Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (10): physical and sexual abuse

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing notes from Leaving the Fold by Marlene Winell, with added comments and discussion. Other posts in the series are archived here.

I see an awful lot of suppressed anger in fundamentalists — which is expressed politically. It’s also expressed toward children, who are treated in ferocious ways “You will behave. You will do these kinds of behaviors . . . . You’ll be punished . . . I think that anger is submerged and appears in family behaviors that are really destructive. And the kids suffer the most, I think, from that twisting and guilt tripping — an awful lot of fear. Instead of getting security, you get guilt and fear laid on you. (pp.125-6)

The above extract with which Marlene opens this section is the testimony of a child brought up in a god-fearing fundamentalist home. Marlene does not say that religious beliefs cause this sort of treatment of children but they do help cement the relationships of control that make it possible and often likely.

Child rearing

The fundamentalist views much of child rearing in terms of questions of control and appropriate punishments. And since the fundamentalist worldview fosters personal insecurity and interpersonal suspicions (discussed in previous posts), parents are rarely well equipped to be the most effective of parents to begin with. It is easy to imagine how leaders in any other institution or position of power who evidence such character flaws will cause so much grief, best intentions notwithstanding.

The idea of nurturing may be there, but it is subsumed under the idea of control and enforcing obedience. The risk of abuse can never be far removed when this is the approach. It is all said to be done in love, of course. But no amount of love can undo the damage done by ignorance and false assumptions. Especially when love is for principle and deity above any earthly relationship.

Principles are considered more important than persons. Soon people, especially children, are dishonoured and hurt. (p.126)

The assumption that children are sinful and that they need to have their self-will broken or subdued to make them more malleable as children of God is central to the fundamentalist Christian view. The thoughts of “love” that get meshed with the idea of inflicting pain on children to make them “good” and crush their self-will need thorough examination and clarification. Especially when a parent tells a child he is inflicting pain because he “loves” her. I tried that, but wish as I might, my child never turned a smiling loving face of appreciation to me no matter how hard I tried to help him understand that my punishment of him was done in love for him.

We know the scriptures. Proverbs 13:24 and 20:30

Many parents are no doubt cautious in how they apply these passages but not all. There is often precious little comprehension of the developmental stages and needs of the child that different behaviours reflect. That knowledge will not be found in the Bible and is therefore suspect. Ignorance and abuse is inevitable when so many refuse, or even fear to embrace, what current research has learned about children and ourselves.

The contradictions are manifold. Even the Bible says that perfect love casts out fear, yet at the same time implies that love can be taught by or through instilling fear. God is said to be love personified, yet the same Love is responsible for past and current genocide and promises to destroy or torment masses of humanity in the future.

Winell refers to the historian Philip Greven’s book, Spare the Child. Following is an excerpt from a New York Times review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt.

It is easy enough to accept the case against the physical abuse of children made by Philip Greven in his impassioned new book, “Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse,” which the author says is a sequel to his book “The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience and the Self in Early America” (1977). . . . liberal thinkers from John Locke to Benjamin Spock have recommended that once in a very great while it is acceptable to resort to corporal punishment with children. And America as a society has always deeply believed in the folk wisdom that to spare the rod is to spoil the child.

Yet it is precisely the character of American society that Mr. Greven, a professor of history at Rutgers University, uses to lend weight to his case against the physical punishment of children. After all, he argues, America is an unusually angry, violent, crime-ridden society. The roots of that anger, he writes, lie in the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage, which is so pervasive that the “values and viewpoints shaped by centuries of tradition and practice imprint even areas that we believe to be most remote from religious convictions and traditions.”

Mr. Greven argues that the tradition of punishment in this country is connected to the “apocalyptic impulse in American Protestantism” and, moreover, that “corporal punishments” constitute “the linchpin of the abuse and violence that have always shaped the desire for the world’s end and for the salvation of the few at the expense of the many” in that tradition.

The same review says Greven attempts to prove his argument by examining case after case of experiences and writings about childhood punishment . . .

. . . of such prominent firsthand witnesses to childhood punishment as Cotton Mather, Michael Wigglesworth, Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Aimee Semple McPherson, Benjamin Spock, Billy Graham and Oral Roberts, among many others of strong Protestant conviction.

The list continues today with the prominence of the writings of Roy Lessin and James Dobson: “Spanking is God’s idea”; “pain is a marvellous purifier”.

The rationales for inflicting physical punishment, Greven demonstrates,

boil down to the belief that it is necessary for parents to break the will of their children to gain their respect and obedience. As one 17th-century American minister put it, “Surely there is in all children, though not alike, a stubbornness, and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place, be broken and beaten down; that so the foundation of their education being laid in humility and tractableness, other virtues may, in their time, be built thereon.

But this is nonsense, Mr. Greven writes. Far from making children tractable, physical assault can breed only rage and hostility, which when repressed, as they surely must be, may lead to every sort of unhappy outcome. In the longest section of his book, the author cites among the nearly certain consequences of physical punishment such psychological conditions as anxiety, fear, apathy, melancholy, depression, obsessiveness, paranoia, sadomasochism, aggression, authoritarianism and finally what he calls “the apocalyptic impulse,” or the unconscious wish to see the world come to an end that is characteristic of extreme forms of Protestant fundamentalism.

In another review by N. Ray Hiner in the History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1. (Spring, 1992), pp. 144-146:

Greven argues persuasively that physical punishment of children contributes directly to an astonishing range of ills afflicting persons in our society today, including lack of empathy when faced with the suffering of others, depression, obsessional character disorders, dissociative states, paranoia, sadomasochism, domestic violence, delinquency, and authoritarian behaviors. The widespread use of physical punishment has created a culture of violence that is perpetuated in an endless cycle from generation to generation.

A close friend used to boast over and over how wonderful his father was. So I asked him if his father ever beat him, and yes, the answer was “all the time”. Savagely. He was a fundamentalist in belief system by this time and his boasting of his father’s goodness was part of his coping through fantasy and denial. He later married and had a child of his own. He beat it to the point of irreversible brain damage. Later still he suicided.

Physical punishment of children is a cross-cultural fact. Hiner rightly comments that biblical interpretations may well be a rationalization of this behaviour. They may even add a sharper edge to it. Even if fundamentalism is not the cause, it is bad enough that it would hide abuse of children behind the white cloak of its teachings.

Another Greven article not referenced by Winell is Aggression and Delinquency which is also worth skimming.

We know of the cases where parents will rather even see their children die for the sake of their principles and faith (e.g. faith in God to heal, faith in “natural medicines”, faith that the statistics re blood transfusions are wrong and faith that having simple inoculations is more dangerous than avoiding them.)

Battered wives

Winell also cites a lengthy letter from a former fundamentalist who relates a scene no doubt too familiar to many: a father (or either parent really) who fearfully quizzes their child to ensure they are of the correct opinion in matters to do with biblical doctrines and standards of morality. The questioning usually turns into monologues, sometimes for several hours if the child appears not to quite “get it”. Genuine disagreement or questions from the child or teenager are not truly respected but taken as cues for further parental correction. Family Bible studies can be occasions for children to learn to sleep with their eyes open. In the particular case Winell cited the teenager was eventually beaten for refusing to accept some fundamental truth. And beaten even more severely, accusing her of being a whore, when her parents saw her kiss a boy on returning from a date.

The fundamentalist biblical view of women does not make it easy for them to cope constructively when they face domestic violence. Ill equipped pastor-counsellors may make them feel obliged to continue in a destructive relationship “as long as they can”. Vicky Whipple in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy (1987) lists five factors that that add to the difficulties of women in this situation:

  1. a strong “we versus them” mentality, which encourages members to seek help only from the church;
  2. a reliance on faith, which leads to a passive approach toward life;
  3. an insistence on forgiveness, which tends to countenance aggressive behavior among family members;
  4. the dominance of males over females;
  5. strong prohibitions against divorce or remarriage.

(From Counseling Battered Women from Fundamentalist Churches)

Sexual abuse

I live in a regional city that is renowned for its religious conservatism. It is also renowned for having among the highest national statistics for violence and sexual abuse within families. Similar statistics are not unknown among other areas known for their fundamentalist allegiances.

Given the strongest taboos on sexual relations outside marriage and the extremely high degree of concern fundamentalist Christians have for their good social reputations, when sexual frustrations and repressions do develop, there is a risk of sexualising a relationship with one’s children. Better that than risk the public “appearance” of sin.

The religious system can easily support the structures and attitudes that lead to sexual abuse. The father is to be revered and obeyed. The wife is to be submissive and not interfere. The child is to be obedient and compliant. The trusting and cooperative child can easily be confused over time and blame herself for the pain she feels and what has happened.

A child can grow up feeling shame and guilt although her family is a regular church going one, with the father regularly leading bible studies. The feelings of unworthiness can continue well into adulthood. All religion will often offer is opportunities to pray and repent more, to be tearfully “saved” time and time again at public functions. Seeking help will bring the same answers she knows she will hear anyway: pray more; have more faith. Guilt and self-loathing will always remain however. Suicidal tendencies can add to more guilt and self-doubt: How can a believing faithful person want to commit suicide?

The woman at the centre of the case history Marlene writes about eventually found healing when she turned to a therapist who specialized in incest cases, not in biblical studies! That healing involved release from the church that held her in her torment for so long.

A bit of light relief to conclude: Hitchens quips in God is Not Great that the No Child Left Behind slogan in the age of clerical child rape might be phrased in its Latin form as No Child Behind Left.

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Neil Godfrey

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