage because of religious differences. In the second, the lover was turned down because the woman admitted being confused over her personal sexual orientation. In the third case, the lover was turned down because the woman was not sure that she was in love with him. It was found that the more religious respondents rated the victim more positively in the first scenario and the perpetrator more positively in the second case (involving lesbianism). It was concluded that strong religious beliefs might create a tolerance for domestic violence when the victim is viewed as a sinner.
Lastly, in a survey of the literature that seems pertinent here, McNeely and Robertson-Simpson (1987) challenge the commonly held belief that men are the main perpetrators of physical domestic violence. While noting that abuse by men tends to result in more serious injury, statistically, women engage in more acts of domestic violence.

Concluding Thoughts (Whew! Finally!)

As the reader might surmise, my investigation has left me a bit confused. I think that the philosophic base and psychological reasoning behind my presuppositions are sound. Yet, the meager research available does not lend much support to my views. I interviewed the director of the family resource center at one of the elementary schools in an area of town normally identified with economic disadvantage and crime. She regularly deals with women and children from the women’s shelter. She identified with the prevalent view of victims of intimate partner violence. These women were often the product of homes where similar abuse took place. They often were quite unwilling to leave the abuser, and when they did, they often entered a new relationship with a similar “type” of partner. Sometimes the children were abused, both sexually and/or physically; yet the women seemed unwilling to leave. The women seemed to be caught in a cycle of victimization. Yet, for some reason, they seemed to gravitate towards men who abuse. No doubt power issues were involved. At least, in her interactions with abusive women, the issue of religion rarely, if ever, came up (L. McCarty, personal communication, October 14, 2003). I am wondering if I am “barking-up the wrong tree” with this one. Maybe, for what ever reason, I want to find something here where there is nothing. What then can be said? The research studies may have been plagued with problems related to self-reporting by fundamentalist Christians, but that is an unknown. It is alarming that so many clergy refuse to intervene in cases of abuse, and some even blame the victim for the abuse due to a lack of submissiveness. I am concerned that religiosity seems to make one more tolerant of abuse in some situations. I still find fundamentalism and the patriarchical orientation it encourages to be psychologically unhealthy.

On the flip side, I am concerned that it is the more liberal religious orientation that is associated with domestic violence. In my mind, there is an enlightenment associated with liberalism that I would predict to be negatively related to intimate partner violence. I am puzzled that conservatism seems to be associated with abuse by women but not by men and with the finding that fundamentalism and the accompanying patriarchy seem to be inversely related to domestic violence. And I am certain that this topic needs much more study. One commentator does offer some sound advice: The problem of family violence must address the whole person. This must include religious beliefs and attitudes (Fortune, 2003).


Alsdurf, J., & Alsdruf, P. (1988). Abuse and religion: Where praying isn’t enough. Lexington, MA: Heath.

Brinkerholf, M.B., & Grandin, E. (1992). Religious involvement and spousal violence:The Canadian case. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 31, 15-32.B

Burris, C.T., & Jackson, L.M. (1999). Hate the sinner, or hate the hater? Intrinsic religion and responses to partner abuse. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 38, 160-175.

Ciarrocchi, J.W. (2000). Psychology and theology need each other. National Catholic Reporter, 36, 19-21.

Cunradi, C.B., Caetano, R., & Schafer, J. (2002). Religious affiliation, denominational homogamy and intimate couple violence among US couples. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41, 139-152.

Dobson, J. (1995). Straight talk to men: Recovering the biblical meaning of manhood. Nashville: Word.

Ellison, C.G., & Anderson, K.L. (2002). Religious involvement and domestic violence among US couples. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 40, 269-287.

Foutune, M. M. (2003). A commentary on religions issues in family violence. Retrieved October 5, 2003, from Faith and Trust Institute, http://www.cpsdv.org/Articles/commentary.htm.

Groothius, R.M. (1999). Biblical submission within marriage: What we’ve been told the Bible teaches versus what the Bible really teaches. Retrieved October 5, 2003, from Christians for Biblical Equality, http://www.cbeinternational.org/.

Heider-Rottwilm, A. (1994). Violence against women. The Ecumenical Review, 46, 172-180.

Kroeger, C.C. & Beck, J.R. (1996). Women, abuse, and the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker.

McNeely, R.L. & Robertson-Simpson (1987). The truth about domestic violence: A falsely framed issue. Social Work, 32, 483-490.

Repard, P. & Amer, M. (2002, January 11). Man arrested in death of wife. The San Diego Union Tribune, p. B.3.

Stotland, N.L. (2000). Tug of war: Domestic abuse and the misuse of religion. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 696-702.


  1. Domestic Violence and Faith can be a very confusing subject. There is also not enough information out there to draw upon.

    I was shocked when I did my own search for this information.

    Talks with DV centers told me that alot of women are staying IN these relationships because of faith. They also have trouble getting pastors, etc to help them speak to woman about this issue.

    I know a town that has over 500 churches in the area, and they were all approached to help them in this area with their clients. Two churches decided to help them out of all of them. That is sad!

    This subject is a huge black eye when it comes to how alot of churches handle this issue. Its truly sad.

    I hope you keep learning!

  2. Yes, that makes sense. It really does. And I know about it from pastoral interactions from parishioners. It is sad, but I have read that most women have to be beaten-up around 7 times before their first attempt at leaving-- so adept are abusing men at manipulation. Women usually fear the consequences of leaving.

    The issue I am attempting to attack in the 3 postings is this, "Are fundamentalists more likely to abuse than non-fundamentalists?" The populations I discuss are not of the more "cultic" variety. I am certain that women in relationships where one or both parties are more extreme about their fundamentalist views ARE more likely to be abused.

    This blog, and my featured book deal more with the "fundamentalist next-door." I think you would likely find a greater incidence of psychological abuse and a quite oppressive male authoritarianism in that crowd. It's not a good situation, and it treats women as second-class citizens. However, though I expected interviewing and a lit. review to demonstrate more abuse among mainstream fundamentalists than liberals, that is not what I found. There seems to be much misery inflicted on women to be shared by all.

    Still, I can't help but believe that even mainstream, "Mom and apple pie," "Main street USA" fundamentalism cannot be a healthy environment for women. It just turns out that many liberals and non-religious are quite culpable as well :-(

    Yes, more research is needed.

  3. One more thing. I am a bi-vocational minister (see my bio). My "full time" work is as a professor of elementary education, where I deal almost exclusively with young women. I live in the heart of the Bible Belt, and that is the culture in which most of my students were raised.

    I pride myself on having close relationships with my students. I think I do. I hope I do. I get many wedding invitations-- and even an occasional one, like yesterday, to preform the ceremony (part of my "other" vocation).

    Anyway, I have been to so many weddings where some of my favorite young women have promised to "obey" or "submit to" their husbands. It breaks my heart. I hate to think of the burden they are placing themselves under and wonder if they have really thought it all through or have been brainwashed by some fundamentalist church. I wish they were not getting themselves into such an arrangement. I worry for them and for their children, if any come along. I hope my fears are misplaced.

  4. When you have warped views of what the 'obey' and 'submit' means - it will mean trouble.

    When trouble starts to brew, and people are brave enough to step up and out to say something...YES they are pretty much shot down.

    If you submit more he wouldn't get so mad...for example! Bruce Ware skated really close to saying this publically and got slammed for it!

    There is a article by a man called Reb Bradley that states that if she tries tough love or leaves them - she was coming into the relationship to GET and not GIVE...besides the fact she is upsurping his leadership within the home.

    Paige Patterson told some story about a women that got beat. She came to the church, and he told her to pray at the foot of their bed for him. THis made him MAD, and she came to church beat up once again. He told her she was happy for her - not that she got beat, but because her husband was now standing in the back of the church - fully repentive - due to her actions. Ugh.

    James Dobson's advice can get women killed.
    He believes the best approach is to force a crisis that confronts the problem head-on. Only then can it be treated and resolved. When you and your husband are both in a good mood, let him know that you have something important to discuss. Tell him that you love him very much, but that you are not going to allow him to abuse you any more. Tell him that you want him to get counseling for his anger problem immediately, and that unless he agrees, you are going to need to separate from him for a while. Given his past behavior, it's likely that he will beg for your forgiveness and promise that he will never harm you again. As much as you may be tempted to believe him, don't. Set a deadline for him to start counseling and stick to your guns. You also need to have a safety plan in place in the event that your husband responds negatively to this news.

    When it was pointed OUT to him that this was dangerous advice - they revised it a bit, but kept it in his book 'tough love' AS IS!

    Debi and Michael Pearl are REAL winners for this issue! If you treat him as 'LORD' as Sarah did he will come around. She claims that if you try hard enough, pray hard enough, and don't tattle...he will turn his life around because you were a good helpmate!

    Michael Pearl actually stated if you find that you husband molestes your children - first and foremost if you don't think it will happen again...forgive! If he won't do his duty then allow him to go to prision for 20 years, and wait for him as a proper helpmate should. The children are safe at that point - they are adults and moved ON!

    If you have whacked out definitions of what submit and obey is - and NO push for the servant leadership....YOU bet your conclusion is correct! Sadly - its not all that uncommon.

    There are alot of us speaking out about this, and we are hushed as feminists..among other things.

  5. This is an issue on my radar as well. Not only have I spent many years on the inside of the inside of fundamentalist and conservative churches, I was a victim of DV within the church and now work with other victims.

    I would have to echo what Hannah has said and your own philosophical reasoning and ideas. The research doesn't "prove" it yet, but that is only because of lack of reporting, not because the problem does not exist.

    Abuse is fundamental to the fundamentalist Christian's and a large segment of conservative Christianity's system. It isn't just a problem that happens to some people in fundamentalist Christianity; it is endemic to the system in every way. Their view of God is an abusive one rooted in fear and judgment, where even "love" and "grace" have different meanings. (If you want to trace it back, historically, this belief structure goes back at least to the Puritans, which also play a strong role in American tradition.)

    Family roles of father, husband, wife, mother and child are all skewed as a result. But since the system says these roles are "right" those who believe it stay in it and keep their mouths shut. If you fail to conform you pretty much have to leave the system, which then puts you into another category for reporting purposes - and neatly keeps those statistics lily white! That's not a deliberate result but it is a handy one.

    This is not an uncommon problem; it is just an under reported problem. There are a growing number of us raising our voices though, because there are a lot of people in abusive relationships sitting in pews every Sunday being told by their pastors that God says they have to stay and "suffer for righteousness" because "God hates divorce."

  6. Yes, the whole idea of fundamentalism is systemically flawed. Since it is patriarchical and authoritarian by nature, it is likely beyond repair. When I was in seminary in the early 80's. the idea was conveyed to me that the marriage was the most important thing. In my work and in my pastoral counseling, I began to operate under that premise. Then one day it hit me-- as I was counseling with a woman, a 50 yr. old victim of abuse in a 30 yr. marriage-- Who the hell did I think I was, a 27 year old male minister telling this poor women to keep trying to "glue the marriage relationship together?" I realized on that day in 1983 that the most sacred thing is not the marriage--important though marriage is and as good as it can be-- no the marriage was not the most important issue. I realized that SURVIVAL trumps marriage and that abusing men rarely change their ways. Strange thing is, I didn't even attend a fundamentalist seminary. Let's face it. The church doesn't want to deal with DV. It just gets those pretty preacher hands too dirty.