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Illuminations - Issue #5

Kristin Rawls
Kristin Rawls
Insight and Invective Amid the Collapse

This article is a companion piece to a series I published this month that considers the ways in which conservative evangelicals groom, sexualize and abuse children. Part I contends that families within evangelical culture begin preparing children to fulfill strict gender roles within heterosexual marriages from early childhood. This preoccupation is encouraged and bolstered by media personalities and evangelists who are venerated in the evangelical world. Though particularly pronounced within the Quiverfull and Christian homeschooling movements, this messaging is ubiquitous throughout the movement.
Part II addresses the child marriage problem in evangelicalism and shows that evangelical organizations routinely oppose bans on child marriage in the United States. The article is framed around the highly publicized teen marriage of Courtney Stodden, and notes the media’s failure to contextualize the evangelical piece of the story. Stodden was raised in an evangelical community and homeschooled using a Christian curriculum; this context made them vulnerable to child marriage. The piece explains the scope of the problem and shows why it persists in evangelicalism.
Part III covers the epidemic of child sexual abuse and exploitation in the evangelical world. It suggests that the problem is widespread, and that it transcends ideological and theological distinctions within the movement. Abuse and exploitation persist among respectable, ostensibly “liberal” evangelicals and among far-right extremists. Although it’s important to understand that the problem persists in every facet of evangelicalism, it’s also true that greater extremism and authoritarianism make it harder to speak out and get justice.
The overall picture is one of a community that widely sexualizes children and grooms them for abuse, but which persists in casting hypocritical aspersions on innocent queer people. Evangelicals are engaging in projection when they do this, and it’s important to confront it wherever when we see it.
If you haven’t read the series yet, I suggest that you read parts I, II and III. Although this works as a standalone piece, the previous articles help establish the extent and scope of the problem. Here I delve further into contextualizing the problem and attempt to answer the question, “Why are they like this?”
Part I. Evangelicals and Child Sexual Abuse: Why Are They Like This?
Evangelicals persist in demonizing innocent queer people while refusing to deal with the child sexual abuse epidemic in their own communities. Bilerico Project, CC BY 2.0
Evangelicals persist in demonizing innocent queer people while refusing to deal with the child sexual abuse epidemic in their own communities. Bilerico Project, CC BY 2.0
For outsiders, one of the confusing things about (predominantly white) evangelicalism is that it’s a self-contained system. Believers are convinced it contains all the answers to life’s most difficult questions, and look to community members and clergy for counsel when bad things happen. The answers they get are not always based in logic or common sense as we understand it, but evangelicals do follow a logical system of thought within the context of their closed worldview. They believe their holy texts are “God-breathed” – literally written by God – and, often, “inerrant,” and that they alone interpret and live by the texts correctly.
So evangelicals aren’t very interested in, say, feminist interventions that establish guidelines for consent. They don’t really believe feminism has anything to offer them; everything they need is contained in their Scriptures and understood within their community of faith. The word of God, as they see it, need not be subject to critical interpretation. The community, it’s assumed, knows the correct interpretation. Feminism is distrusted, at best, and often outright scorned as an anti-Christian scourge.
At the same time, evangelicals often fail to understand the gravity of child sexual abuse and exploitation. Their understanding of abuse as “sexual sin” on par with other things they dislike – like homosexuality and premarital sex – facilitates a way of thinking that flattens lived experiences. When abuse is conceptualized as a “sin” rather than understood as a violent crime, that makes it hard for a community to understand and properly address the problem.
It’s an arrogant way of being in the world, thinking no one outside your religious community could possibly have anything to teach you. And certainly my explanation here does not absolve evangelicals of any wrongdoing. It’s just that, explanation. If you persist in an antiquated, repressive way of thinking, you will continue to lack the modern tools needed to combat a serious problem. This is what evangelical Christians have done, and refusal to grow with the wider culture has resulted in a great deal of suffering for victims.
Corporal Punishment and Bodily Autonomy
About half of American evangelicals, or 12.5 percent of the total US population, support spanking as a tool of child discipline. Popular evangelical writer James Dobson, best known for his child-rearing advice to evangelical parents, has endorsed spanking since the 1970s. At his website, he writes:
When a parent administers a reasonable spanking in response to willful disobedience, a similar nonverbal message is being given to the child. He must understand that there are not only dangers in the physical world to be avoided. He should also be wary of dangers in his social world, such as defiance, sassiness, selfishness, temper tantrums…
The problem with behaviors like defiance and sassiness, for Dobson and other evangelicals, is that they smack of rebelliousness, which isn’t tolerated in evangelical culture. The emphasis here, and in Dobson’s bestselling 1970 book Dare to Discipline, is on bringing a child into submission to the parents’ will. Submission is understood to be the will of God, and parents sometimes cite a verse from the book of Proverbs to bolster their case: “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”
Dobson is careful to insist that the spanking should be measured, “reasonable.” But it doesn’t always stop at spanking. Sometimes it escalates to beating. Independent Fundamental Baptist evangelist Michael Pearl and his wife Debi published their pro-beating manual To Train Up a Child in 1994, and it quickly became popular in Christian homeschooling communities. The book sanctions “[breaking a child’s] will” by beating them into submission with a switch or withholding food until they submit. At least three children, Hana Grace-Rose Williams, Lydia Schatz and Sean Paddock, have died at the hands of parents who followed the Pearls’ teachings.
There is a difference in degree between the harmful teachings of Dobson and the murderous teachings of the Pearls. But it’s not uncommon for deeply committed evangelical families to draw from both Dobson and the Pearls. One reason for this is that evangelicalism really has no mechanism for preventing extremism. Once you accept that a child must be brought into submission, it becomes difficult to argue that breaking a child’s will goes too far. And it becomes logical to look for techniques that promise to do just that, by any means necessary. When you begin with monstrous precepts, you may come to monstrous conclusions.
Nowhere in either Dare to Discipline or To Train Up a Child is there any room for bodily autonomy. It simply doesn’t exist in this worldview. If a child is displaying rebellious behavior, it’s the body that must be brought to heel. Although science suggests otherwise, evangelicals believe that mental and spiritual well-being follows from forcibly subduing the body through corporal punishment.
A child raised to accept hitting and beatings at the hands of an authority figure will not have a robust sense of bodily autonomy. And it follows that a child who is not raised with the freedom to set boundaries with adults regarding what happens to the body may be especially vulnerable to childhood sexual abuse. It can be very difficult for a child to recognize that abuse is even happening, let alone come forward to talk about it.
Your Body Is not Your Own
If evangelical practices involving corporal punishment make it difficult for a child to exercise bodily autonomy, so too do teachings regarding ownership of the body. Evangelicals, citing 1 Corinthians 6:19 among other verses, believe the body belongs to God and not to the human inhabitant:
Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself.
Evangelical Christians believe that God in the person of the Holy Spirit dwells inside the body of the believer upon conversion, transferring ownership of the body from the individual person to God. Not only that, but they believe God has preexisting ownership over the body because of his role in creation. The Reformed Christian author and blogger Tim Challies writes:
So, who does my body belong to? The Christian answer is obvious: My body belongs to God. In fact, my body is owned twice by God, once because he created it and again because he redeemed it.
If you are taught not to see your body as matter that belongs to you, it’s very hard to learn healthy boundaries delineating your own body from that of another. As such, it’s difficult to come to terms with it when someone touches you in an inappropriate way. You may not even understand what is or is not appropriate.
At the community-wide level, this belief that God owns the body can have devastating implications when it comes to understanding child sexual abuse. Evangelist and alleged predator Bill Gothard’s Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP) published materials about childhood sexual assault claiming that God may allow a child to be sexually abused “to motivate him to dedicate his body to God.” The publication goes on:
[The Bible] explains the importance of every believer presenting his body as a living sacrifice to God. Once that is done, our body no longer belongs to us, it belongs to God. This concept is important in order to avoid bitterness. [The victim] is able to then say, “The neighbor did not molest my body, he molested God’s body.”
In this view, child sexual abuse is ostensibly a good thing because it gives the child the opportunity to dedicate his body to the Holy Spirit and relinquish personal ownership of it. It’s monstrous, but it follows logically from this worldview that sexual abuse may be for the best if it inspires a child to become closer to God. The document really does manage to “look on the bright side” of child sexual abuse, enabled at least partly by the belief that the individual does not own the body.
Gothard represents a far-right extreme within evangelical Christianity. But, again, his views follow logically from the simple presupposition that the body belongs to God, not to the individual. If you really believe it, it’s not a major reach to start looking for a bright side to child sexual abuse – or enslavement, or any other horror that can be reigned down on a person and their body.
And once you do that, you have created a proper justification for predatory behavior in your community. There will always be a bright side to any horror that can be inflicted on the body, and predators pick up on this as a justification for abuse. Is it any wonder that such communities turn out to harbor an alarming number of child abusers?
Submission to Authority
As we know from the emphasis on submission in matters of corporal punishment, evangelical Christians place a lot of importance on submission to so-called “God-given” authorities. Learning to submit to one’s earthly authorities, it’s believed, helps teach a child how to submit to God. A child’s most important authority figures in evangelicalism are understood to be his father and mother.
Challies writes:
[T]he Bible insists that children are to obey their parents and that parents are to enforce their children’s obedience. At one time or another just about every Christian parent has quoted this verse to their disobedient kids: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1). This is about as straightforward a decree as you’ll find in the Bible. 
Although Bill Gothard stepped down from his homeschooling program, the Advanced Training Institute (ATI), and the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) in 2014 amid allegations of sexual abuse and sexual assault that targeted young women and minors, his teachings remain. A cursory perusal of the IBLP website shows that the program’s authoritarian insistence on the importance of childhood submission to authority figures did not leave with Gothard.
The site explains:
God assigns various responsibilities to parents, church leaders, government officials, and other authorities. As we learn to acknowledge and honor these authorities, we can see God work through them to provide direction and protection in our lives. Honoring our authorities brings inward peace.
IBLP sees this as one of the most important principles a Christian must master in order to live a good life. They believe that submission to authority literally “provides direction and protection in our lives.” This concept is developed further in Gothard’s thinking about an “umbrella of protection,” which essentially posits that God protects us from bad things like sexual abuse if we remain in subjection to our “God-given” authorities. Suffering, in this view, is the direct result of rebelliousness, of operating outside one’s designated “umbrella of protection.”
The concept of the umbrella of protection is controversial within evangelicalism. Many, including those who come from a Reformed tradition, may dismiss it as magical thinking. I do not have data showing how many people fully buy into the concept. What I can say is that, like many things Gothard and IBLP, the umbrella is an extreme conceptualization of a value held dear in evangelicalism across ideological and theological divides: God places specific authorities into the lives of his children, and living in submission to those authorities fulfills God’s designs for one’s life.
It’s a value system that venerates order above all else, and it’s also a recipe for victim-blaming. When someone experiences suffering, including child sexual abuse, the umbrella of protection can be used as an explanation. That is, the logic goes, maybe the suffering occurred because a child misbehaved, acted out of defiance and lost her umbrella of protection. IBLP’s site states, “[Through] disobedience you remove yourself from God’s full protection and are therefore far more susceptible to the attacks of Satan.” And attacks from Satan, it’s understood, lead to immense suffering.
It’s an unfathomably cruel explanation that blames the innocent child for his abuse, but it does flow directly from the belief that submission to authority is sacrosanct. Again, Gothard’s teachings represent an extremist interpretation of Christian evangelicalism, but they flow logically from popular evangelical teachings about submission and obedience to authority.
At minimum, it’s unsurprising that people who follow these teachings have little to offer victims who come forward. There is no real road to healing in a system that grants no bodily autonomy and no respite from the law of obedience. And a child raised to submit unquestioningly to the whims of her elders may be particularly vulnerable when encountering a child predator.
When it comes to children and abuse, we should in fact be suspicious of people who strongly value obedience and submission. Speaking out against abuse requires rebellion against people with greater power than the victim – that is, people in positions of authority. And the idea that practicing obedience brings protection from abuse is an outright lie. Of course Gothard turned out to be an alleged predator; he created an entire system designed to enable and justify his own predation.
Gothard and IBLP are useful, I think, because they provide a clear example of how monstrous evangelical teachings can become when taken to their logical end. It’s not that every single evangelical believes exactly what Gothard teaches. Rather Gothard and other extremists show where this thinking leads, left to its own devices.
Evangelicals make up between 22.5 and 25.4 percent of the US population. They have outsized political power, having solidified control over the US Supreme Court and a majority of state governments. It is incumbent upon those of us who oppose their political program and care about the suffering of children to keep raising alarms about the dangers they pose. To do that, we have to understand their internal logic and motivations.
Likewise, victims from this culture must rely on an outside world that too often doesn’t understand what’s happened to them for help. Understanding requires a basic literacy in the worldview that facilitated their abuse. Most people with no experience in evangelical communities don’t have that understanding. That’s why I felt it important to begin reconstructing an explanation here.
What's Next?
This article is a two-parter. My next article will continue to answer the question, “Why Are the Like This?” with a focus on sin-flattening, victim-blaming and extremely rigid gender roles. It will also consider the ways in which the forgiveness imperative to “forgive just as Christ has forgiven” compels victims to forgive perpetrators, often before any meaningful sense of justice has been achieved.
I’m an independent writer and researcher, and I depend on your support in order to keep doing this work. In this space, I do personal essays, editorial and researched reporting. I have expertise in the American Christian Right, so a lot of my material focuses on that. Please consider leaving a one-time donation here or becoming a member for $5/month by clicking here to enter your information. Please also retweet, share and comment on twitter, where I regularly engage @kristinrawls. Although I intend for members to receive at least monthly members-only content, I make these articles available to the entire public because I believe this topic is important.
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Kristin Rawls
Kristin Rawls @kristinrawls

Politics, religion, education, culture. Words in lots of places. @CRightcast podcast co-host with @eaton on @DiscoverFlux.

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