Huffpost Culture
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Frank Schaeffer Headshot

Religion and Child Abuse

Posted: Updated:

The convergence of two news stories should be a wakeup call to alert us to the fact that there is a brutal movement in America that legitimizes child abuse in the name of God. One story involves a judge whipping his daughter with a belt on a YouTube clip that has gone viral. The other involves books by Evangelical leaders on child rearing that advocate spanking, even beating.

But what many people don't seem to realize is that in the Evangelical alternative universe of the home school movement, tightly knit church communities and the cult following of a number of bigtime leaders and authors, physical punishment of children has been glorified for years.

As a story in the New York Times illustrates -- "Preaching Virtue of Spanking, Even as Deaths Fuel Debate" -- a famous Evangelical author and his co-author wife, Michael and Debi Pearl, are being tied to several deaths of children killed by parents alleged to be using the Pearls' "methods" advocated in their book To Train Up a Child.

And according to ABC News, a prominent Texas judge who was filmed beating his disabled daughter with a belt and cursing at her said he was merely disciplining his child and did nothing wrong. He may or may not have read the Pearls book but his "methods" and "I-was-just-disciplining" reaction to his outing as an abuser should make us all ask ourselves about just what some "experts" on child raising are not only telling people to do TO children but the routine abuse they have legitimized in far right "conservative" and Evangelical circles.

"No, in my mind I haven't done anything wrong other than discipline my child," Judge William Adams told KZTV Wednesday after the YouTube video went viral on the internet.

Hillary Adams, the daughter who is seen being beaten in the video, secretly recorded the beating and uploaded it to YouTube Oct. 27. "I just wanted somebody to see it and tell me, 'no, Hillary this wasn't right and I'm glad you were able to grow up and move on past this' and 'no, your Dad wasn't right,'" Hillary Adams said told ABC News' Chris Cuomo.

If Hillary wants someone to tell her what her father did wasn't right she will look in vain to the Evangelical Religious Right. It is some of the most respected Evangelical discipline gurus that have made beating children not just "respectable" in conservative religious circles but even turning it into an "I'm just disciplining my child" godly activity.

In 1977 James Dobson, founder of the "Focus on the Family" religious empire and radio program, wrote a book called Dare To Discipline whose purpose was to get parents to beat their children.

Beating was the way God "wants" mothers and fathers to "discipline" children from toddlerhood on.

Perhaps Dobson wrote his perverted, sadistic book because he was beaten as a child and was damaged as he then damaged millions of others through his "ministry" later.

In his book Dobson glorified a sadomasochistic/spiritual ritual of "discipline." He said he wanted to stop a "liberal" trend in America that was moving away from the godly thrashing of infants. He wanted to help "restore" America to God and the good old days of child hitting. This fit in well with God as Retributioner-in-Chief that evangelicals endorse.

Dobson isn't alone. Evangelical "family values" guru Bill Gothard, with a following of millions, also has tought "discipline." As reported by The Cincinnati Beacon, Matthew Murray, the young shooter who killed a bunch of churchgoers in 2007, had been raised according to the teachings of evangelist Bill Gothard.

"I remember the beatings and the fighting and yelling and insane rules and all the Bill Gothard rules and then trancing out," he wrote Dec. 1 under the monicker "nghtmrchld26" on a Web forum for former Pentecostal Christians.

Bill Gothard is the founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles in Illinois, which promotes a Christian home "education" program. As quoted in the Beacon article Murray said "I remember how it was like every day was Mission Impossible trying to keep the rules or not get caught and just . . . survive every single (expletive) day."

It was no coincidence that the judge was mercilessly beating a young girl. Women must submit to men according to Evangelicals. And nothing is worse than a "rebellious" woman!

Keeping women down is a Dobson theme along with child beating. So James Dobson also endorsed and helped the "Silver Ring" movement begin wherein fathers make their daughters pledge chastity to them in a ritual known as "purity balls" that mimic proms, only with dad as the "boyfriend" standing in for Jesus. And if the daughter won't submit, well, there's always that handy belt.

Dobson extols his view of child beating in The Strong Willed Child. (Living Books 1992) He makes a parallel between beating children and beating dogs:

[Our dog] Siggie is a member of our family and we love him dearly. And despite his anarchistic nature, I have finally taught him to obey a few simple commands. However, we had some classic battles before he reluctantly yielded to my authority. The greatest confrontation occurred a few years ago when I had been in Miami for a three-day conference. I returned to observe that Siggie had become boss of the house while I was gone. But I didn't realize until later that evening just how strongly he felt about his new position as Captain. At eleven o'clock that night, I told Siggie to go get into his bed, which is a permanent enclosure in the family room. For six years I had given him that order at the end of each day, and for six years Siggie had obeyed. On this occasion, however, he refused to budge. You see, he was in the bathroom, seated comfortably on the furry lid of the toilet seat. That is his favorite spot in the house, because it allows him to bask in the warmth of a nearby electric heater. . .

When I told Sigmund to leave his warm seat and go to bed, he flattened his ears and slowly turned his head toward me. He deliberately braced himself by placing one paw on the edge of the furry lid, then hunched his shoulders, raised his lips to reveal the molars on both sides, and uttered his most threatening growl. That was Siggie's way of saying. 'Get lost!'

I had seen this defiant mood before, and knew there was only one way to deal with it. The ONLY way to make Siggie obey is to threaten him with destruction. Nothing else works. I turned and went to my closet and got a small belt to help me 'reason' with Mr. Freud.

What developed next is impossible to describe. That tiny dog and I had the most vicious fight ever staged between man and beast. I fought him up one wall and down the other, with both of us scratching and clawing and growling and swinging the belt. I am embarrassed by the memory of the entire scene. Inch by inch I moved him toward the family room and his bed. As a final desperate maneuver, Siggie backed into the corner for one last snarling stand. I eventually got him to bed, only because I outweighed him 200 to 12!

But this is not a book about the discipline of dogs; there is an important moral to my story that is highly relevant to the world of children. JUST AS SURELY AS A DOG WILL OCCASIONALLY CHALLENGE THE AUTHORITY OF HIS LEADERS, SO WILL A LITTLE CHILD -- ONLY MORE SO." (Emphasis Dobson's)

[I]t is possible to create a fussy, demanding baby by rushing to pick him up every time he utters a whimper or sigh. Infants are fully capable of learning to manipulate their parents through a process called reinforcement, whereby any behavior that produces a pleasant result will tend to recur. Thus, a healthy baby can keep his mother hopping around his nursery twelve hours a day (or night) by simply forcing air past his sandpaper larynx.

Perhaps this tendency toward self-will is the essence of 'original sin' which has infiltrated the human family. It certainly explains why I place such stress on the proper response to willful defiance during childhood, for that rebellion can plant the seeds of personal disaster." (p 87)

In cheerfully telling about beating Siggie -- a story that should have put Dobson in prison for animal cruelty -- Dobson is telling his readers to similarly beat their children -- something he's advocated as "spanking" until a child collapses in tears into a parent's arms.

And Dobson is mild compared to the popular Evangelical authors Michel and Debi Pearl. In their book To Train Up a Child (1994) they advocate beating babies.

In the book they recommend "switching" a 7-month-old on the bare bottom or leg 7 to 8 times for getting angry. (p74) If the baby is still angry to do it again until he gives in to the pain. The "switch" for an under 1 year old they recommend is from a willow tree and/or a 12 inch RULER!

And the real scandal is not just the sick author's ideas but that the leadership of the evangelical world from Billy Graham to the editors of Christianity Today magazine or the mega church pastors like Rick Warren, have not called for the banishment of abusers like the Pearls, Dobson or Gothard. These people remain in good standing.

And in the Pearl's case this is after actual criminal complaints have been brought against some parents who have killed their children and who have been following the "methods" in the To Train Up a Child book. And this disgusting book can nevertheless be found in thousands of "respectable" Evangelical bookstores. Here's what the evangelicals approve by their silence and complicity, as noted in the Examiner and many other media sources:

A California couple has been charged with murder and torture after their discipline methods caused the death of one of their children and critical injuries for another.

Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz of Paradise, California, are accused of murdering their 7-year-old adopted daughter during a "discipline session." The couple is also charged with the torture of their 11-year-old adopted daughter and cruelty to a child for signs of bruising discovered on their 10-year-old biological son.

The parents allegedly used a 15 inch length of plastic tubing used for plumbing to beat the children, a practice recommended in the book "To Train Up a Child" by Michael and Debi Pearl of "No Greater Joy Ministries."

The same plumbing supply tools were linked to a North Carolina child's death in 2006, when a devotee of the Pearls accidentally killed her 4-year-old son by suffocating him in tightly wrapped blankets.

Police later found out about the Pearls' recommendations to beat children with this type of plumbing supply tubing from a Salon Magazine article, "Spare the quarter-inch plumbing supply line, spoil the child."

Mr. Pearl, who has no degree or training in child development, writes in his book that he and his wife used "the same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules" -- namely, "switches."

On their web site, the Pearls write that "switching" or giving "licks" with a plumbing supply line is a "real attention getter."

And it is not just individuals who are abused. Whole "Christian" organizations are alleged to be abusing children methodically. According to a report by Channel 13 WTHR Indianapolis (and many other media sources over the years),:

At first glance, the Bill Gothard-founded and run Indianapolis Training Center looks like an ordinary conference hotel. But some say there are dark secrets inside. "They're not here to play," Mark Cavanaugh, an ITC staffer tells a mother on hidden-camera video. 'They're here because they've been disobedient, they've been disrespectful.'


He's talking about young offenders who are sent to the center by the Marion County Juvenile Court. Critics of the program here, however, have another view. "This is sort of a shadow world where these kids almost disappear," said John Krull, executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. On the Gothard web site the pitch for the centers says that they were founded by Gothard because:

At the age of 15, Bill Gothard noticed some of his high school classmates making unwise decisions. Realizing that they would have to live with the consequences of these decisions, he was motivated to dedicate his life to helping young people make wise choices.

The WTHR report goes on to detail how they help these young people make "wise choices":

But Eyewitness News has learned of disturbing allegations about the center, including routine corporal punishment - sometimes without parental consent - and solitary confinement that can last for months. And just last week, Child Protective Services began investigating the center. That investigation involves Teresa Landis, whose 10-year-old daughter spent nearly a year at the center - sent there, according to Judge Payne, after she attacked a teacher and a school bus driver. What happened next outrages her family and critics of the ITC. The girl allegedly was confined in a so-called "quiet room" for five days at a time; restrained by teenage "leaders" who would sit on her; and hit with a wooden paddle 14 times. At least once, the family contends, she was prevented from going to the bathroom and then forced to sit in her own urine.

Dobson, the Pearls and Gothard all have big followings in Rick Perry's hang-em'-high "Christian" Texas where the daughter-beating judge presides over court when not beating a child. And Texas is where Evangelical leader Gary North is based as he writes and preaches his Reconstructionist/Dominionist theology about applying literal Old Testament law -- including the execution of "incorrigible youths" as mandated by the Bible. (This is something I describe fully in my book Sex, Mom and God.) So even Dobson is "mild" by comparison to the Reconstructionists that did so much to influence the far right "Christian" politics of the likes of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry.

Here is how Evangelical "man of God" Dobson describes how to beat a child using his own experience as a guide.

He writes:

"The day I learned the importance of staying out of reach shines like a neon light in my mind. I made the costly mistake of sassing her when I was about four feet away. I knew I had crossed the line and wondered what she would do about it. It didn't take long to find out. Mom wheeled around to grab something with which to express her displeasure, and her hand landed on a girdle.

Those were the days when a girdle was lined with rivets and mysterious panels. She drew back and swung the abominable garment in my direction, and I can still hear it whistling through the air. The intended blow caught me across the chest, followed by a multitude of straps and buckles, wrapping themselves around my midsection. She gave me an entire thrashing with one blow! But from that day forward, I measured my words carefully when addressing my mother. I never spoke disrespectfully to her again, even when she was seventy-five years old. (p. 23-24, The New Dare To Discipline)

Dobson likes being recognized by the powerful Republican elite (not to mention the far right "1%"). He was W. Bush's chief religious "adviser" among other things. Check out all the pictures of Dobson with leaders displayed on his website. And prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq Dobson appeared as a guest on CNN's Larry King Live to make a case for the invasion. In 2007 Dobson served as a Bush propagandist up to the point that he wanted Richard Cizek, then vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, fired for saying that global warming was real in contradiction to the Bush anti-science Religious Right policies.

So when you see a belt wielded on a defenseless young "rebellious" disabled woman, think of Dobson, the Pearls, Gothard and all the Religious Right leaders and all those good God-fearing folks who want to "Bring America back to God."

That video of a weeping child begging for mercy is what our country will look like if the Religious right ever gets their way. Just check out the "child rearing" sections of your local "Christian" bookstore. And if that's how they think God wants them to treat their children just imagine how gays, liberals and anyone else of the "Other" will do in their theocracy.

Meanwhile the Evangelical leaders who embrace Dobson, the Pearls and Gothard -- in other words the people trying to stop humane gay couples from marrying and adopting and caring for otherwise unwanted foster kids -- will continue to tell the rest of us how to live "moral" lives while thousands upon thousands of American children are beaten in the name of Jesus.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book is Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics--and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway.