God, School, and Abuse

Try it. Ask someone what the government should do to restrict parents’ rights to send their kids to religious schools. Nine times out of ten, you’ll get the same answer: Nuthin. But if you ask if the government has a duty to protect kids from horrific abuse, most people will say yes. And as this week’s news headlines confirm, that contrast leads to our endless confusion about the proper relationship between religious schools, parents, kids, and government.

turpins homeschool abusers

Whatever your religion, you don’t have a right to abuse your kids and call it “homeschooling.”

Exhibit A: The parents in the terrible Turpin case have been sentenced to life imprisonment. You may remember this horror-show case from last year. A family with a dozen kids was caught subjecting the kids to abuse—including starvation, sexual abuse, and neglect—under the guise of “homeschooling.”

Exhibit B: A New York judge has ruled that conservative religious schools do not have to comply with government orders. In this case, the city and state governments have been trying for a while to supervise the curriculum at some private Jewish schools. The accusation was that the religious schools had been teaching students only in Yiddish and Hebrew, neglecting their studies in English and science, and neglecting the education of girls as a whole.

Exhibit C: New York has also threatened to take away religious exemptions for measles vaccines. Lots of Orthodox Jewish families have abstained. Traditionally, they were given lots of wiggle room for religious claims. No longer.

Measles NYC orthodox

…but do parents have a right to teach only in Yiddish? …or to skip vaccines?

What does all of this tell us about the proper relationship between government, family, and private schools? Just this: The dividing line is not really about religion. Rather, it is about abuse. Parents and religious communities generally have lots of leeway when it comes to their kids’ educations.

If and when a kid is being abused, however, or hurt physically, the government tends to feel justified in stepping in. This is true when the harm is done only to the religious kids themselves—as in the case of the Turpins or the Jewish-school students—or to the wider public—as with the unvaccinated students.

The problem, of course, is that “abuse” is often in the eye of the beholder. What the Turpins did to their children was an obvious case. But, as Lawrence Krauss has accused, are ALL young-earth creationists guilty of abusing their kids by teaching them zombie science? Or, remembering the case of NFL legend Adrian Peterson, what about parents and schools who use corporal punishment?

No one knows. We don’t have a clear and universal definition of “abuse” that we can apply in every situation. For secular people like me, the idea of neglecting topics such as English and science seems abusive. It seems to harm the life chances of students. For people like me, too, it seems abusive to teach kids–for religious reasons–that only heterosexuality can be practiced morally.

But there’s the rub. I know that plenty of parents disagree. They want their kids to learn young-earth creationism because they love their kids. They want their kids to learn the (alleged) dangers of LGBTQ sexuality because they love their kids. Can that be abuse?

No one knows.

In the end, the reason it is so hard to build a convincing wall of separation between church, state, and school is not because of Jesus or Jehovah or Jefferson. Rather, it is because no one has a simple, universal definition of “abuse.”

Did Fundamentalism Make Her Do It?

Okay, enough already about Rachel Dolezal and her weird tale of cross-racial activism. But before we let it go, let’s consider one new angle: Did Dolezal’s strange behavior result in part from her upbringing in an abusive fundamentalist homeschooling family?

A fundamental flaw?

A fundamental flaw?

That’s the charge leveled by the folks at Homeschoolers Anonymous. Worried that their coverage seemed to be excusing Rachel Dolezal’s behavior, they have since retracted their argument. (You can still read their original article here.) But it seems to me they raised an important question.

For those of us outside the world of fundamentalist homeschooling, Rachel Dolezal’s life history seems simply bizarre. Why did she list “Jesus Christ” as a witness to her birth? Why did she claim to have been beaten with a “baboon whip” as a child? Most important, why would someone go to such extreme and unnecessary lengths to alter her appearance and life history?

I do not want to excuse anyone’s actions, but I think Homeschoolers Anonymous has a right to point out Dolezal’s extreme evangelical upbringing. It doesn’t prove anything, but it adds background information.

The family was active in young-earth creationism. They apparently subscribed to the abusive philosophy advocated by Michael and Debi Pearl. Last year, Rachel Dolezal’s brother published a shocking memoir of their childhood. As HA summarized,

In his memoir, Joshua recounts growing up in the Dolezal’s conservative, Pentecostal home and church. He recounts a raging father, a mother with extreme suspicions of medicine and doctors, home-birthing with birth certificates listing Jesus as witness to the births, and much more.

Now, we need to add some of the usual caveats:

1.) Behavior that seems odd to secular folks like me does not equal child abuse.

2.) Many conservatives use corporal punishment in a loving, caring way.

3.) It does not excuse Rachel Dolezal’s apparent lies to point out her parents’ extreme beliefs.

4.) Homeschoolers Anonymous certainly has an axe to grind with this expose.

Even taking all those factors into consideration, however, knowing a little bit about Rachel Dolezal’s childhood helps me understand how someone might be driven to immoral extremes in order to separate herself from her past.

Nuf sed.

Traditional Education Is Not Illegal…or Is It?

Nobody thinks men should punch their wives and drag them through hotels. But plenty of traditional educators and parents DO think that corporal punishment is not only proper, but necessary.  The recent controversies in the National Football League seem to show that corporal punishment is now both illegal and morally abhorrent.  Does this mean that traditional education is done for?

In case you don’t follow sports news, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens has recently come under fire for brutally punching his then-fiancee and dragging her face-down through a hotel.  [Warning: This video is disturbing.]  The leadership of the National Football League, too, has been accused of initially downplaying this horrific incident.

Perhaps due to all this attention, another NFL star has been punished severely for physically abusing his son. In this case, Adrian Peterson has been accused of beating his four-year-old son with a switch.  His team immediately deactivated him and now a warrant has been issued for Peterson’s arrest.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not a supporter of corporal punishment in any form. I would not allow my daughter’s school to use physical punishment on her and I do not think schools should use such punishment on any kids.

But I understand that lots of people do support corporal punishment. It has long been a fundamental tenet of traditional education that children must be disciplined, physically if necessary.  In the arguments of traditionalists, this is in the children’s best interest.

For example, arch-conservative school leader Max Rafferty argued in 1964 that American education relied on sensible corporal punishment.  As Rafferty put it,

Prior to 1930 school discipline was built around corporal punishment. It always had been.  Education had walked and in hand with the hickory stick apparently since time began, and virtually every teacher who ever lived took this state of affairs for granted.

In Peterson’s case, the grand jury did not disagree that corporal punishment was legal. Rather, according to the New York Times, the grand jury concluded that Peterson’s punishment was “not reasonable and did not reflect community standards of what was reasonable discipline.” It seems Peterson hit his son severely enough to leave cuts and bruises.

Again, I fully support the criminalization and condemnation of this kind of severe beating of a young child. But sometimes publicity can have a strange effect.  In this case, Peterson was accused of beating his son TOO SEVERELY, not of beating his son in general.  The grand jury specified that Peterson’s application of corporal punishment violated community norms, not that Peterson’s use of corporal punishment was itself illegal.

Nevertheless, I wonder if the take-away for many Americans will be that all forms of corporal punishment have been rendered illegal. So here’s my question: Will traditionalist parents and teachers now assume that corporal punishment in toto is illegal?  Immoral?

Child Abuse or Church Camp?

The way we ask the question says a lot.

We could ask it this way: Is it abusive to encourage children to have certain religious experiences?

Or we could put it like this: Should children and toddlers be coerced and terrified?

Either way, these questions are prompted by a new church-camp video that is making the rounds these days.  In the video, we see young children experiencing some of the typical manifestations of charismatic Christian worship.  They jerk their limbs, fall to the ground, engage in babbling speech, cry and shout.

Adults surround the children, clearly encouraging them to behave the right way.  Some children seem to participate enthusiastically.  Others seem confused, intimidated, or tearful.

There’s not much new here.  These sorts of behaviors have been manifestations of charismatic worship for a long time.  For just as long, they have been criticized by critics.  In the first Great Awakening of the 1740s, Boston minister Charles Chauncy famously attacked the revivalists for their embrace of “enthusiasm.”  Their emotional services prompted false conversions, Chauncy believed.  Attendees at big revival meetings found themselves caught up in the moment, jerking their bodies, crying out, falling down, but not becoming truly Christian.

More recent critics focus on the way young children are bullied into a traumatic emotional experience.  Atheist pundit Jerry Coyne, for instance, puts it this way:

It’s brainwashing, pure and simple. The kids have no choice. Is there anyone who wouldn’t call this abuse?

These behaviors seem bizarre to me as well.  But I don’t call it abuse.  The adults in this video, to my mind, don’t appear to be victimizing children, but rather trying to share an authentically held belief with them.  That’s a big difference.

I know this is a difficult topic to discuss.  I also know that I have absolutely no personal experience with this sort of thing.  And I sympathize deeply with those who found themselves traumatized by this sort of intense religious upbringing.

But if we call it “abuse” we are doing more than simply insulting these adult believers.  If we call it “abuse” we open the door to government intervention in these religious ceremonies, and others.

Perhaps some other examples will help make the case.  It is sadly not uncommon for religious people to insist on alternative medical care for children.  Instead of chemotherapy, for example, some believers may lay hands on a child who is suffering from cancer.  This is abusive.  The child is being substantially harmed by being denied effective treatment.

It is also sadly not uncommon for religious organizations—and, to be fair, non-religious organizations—to cover up sex abuse of minors in the name of religious solidarity.  Here, too, the government must intervene.  This is abuse.

Again, my heartiest sympathies go out to those who are struggling to overcome religious upbringings they found coercive.  Writers such as Samantha Field and Jonny Scaramanga have educated me a great deal about the ways religious beliefs can cause emotional harm and long-term trauma.

I’m not dismissing that.  But the church-camp activities here seem to be something different than “abuse.”  Am I wrong?

 

How to Hit your Child

What do you do when your kids misbehave?  Do you hit them?  Or is that a form of abuse?  It seems as if our culture is confused about this question.  Throughout the twentieth century, as I argue in my upcoming book, conservatives argued that parents and teachers MUST beat children in traditional ways.  Anything else threatened civilization itself.  Has that attitude changed?

Is this "abuse?" Or is this "parenting?"

Is this “abuse?” Or is this “parenting?”

In American culture, a certain form of physical correction of children by parents has long been the norm.  Especially “spanking.”  In this kind of punishment, the child is swacked on the butt by the parent, either with a hand, a spoon, a brush, a belt, or some other mild weapon.

As a survey article in National Review Online describes, states now differ in their laws about spanking.  In New York, for instance, a judge recently ruled in favor of parents’ right to spank, as long as it is done mildly, with only an open hand.  In the New York case, the parent insisted he had not used a belt on his child.  That would have crossed the line, he felt.  In other states as well, courts have struggled to draw clear boundaries between acceptable spanking and unacceptable child abuse.

Until 2012, according to the NRO article, all 50 states recognized parents’ right to spank their own children.  In that year, Delaware passed a law forbidding any form of physical punishment.  At the first and second degrees, parents in Delaware can be charged with a felony for causing harm to their children.

As you might expect, a certain sort of conservative finds this sort of law outrageous.  Not only should the rights of parents over their children be sacrosanct, some conservative activists have argued, but spanking is a healthy and humane form of punishment.  The Home School Legal Defense Association, for example, called Delaware’s new law “a violation of the right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children, including the long-recognized right to administer reasonable corporal discipline.”

It’s not a new issue.  As I found during my research for my upcoming book, educational conservatives have long insisted on the right and duty of both parents and teachers to use physical punishment on unruly youth.  For some conservatives, this sort of corporal punishment is the only way to properly shape character.  As the old saying goes, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

In 1950 Pasadena, for instance, local activists bubbled over with their outrage at progressive novelties in their local public schools.  One parent insisted that teachers must use “whipping . . . when the situation calls for such punishment.”  The problem, many conservatives in Pasadena thought at the time, was not that teachers might abuse students.  Rather, the danger came from a generation of children left uncorrected and unbowed to authority.  Such unguided youth, one letter-writer complained, were in danger of total “moral disintegration.”  And the obvious reason for that disintegration, according to this anonymous writer, was the “fatal lack of the right kind of instruction in our schools.”

A few years later, conservative stalwart Max Rafferty agreed on the importance of corporal punishment.  In his 1964 book What Are They Doing to Your Children, Rafferty warned of the dangers of progressive methods.  New teachers, Rafferty explained, came

Fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, [they] compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself.

Instead, Rafferty believed, the traditional methods remained the best.  Each teacher should learn when and how to correct a student using physical punishment.  In the old days, Rafferty wrote, such things were beyond argument.  In times past, Rafferty described, some parents might

Storm into the schoolyard and whip the teacher for abusing little Willie, but by far the more typical parental reaction to the tearful complaint ‘Teacher licked me!’ was to reach for the razor strop and give a home version of teacher’s treatment out in the woodshed.

Rafferty and the Pasadena conservatives knew that such physical punishment was controversial in their own times.  Each conservative writer appealed to a past in which teachers and parents had an unfettered right and duty to use appropriate methods to raise children right.  In 1950 and 1964, conservatives saw themselves as stalwarts of traditional methods.  Those methods had already come under attack by dunderheaded progressives.

So there is nothing new to controversy over corporal punishment.  Yet clearly, as the NRO review shows, things are changing.  Could we be on the cusp of a new age for corporal punishment?  Will more states follow Delaware in outlawing all forms of physical punishment?

 

Is This Child Abuse?

Arch-creationist Ken Ham wants to train up a spiritual army of young Christian creationists.  Does that count as child abuse?

I’m no creationist, but I just don’t think so.

Ham trumpeted the training of a new generation of young “soldiers” at an Answers In Genesis conference at Atlantic Shores Baptist Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  By teaching young people the truths of young-earth creationism, Ham claimed he was “preparing them for the spiritual war going on around us.”

Image Source: Answers in Genesis

Image Source: Answers in Genesis

This language of child soldiers makes me nervous.  Plus, I don’t like the notion that young people are being turned away from real evolutionary science by this sort of religion posing as science.  To me, this seems like another painful example of the ways faith has been tangled unnecessarily with real evolutionary science, resulting in bad science and tortured theology.

But it is child abuse?

Leading skeptics have called it that, folks such as physicist Lawrence Krauss and biologist Richard Dawkins.  They assert that cramming this false science down young people’s throats counts as abuse.

Let’s look at both sides of this argument.

Why might someone call this child abuse?

1.)    These young people are being told things are true, when they really aren’t.  They are being taught, to cite just one example, that dinosaurs and humans coexisted a few thousand years ago.  Worst of all, relationships of close trust between parents, teachers, and children are being exploited to promote the veracity of this false science.  Loving mothers, loving fathers, caring teachers tell innocent young people that this is scientific truth.  Ingenuous young people take their word for it.  Such deception is abusive.

2.)    In this essay, Ken Ham explicitly calls them soldiers—spiritual soldiers, but soldiers nonetheless.  This seems a terrible violation.  Young people should not be exploited as culture-war cannon fodder.

Why might defenders disagree?

1.)    There is no threat or coercion here.  Though it may come as a surprise to outsiders like me, Answers In Genesis makes it very clear that believing in a young earth and recent special creation are not required for Christian salvation.  In other words, Ken Ham and his colleagues do not threaten young people with terrifying visions of hellfire if the children don’t embrace creationism.

2.)    The parents and teachers seen here are apparently sincere in their belief that creationism is true.  They are trying to pass that truth to their children and pupils.  There’s nothing abusive in passing along the best knowledge to the next generation.

3.)    Though science pundits such as Bill Nye have argued against it, believing the young-earth creationism of Answers In Genesis will not hurt the life chances of these young people.  According to Gallup polls, nearly half of American adults share a belief that humanity has only been around for a few thousand years.  And as I’ve argued elsewhere, careers in science-related fields do not seem thwarted by a belief in young-earth creationism.  Consider the case of US Representative Paul C. Broun Jr. of Georgia.  Broun is a fervent creationist, a medical doctor, and a member of Congress.  Not a bad career!

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Is it child abuse?  No.  And calling it that is irresponsible.  After all, there is real child abuse out there.  It is horrific and terrifyingly common.  Calling this sort of science/religion education ‘child abuse’ is only an ill-considered scare tactic.

Perhaps this argument could use some illustration from another religious tradition.  Consider the recent career of child abuse in the Catholic Church.  As we all know only too well, the despicable actions of some priests and prelates in that church have caused untold suffering.

But the abuse perpetrated by members of the Catholic Church does not extend to its anti-scientific teachings.  After all, the Catholic Church teaches young people that certain wafers and wine can magically transform into flesh and blood.  And then young people are taught to eat that flesh and drink that blood.  For outsiders like me, teaching children to engage in this sort of ritual cannibalism is creepy and anti-scientific.  It is also demonstrably false: the wafers and wine are always really just wafers and wine.  Nevertheless, it is not child abuse for Catholics to teach their children this mystery of transubstantiation.  Calling such teaching ‘child abuse’ would disrespect the real suffering that real child abuse has caused within the Catholic Church.

A similar logic may apply in this case.  The young-earth creationism peddled by Answers In Genesis is not true.  But it is sincerely believed by its adherents.  Teaching those ideas to young people is not child abuse.

Unfortunately, we can picture what real abuse might look like in similar cases.  As Billy Graham’s grandson has pointed out recently, evangelical Protestant organizations have also engaged in real child abuse.  They have conspired, just as did the Catholic hierarchy, to cover up that terrible real abuse.  We could imagine a scenario in which a Protestant organization such as Answers In Genesis called together thousands of children and abused some of them.

But that is not the case here.  This was an educational gathering.  To call it ‘child abuse’ makes a mockery of the all-too-real threat of abuse.