Thursday, February 12, 2009

Christian Fundamentalism: When Spanking Becomes Abuse

In his article, Conservative Protestantism and the Corporal Punishment of Children, in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (JSSR), Ellison (2001) takes up the issue of Conservative Protestants and spanking. One point that he reiterates almost ad nauseam is that such conservative religious adherents are far more likely than the general public to support corporal punishment of children. A second theme repeatedly revisited is that it is not necessarily reasonable to call such behavior abusive. I must state from the start that this is not a dispassionate topic with me. I am an education professor and also a seminary graduate, a trained chaplain, and a minister. Further, my background traces its path though the Jesus Movement, which attracted many “refugees” from the “hippie days” of the late 60’s and early 70’s.


As a Jesus Freak, I was firmly fixed in the fundamentalist milieu from which the Jesus Movement grew. When I married my Jesus Freak sweetheart in the mid 70’s, we began working on a family. When children came, we followed the teachings of the fundamentalist Christian “gurus” and were quite strict with our children. I saw much of the same in our church associations—all young adults with kids, all towing the line in regards to child discipline. I have no doubt that what I saw and was rapidly accepting bordered on abuse—which was one of the reasons I repudiated fundamentalism when my sons were quite small.


My concern, simply put, is with children whose parents might be considering placing them in daycare at a fundamentalist church or school, or folks who read the books of conservative Christian “pro-family psychologists” offering advice on childrearing. I hope to show that fundamentalism naturally places children at danger and naturally tends to abusiveness. In due course, I shall take up the issue of whether “spanking” encouraged by fundamentalist Christian leaders amounts or leads to abuse and whether, therefore, it is wise for a parent to turn to such teachers for instruction in childrearing or entrust the care of their children to fundamentalist childcare and educational institutions.


First, however, it might be instructive to consider precisely why parents under the spell of fundamentalist tutors might adopt a program of corporal punishment. There are four predominant reasons indicated in the literature. First, there is the issue of biblical inerrancy. Fundamentalists believe and teach that the Bible is completely without error on any topic upon which it speaks. It is the “court of no appeals.” Second, fundamentalist writers, teachers, and preachers are well armed with many biblical proof texts demonstrating that “sparing the rod” is not the best approach. Thirdly, fundamentalists expound an extreme authoritarian, male dominated, and hierarchical view of family life. Lastly, the fundamentalist view of humanity is such that humans are viewed as sinful and hell-bound by nature. This rebellion must be addressed. The best way to save one’s child from hell is by “beating the hell out of him or her.”


In Grevens’ Spare the Rod: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse (1991) the notion of using physical abuse to “break the child’s will” is explored. It is the parental responsibility to break the will so that the child will conform to the parent’s wishes, thereby learning obedience to God. How much force must be applied? Most fundamentalist commentators state that the parent must remain fairly emotionless and turn a deft ear to the protests of the child. The child must be struck repeatedly until s/he begins crying profusely, for that is the sign of a broken will—the objective of striking the child in the first place.


Grevens demonstrates through much anecdotal evidence that the whole notion is fraught with difficulties. Although there are several guidelines concerning the need to strike the child with an object and not the hand and to have a “cooling down period” before administering the punishment and, most importantly, to express in some physical way how much the child is loved after s/he has been beaten, it tends to backfire. Citing examples of well-known Christians reflecting on their childhood, a picture emerges of children waiting during the “cooling off” period, making deals with God, and pleading with God that they would not be beaten again. As for the love part, Ruth Wilkerson Harris (sister of evangelist David Wilkerson) in her book, It was Good Enough for the Father: The Story of the Wilkerson Family (1969), recounts how the Wilkerson childern, had to face the “humbling” of embracing their father after a beating and saying, “I love you Daddy. Forgive me for disobeying.”


Capps, in Religion and Child Abuse: Perfect Together (JSSR, 1992), points out that this mixture of anger, pain, beating, and love is very confusing to children. They likely come to view the ritual as a pain filled affair necessary to gain the parent’s love. They must surely long for a love that might, someday, be unconditional, with no beatings attached. They plead for God to deliver them. God doesn’t. As much anecdotal evidence indicates, as adults, such children do not thank God that they had a parent willing to inflict physical punishment on them and many grow up with a very confused image of God. They have been taught that God is all-powerful, yet God did not rescue them when they pleaded with God for mercy.


An interesting view of all of this emerges from BIOLA University’s Rosemead School of Psychology. The study in question is reported in BIOLA’s Journal of Psychology and Theology. It is important to remember that we have not at this point answered the question of whether spanking is abusive in any substantive sense. The BIOLA article, Religiosity and the Risk of Perpetrating Child Physical Abuse: An Empirical Investigation (2005), authored by Dyslyn and Thomsen agrees that Conservative Protestants (the denominational listing in the article lists denominations usually considered evangelical/fundamentalist) are more likely to engage in corporal punishment. However, the authors do not see spanking as abusive. Their study, while finding Conservative Protestants to have the highest score on a test of likely abusive behavior, states that the differences between the Conservatives, Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and unaffiliated are not statistically significant.


One might argue that there is some practical significance in Conservatives obtaining the highest score, but that would be shaky ground. Methodologically, there are problems in that the test used is attitudinal and was given mainly to college students without children. Also, the college environment from which the sample was taken is not described, so it is hard to generalize. In addition, the study flies in the face of considerable anecdotal evidence. Most importantly, BIOLA stands for the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. One might suspect some researcher bias.


So, we come full circle. Everyone seems to agree that fundamentalists, or those leaning that direction, are more likely than most to resort to corporal punishment. Further, the lion’s share of child developmentalists see spanking as a harmful thing—associated with undesirable child, adolescent, and adult outcomes (Ellison, 2001). The question then is, When is the line crossed? Is all spanking abusive? When I was part of the fundamentalist world, what I knew about and saw were some pretty stout spankings administered to children as young as six months old. I saw lots of spankings with paddles. [Remember, you were encouraged to use a “neutral(?)” object. The hands were used to give love. The notion was that the child would not associate the object with the parent.]


In answering the question about spanking, and abuse, I turn now to a fascinating study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The study, reported on the Medpage Today website (Heavy Spanking Predicts Overt Child Abuse, 2008), revealed the following results:

1. Parents who spanked were 2.7 times more likely to engage in overt abusive behavior than non-spankers.

2. Parents that spanked with a belt or paddle or another object as opposed to their hands had triple the odds of becoming abusers (remember the “neutral” object theory?).

3. For each additional spanking per year, there was a 3% increase in the likelihood of yet stronger punishments being used in the home. (When I was in the fundamentalist church, it was not unusual for children to receive two or three spankings a day.)

4. The report stated, “This is the first study to demonstrate that parents who report spanking children with an object and who frequently spank children are much more likely to report harsh punishment acts consistent with physical abuse.


All of these conclusions seem to have implications for children placed in a fundamentalist Christian environment.


Associated Content, in a May 2007 posting, The Effects of the “No Spanking Law” on Child Abuse in Sweden, discusses a law passed in Sweden in the 1970’s that made spanking a civil offense. Before the law, the family violence child death rate in 1970 was 18%. In recent years it has been 0%. By 1981, only 26% of Swedish parents supported spanking. Now it is less than 11%. In 1996, there were 57 reported cases of child abuse per 100,000 people. At the same time in the US that figure stood at 4,500/100,000. Clearly, spanking and child abuse are connected. It also seems clear that in their propensity to support corporal punishment, fundamentalism and fundamentalist environments could likely put children at risk for abuse. It is something concerned parents would do well to bear in mind. They must ask: Is it a risk I am willing to take?

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