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Warren J. Blumenfeld Headshot

Child Abuse in the Name of God

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"You've got to be taught to hate and fear.
You've got to be taught from year to year.
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear.
You've got to be carefully taught.

"You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade.
You've got to be carefully taught.

"You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!"

This song, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," from the 1949 Broadway musical South Pacific by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, is heralded in the play by the line that prejudice is "not born in you! It happens after you're born."

I immediately thought of this song when I watched a YouTube video of a young boy, whom I would estimate to be somewhere around the age of 3, standing in front of the congregation at the Greensburg Apostolic Truth Tabernacle Church in Indiana, microphone in hand, singing to the assembled:

"The Bible's right, somebody's wrong.
The Bible's right, somebody's wrong.
Romans 1: 26 and 27;
Ain't no homos gonna make it to Heaven."

The congregation jumps to its feet, loud cheers ringing out from primarily white men decked out in their Sunday best. A man is heard bellowing, "That's my boy!" The beaming youth repeats his hymn twice over, applause and shouting reaching a heightened crescendo, high-fiving soaring overhead, joyous rapture throughout the hall. Amen!

Coming back toward Earth, I believe that one of the litmus tests by which a society can be judged is the ways it treats its young people. This incident and so many others show that we as a nation have a long way to go to live up to our stated goals of ensuring freedom and justice for all. Child abuse is rampant in our society, and this is an example of child abuse in the guise of religion.

Young people, through their socialization, learn the values and attitudes of people and, later, the larger society around them. Within this process, through observing others and through reinforcement and adult modeling, they also learn prejudices and how to discriminate. They begin developing attitudes about various groups in society as early as ages 3 or 4. Initially, their attitudes are rather flexible. However, as they grow older, such attitudes become more ingrained and difficult to change.

The developmental and educational psychologist Albert Bandura proposed in 1965 that children learn primarily through observation, and that one's culture transmits social mores and what Bandura called "complex competencies" through social modeling. As he noted, the root meaning of the word "teach" is "to show." Parents play an important role in prejudice acquisition. Not only do parents teach prejudice directly through reinforcement, but children often learn their parents' prejudiced attitudes by simply observing their parents talking about and interacting with people from other groups. Society at large, adults, and peers present an array of modeling, a continuum from very productive and affirming to very biased, aggressive, and destructive. Bandura found that modeling included much more than simple observation of concrete actions followed by imitation ("response mimicry"); it also included what he called "abstract modeling" of such concepts as following rules, taking on certain values and beliefs, and making moral and ethical judgments. Bandura found that the young people who observed an aggressive adult model were much more likely to exhibit both imitatively aggressive physical and verbal behaviors.

I thought to myself, as I watched this young boy in the video, about the long-term damage his elders had wrought upon him. Their own misdirected anger and hatred has already compromised the boy's intrinsic sense of humanity and integrity by teaching him to treat others as objects, as scapegoats, as detestable and sinful "others."

As someone who was on the receiving end of hatred when I was very young, I know full-well the long-term damage. Long before I learned what were considered the "proper" rules of gender conduct, I expressed my gender in ways that were integral to me, but ways I was quick to discover were feared and even despised by others. Adults attempted to "correct" my performance, and young people called me names with an incredible vehemence and malice that I did not comprehend.

This bullying and policing of my gender started the very first day I entered kindergarten. It was 1952, and I was attending public school in Bronxville, N.Y. As my mother dropped me off and kissed me goodbye on the cheek, I felt completely alone and began to cry. My new teacher walked up to me and said, in a somewhat detached tone of voice, "Don't cry. Only sissies and little girls cry." Some of the other boys overheard her and quickly began mocking me. "The little girl wants her mommy," one said. "What a sissy," said another. Without a word, the teacher simply walked away. I went into the coatroom and cried, huddling in a corner by myself, until she discovered me.

Early in my life, I developed what would become a lifelong appreciation of music and art. In the fifth grade I auditioned for the school chorus and was accepted, along with only a handful of boys and about 50 girls. The scarcity of boys in the cast was not due to any gender imbalance in the quality of boys' singing voices. The determining factor was social pressure. I and the other four boys in the chorus were generally disliked by our peers. In fact, most of the other boys in our class despised and picked on us and viciously labeled us "the chorus girls," "the fags," "the sissies," and "the fairies." On the other hand, the girls who "made it" into the chorus were well-respected and even envied by the other girls in the school. The attacks, harassment, and violence directed against me got much worse in junior high school.

Those haunting days remain with me, deep within the recesses of my soul, to this very day. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety disorder, I find that those days, now so long ago, continue to limit my functioning on a daily basis.

And I believe that the prime factor keeping oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people locked firmly in place and enacted throughout our society -- on personal/interpersonal, institutional, and societal levels -- is the negative doctrines and judgments emanating from primarily orthodox and fundamentalist religious communities.

According to the United States Department of Justice (2001), "Bullying encompasses a variety of negative acts carried out repeatedly over time. It involves a real or perceived imbalance of power, with the more powerful child or group attacking those who are [perceived as] less powerful."

So I assert that the institutional bullying radiating from some religious denominations must stop!

When religious leaders preach their negative interpretations of their sacred texts on issues of same-sex relationships or identities and gender nonconformity within and outside their respective houses of worship, they must be held accountable and responsible for aiding and abetting those who target and harass, bully, physically assault, and murder people perceived as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender. In addition, they must be held accountable as accomplices in the suicides of those who are the targets of these aggressive actions.

The insanity, the bigotry, and the hatred must end for the sake of our youth, and for the sake of our nation!