Over the past few days, I've written a series of articles on the subject of religiously motivated child abuse, in part inspired by the recent tragic death of a child who was literally flogged to death based on instructions from Michael and Debi Pearl's "No Greater Joy" publishing empire.
Salon Magazine--one of the few American media outlets to actually do any writing on religiously motivated child abuse--has two separate articles on the Pearls--one dating from the last death in February 2006 linked to the Pearls' books, and a newer article published today--almost six years to the day after the last "death by chastening rod" attributable to the Pearls, and sadly necessary because of yet another death.
Far from the first time the Pearls have been under the microscope
The first article starts out with the story of Meggan Judge, who was a former user of the Pearls' techniques until she had a case of post-partum depression--and realised the techniques were inherently abusive and dangerous.
Much of the article covers some of the same ground that articles I have written; the article does give a few new frightening facts, though:
While the Pearls are not in direct competition with Christian media juggernauts such as Veggie Tales or "The Purpose-Driven Life," they are part of the booming religious publishing and products market, which hit $7.3 billion in 2005 -- a 28 percent increase since 2002, according to an April 2006 report by Packaged Facts, the publishing division of MarketResearch.com. Among Christian books, the "Christian Living" subcategory, which includes parenting, is one of the most popular sub-segments; products for children are expanding as well. The Packaged Facts report, titled "The Religious Product Market in the U.S.," cites "the culture wars" as being one reason for this overall growth. "What has until recently frustrated evangelicals is their difficulty in translating political power into social and cultural clout," states the report. "In addressing and attempting to redress this problem, evangelicals are increasingly turning to publishing."
As for their position on corporal "chastisement," the Pearls are following in the footsteps of their forebears -- and are not out of step with most of their peers. "The tradition of 'breaking the child's will' using physical punishment is long-standing among evangelical, fundamentalist, Pentecostal and charismatic Protestants," says retired Rutgers University historian Philip Greven, author of "Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Child Abuse." "It's associated with a very strong patriarchal authoritarian tradition," he adds, along with a belief in the literal truth of the Bible. Greven found calls to physically punish children in 17th and 18th century American Protestant texts; he was surprised, in the course of his research, to see that they'd persisted into the20th century and even today.
Of particular note--the original article links to a series of articles from Focus on the Family wherein the use of "switches" is advocated on small children that kids are forced to get themselves (thus becoming an active participant in their abuse), among other things.
The article also notes that it's not just the Pearls advocating this stuff, and that this stuff is all too screamingly common in the dominionist community:
Indeed, not sparing the rod is the norm among Christian parenting books. Ted Tripp's 1995 book "Shepherding a Child's Heart," which endorses judicial spanking, was recently at No. 37 on Christian Retailing magazine's list of bestsellers; the same magazine, last October, called W Publishing "one of the first major Christian publishing houses to publish a book that is opposed to spanking children." (The book is "Grace-Based Parenting" by Dr. Tim Kimmel.) And today, there are not only texts, but also products, such as "The Rod of Discipline" (see Proverbs 22:15 ) and a plastic "chastening instrument" said to "fit easily into purse or travel bag."
The article also notes that the Pearls have advocated the literal use of meter sticks and rulers as tools for beating children who have not yet celebrated their first birthday:
"Select your instrument according to the child's size," writes Pearl. "For the under one year old, a little, ten to twelve-inch long, willowy branch (stripped of any knots that might break the skin) about one-eighth inch diameter is sufficient. Sometimes alternatives have to be sought. A one-foot ruler, or its equivalent in a paddle, is a sufficient alternative. For the larger child, a belt or larger tree branch is effective." Additional advice from their Web site: Switching with a length of quarter-inch plumbing supply line is a "real attention-getter."
The article also--notably--notes the use of scripture-twisting in justification of religiously motivated child abuse, a subject rarely touched upon.
It also notes that--of particularly interesting note--some of the most vociferous opposition of the Pearls and other hawkers of religiously motivated child abuse is coming from people who are homeschooling their kids (this is of note because dominionist "homeschool" associations promote these books heavily):
While supporters of child-training see the Paddock case as a tragic misuse and misrepresentation of Pearl principles, some of their opponents have taken it as a call to arms. Recent protest has perhaps been loudest and most organized among home-schoolers. "Most home-schoolers, secular and Christian, are familiar with the Pearls, and speaking out never made a difference. Now a child has died and public scrutiny is on the Pearls. Strike while the fire is hot," says a home-schooling Oregon mother of 16-year-old triplets who blogs under the name "Doc Smith." (She requested that her real name not be used because of the threatening comments she and others have received in response to their anti-Pearl posts.)
Following in the footsteps of a British blogger known as Carlotta -- who, pre-Paddock case, worked to draw attention to the association between the Old Schoolhouse Magazine, a popular Christian quarterly for home-schoolers, and the Pearls' ministry, one of its advertisers -- Doc launched a boycott of the magazine and its partner blog services, Homeschoolblogger.com and Homesteadblogger.com. Other bloggers picked up the banner. (One printed anti-Pearl T-shirts. ) As a result of such efforts, Doc estimates, at least 250 bloggers have left Homeschoolblogger.com. Rumors abound that the Old Schoolhouse's subscriptions have dropped since the boycott -- its current readership is around 100,000 -- but according to the magazine, business is booming. "Subscriptions are actually up," says Nancy Carter, marketing manager. "With bad P.R. I think you also get folks saying, 'Hey, we want to show you we support you.'"
Doc admits that this boycott is but a "small battle" in the fight against child abuse. Ideally, she'd like to see the Old Schoolhouse -- a major market source for an often-isolated community -- stop printing articles by the Pearls and advertising their wares. But she hopes at the very least to draw attention to the methods espoused by the Pearls -- and distinguish them from other branches of the home-schooling community. "When a secular person/parent whips a kid, they're doing it because they're ignorant or just a jerk. They don't say God gave them permission or commanded them to do it," she says. "Home-schoolers who beat their kids make all home-schoolers look like freaks."
One home-schooling/blogging mother went so far as to buy the plumbing hose and try it on herself. "What I did was take the small supposedly 'harmless' tube and LIGHTLY tap myself on the forearm with it," she reports. "Not only did it sting like an SOB but it also left welts on my arm for TWO hours afterwards."
The article also notes some interesting statistics, which are especially relevant as many of the same folks hawking books on how to beat your baby for God are also hawking books on how women should "submit to their husbands" and how "God hates divorce" even in the case of abusive spouses:
"The evidence is that any corporal punishment, on average, is harmful down the road," says leading family violence researcher Murray Straus, professor of sociology and co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire. Among other problems, it has the potential to threaten the parent-child bond, inhibit the development of conscience, lead to juvenile delinquency, and even partner violence, Straus says. (Some disagree, saying -- for example -- that children who grow up with an understanding or fear of "consequences" are less likely to get into trouble down the road.) "There are now three very good studies showing that the more someone was spanked as a child, the more likely they are to hit their partner as an adult," says Straus. (Some suspect that spanking at home, or paddling at school, may be particularly harmful to girls.)
The article also notes on how dominionists are coached in these books, and also coach each other, on how to hide the signs of baby-beating:
Her father goes farther. "Don't be so indiscreet as to spank your children in public -- including the church restroom," he writes on his Web site. But discretion, here, is more than just the better part of embarrassing your kid. "I get letters regularly telling of trouble with in-laws who threaten to report them to the authorities," he goes on. "Parents have called the Gestapo on their married children. Church friends who have noses longer than the pews on which they perch can cause a world of trouble. If you cannot get [your children] trained before going out in public, stay home and read our four books again. If the Federal or State agencies take me to court over advocating corporal chastisement, this will be part of my defense: 'He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes (Prov. 13:24).'"
For similar reasons, the Home School Legal Defense Association recommends spanking only in private. (The HSLDA is a Christian organization, though it serves home-schoolers without regard to affiliation. It is dedicated to preserving the "fundamental right of parents to choose home educations, free of over-zealous government officials and intrusive laws.")
All in all, a very good article, and a good introduction for those who are wishing to research--or wishing to work against--religiously motivated child abuse in the dominionist community.
Unfortunately, history repeats if we don't remember
Ultimately, the mother in question was convicted of first degree murder and felony child abuse; she is presently serving life plus 83 years in the North Carolina women's prison system.
The amazing thing--the tragic thing, considering the events of February 12 when yet another child suffered "death by chastening rod"--is that the Pearls were not considered accessories to murder and also placed in prison.
There has been surprisingly little criticism in the media, or even reporting on religiously motivated child abuse (one is, sadly, more likely to find objective reporting OUTSIDE the US, particularly in the British media); again, Salon Magazine is the exception and notes that most criticism in print Stateside has actually been from evangelical Christians opposed to religiously motivated child abuse:
It's one thing for those of us outside the fundamentalist Christian/Christian home-schooling world to point fingers at the Pearls and voice outrage at their methods. What really matters, and what stands to have actual impact, is the outrage inside the Pearls' world. And right now, more than ever, an anti-Pearl movement within the conservative Christian community is rising up in heated, if sometimes whispered, fury. Some say -- even pray -- that Lydia Schatz's death will bring Michael and Debi Pearl exactly the kind of attention they deserve.
"I think many in the Christian and/or home-school community wanted to see Sean Paddock as an 'extreme' example. Lynn Paddock was 'just' a foster mom. She already had issues. Whatever someone could use to rationalize away the influence of Michael and Debi Pearl, they would. Because they did not want to admit that a 'normal' home-schooling mom could abuse her child to death, they did not want to admit that a book that has been normalized in home-schooling circles was a factor in the death, they did not want to admit their own vulnerability to being deceived or hurting their child," says Alexandra Bush, 35, a "home-schooling mom and theologically conservative Christian" in Sarasota, Fla., who grew up with Pearl-style teaching around her (though not in her family) and who is an oft-heard anti-Pearl voice online. "Now, with Lydia Schatz, it is harder to explain away. I have seen a stronger response than before to her death and her sister's hospitalization. The defensiveness has cracked a bit. This is the logical outcome of the spank-until-submissive teachings of the Pearls. People are no longer able to see it as just an 'exception.'"
Interestingly--and disturbingly, and in line with something I myself have observed--Salon's report, in its interview with various Christians opposed to religiously motivated child abuse, notes that the Pearls may be forming a de facto personality cult around their practices:
Also, the particulars of child-training are only one aspect of the Pearls' ministry. "The focus when their teachings are promoted isn't on the spanking, but on the 'tying heartstrings' and enjoying your kids," says Alexandra Bush. "It is easy to filter out the harsher teachings, the extremism, when surrounded by word pictures of peaceful, loving, fun families. The Pearls seem to tell parents that they just have to 'win' once and make sure their children know who is in charge, and then they will never have to spank again. That's how parents get sucked in -- promises of a fun, peaceful home, minimal confrontation, doing the 'right thing' for their children. Basically, the BS detectors are turned off by the pretty promises that are made."
Bush believes that's why the Pearls' teachings hold so much appeal for conservative, home-schooling parents who are, overall, "highly motivated to spend time with their children, love their children, willing to make sacrifices for their children, want the best for their children. They are not, in general, people prone to neglecting their kids or motivated by abuse and anger," she says. "So when people criticize the Pearls and in the same breath misrepresent parents who use Pearl parenting, those parents easily tune out the criticism."
And that's where the Pearls get their relatively "free pass," she concludes: "People know parents who are amazing and love their kids and don't abuse them -- and recommend the Pearls -- and so they have trouble believing the truth about the awful teachings. After all, if your home-school neighbor family looks like they have it all together, has sweet children and a calm mother -- and they use the Pearls, and they don't beat their kids -- then obviously it must be the critics who are wrong. Add to that the loyalty home-school parents have to the home-school movement -- hard to criticize one's own. Finally, even if someone can see the problems with the Pearls' words, they may be unwilling to admit that the Pearls are completely wrong and off their rocker, because that would be admitting that they themselves were susceptible to bad advice and may have harmed their own kids."
In other words, says Diamond, Pearl devotees are "loving people, people who take joy in their children, in their marriages, who like to participate in the community and do good for others. They aren't monsters. It would be easier, I think, to speak up loudly if they were."
To anyone who is a walkaway from a coercive group, or who is aware of how coercive groups work, this in and of itself is a red flag warning--one of the first things coercive groups do (and what the Pearls explicitly do) is set up an "us versus them" meme, literally demonising critics (the Pearls have publically stated in past that critics of their "Bible-based" domestic violence regime--including not only abuse of children but a program almost expressly designed to sanction religiously motivated spousal abuse as well--are possessed by "Jezebel spirits").
The second article is encouraging in that there is increasing criticism--most critically within "Christian homeschooling" circles, heavily infiltrated by dominionists and a major source of promotion of religiously motivated domestic abuse programs:
Christian and home-schooling bloggers are also voicing increasing anti-Pearl sentiment, and not just the ones who already reject any form of punitive parenting, Bush notes. Timberdoodle, a highly regarded and influential resource for conservative home-schoolers, responded to Lydia Schatz's death by exhorting its community to speak up: "Read, be informed, and share with your friends. There are many new, well-meaning parents who are looking for instruction and help in parenting. Use your knowledge to help them keep away from this dangerous path."
Unfortunately, I do agree with a final commentary by Alexandra Bush of TulipGirl:
But discrediting the Pearls shouldn't depend on word-of-mouth or the grass roots, Bush argues. "As a Christian, I believe it has been a failing of the evangelical church in the U.S. as a whole for not warning their members about this type of harmful teaching. It is something the church cannot, biblically, ignore," she says, noting that increasing resistance to the Pearls comes at a time when even those in the most conservative Christian circles are reevaluating, on theological grounds, the evangelical movement's embrace of the practice of corporal punishment.
I would go further, in fact--it's not just a failing, but the promoters of religiously motivated child and domestic abuse are just the most notable and infamous of those within evangelical circles working to turn them into dominionist circles--dominionism, in and of itself, is fundamentally a culture of fear.
The very same circles that promote the Pearls et al are those who increasingly call for isolation of their children from mandatory reporters, who are part of multi-million-dollar media empires who have worked to scuttle existing laws and prevent the US from being a signatory to the one international treaty designed to protect children from abuse.
It goes, I'm afraid, beyond mere failure. It is the "suffering of the children" on a level Jesus himself would have never intended and would be most horrified to witness.