Thursday, January 15, 2009

Fundamentalism and Domestic Violence: Theoretical Perspectives

Readers of this blog know that I have taken this question up previously on this venue (search directory under domestic violence). In previous postings, I reported on a literature review that I had conducted earlier (some years ago) in preparation for what I (then) thought was going to be an empirical study of the evidence concerning the question. As my earlier blogs pointed-out, my review of the literature was inconclusive.

In this posting, I want to expand on what I think "inconclusive" means and doesn't mean. First, my review DID NOT deal with fundamentalism of the more cultic variety. I think there is little doubt about that one. Crazy, sectarian, fundamentalist religious groups (such as polygamous Mormons) are clearly wife abusers. (Read the book Under the Banner of Heaven for a chilling account.) They seem to be unrepentant about it. They think it's just part of life. Men in such groups seem to believe that they have the prerogative to abuse women.

But, my interest is elsewhere. My book tries to paint an accurate picture of everyday, garden variety fundamentalism-- like that of the James Dobsons and James Kennedys of the world, or maybe "the little church down the road," where your next-door neighbors attend. I have always been interested in that population, likely because I was once a part of it.

So, here is the evidence as I know it:
  1. In fundamentalism, men are seen as authority figures.
  2. Women are expected to "submit" to their husbands-- a promise my wife wrote into her vows when we were married 32 years ago.
  3. Women are, for all practical purposes, second class citizens.
  4. Men are encouraged to "take charge."
  5. Fundamentalist churches can hardly be called bastions of the principles of non-resistance and non-violence.
  6. Fundamentalists are quick to support coercive and lethal means of punishment such as corporal punishment for children and the death penalty.
  7. Fundamentalist churches take passages concerning a wrathful God at face value (and to the exclusion of many other images).
  8. Fundamentalists tend to support a position of civil retributive justice as opposed to distributive or restorative justice.
  9. Many of these principles are preached on a regular basis from fundamentalist pulpits.
  10. Sadly, somehow, fundamentalist churches, husbands, boyfriends, and preachers, manage to brainwash women into thinking this system is from God and that it is in their best interest.
  11. All of this leaves us with a look at a subculture which is male-dominant, rigidly authoritarian, obedient to religious leaders, and fairly accepting of violence as a method of social/personal control.
Taking the above observations as fairly accurate, it is easy to construct a theoretical model of wife abuse at the hands of fundamentalist husbands. Imagine that a wife doesn't go along with a husband's decisions. Or, imagine that she stops believing in the male authority point of view. You can see how that might cause a quandary for a fundamentalist husband.

He's been told repeatedly that he is "in charge." He has been told that this position is given to him directly on the authority of God. Likely, the wife has agreed to be submissive if the marriage took place when they were both fundamentalist adherents. Also, he is probably getting regular "booster shots" of the authoritarian dribble at church and from coreligionists on a regular basis. Divorce is taboo, or close to it.

Might not such a husband become very agitated, frustrated, and angry? Might he also not view his anger as a type of righteous indignation? In such a case, is it not possible that something just "snaps" and he lashes out at his wife? Perhaps physically, but if not, certainly with all kinds of psychological pressure and abuse?

This may be a phenomenon very difficult to document empirically because it depends on self-report regarding both behaviors and religious beliefs. I think it likely that many men (and women) would be rather guarded and reticent to "come clean" about it all. However, I do know from my history among the fundamentalists that such scenarios have been played out in tragic scenes of pathological religious devotion.

To read the story of my abandonment of fundamentalism and why I find it intellectually and morally bankrupt, visit my book web site: and read a sample chapter of my book.

1 comment:

  1. I think you must have been to our house. My parents played out that very dilemma, complicated by the fact that both were abusive parents locked together by the common need to protect each others' secrets--and their own. In starting my own blog on moving beyond fundamentalism, I have found myself revisiting my own reasons for leaving the Adventist church. Central among them is the culture of repression and abuse. It's far more pervasive than any doctrine, and far more damaging, as far as I'm concerned.

    Our family was riddled with abuse, but even so, I used to sit in church and watch the small children of families even more abusive than ours--and they were, more often than not, the most religiously conservative of us all.

    I've made a decision to write my own experience not to "out" my family, but to possibly provide a warning to those who consider themselves good, loving parents--and who hurt those they love terribly by adhering to a set of practices that are designed to reinforce the power structure and the status quo, rather than foster thought, exploration, and growth.