There is a brutal movement in America that legitimizes child abuse in the name of God. Two stories recently converged to make us pay attention. Last week, a video went viral of a Texas judge brutally whipping his disabled daughter. And on Monday, the New York Times published a story about child deaths in homes that have embraced the teachings of To Train Up a Child, a book by Christian preacher Michael Pearl that advocates using a switch on children as young as six months old.
What many people may not realize is that in the evangelical alternative universe of the home school movement, tightly knit church communities and the following of a number of big-time leaders and authors, physical punishment of children has been glorified for years.
As the Times illustrates — “Preaching Virtue of Spanking, Even as Deaths Fuel Debate” — the books of Michael Pearl and his wife Debi have been found in the homes where several children were killed.
They're not the only right-wing Christians who advocate these methods. Some of the most respected evangelical discipline gurus have made beating children not just “respectable” in conservative religious circles, but even turned it into a 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, essentially, to get parents to beat their children.
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 the notion of God as retribution-in-chief that evangelicals endorse.
Dobson isn't alone. There's also the work of evangelical “family values” guru Bill Gothard, with a following of millions. 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,”
In The Strong Willed Child (Living Books 1992), Dobson makes a parallel between beating children and beating dogs:
“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.”
Dobson is mild compared to the popular evangelical authors Michael 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 seven to eight times as a punishment for getting angry. If the baby is still angry, the urge parents to repeat the punishment until the child gives in to the pain. The “switch” they recommend for an under 1-year-old is from a willow tree and/or a 12-inch ruler.
The leadership of the evangelical world, from Billy Graham to the editors of Christianity Today magazine or the megachurch pastors like Rick Warren, have not called for the banishment of abusers like the Pearls, Dobson or Gothard. These people remain in good standing.
In the Pearls' case, actual criminal complaints have been brought against some parents who have killed their children and who have been following the “methods” in To Train Up a Child. This book can be 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 involved. 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. 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 her 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 both have a big followings in Rick Perry's hang-em'-high “Christian” Texas. 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. So even Dobson is “mild” by comparison to the Reconstructionists who did so much to influence the far-right “Christian” politics — 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 life as a guide. He writes in The New Dare To Discipline:
“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.”
Meanwhile the evangelical leaders who embrace Dobson, the Pearls and Gothard will continue to tell the rest of us how to live “moral” lives while children are beaten in the name of Jesus.