The Politics and Religion of Child Abuse in the U.S.

It may seem odd to talk about the “politics” and “religion” of child abuse, but child abuse can be both political and religious in the United States. And that’s really important to discuss. We live in a world where the political establishment frequently ignores the plights of children and enacts legislation that marginalizes and oppresses children. We live in a world where religion is frequently used to justify that marginalization and oppression, instead of liberating children and lifting them up from the margins.

The politics of child abuse is complicated. In some sense, we can all understand what it means for child abuse to be political: it is an issue that impacts our polity, and our government is divided on how best to fight against it. So the topic of child abuse is politicized, as Republicans and Democrats campaign against each other, each claiming to be champions of families and their children. Yet in the midst of all the argumentation the children themselves often get left out.

Their voices are not heard until they rally by the hundreds of thousands to literally “march for their lives.” Only when children finally declare, “We just want to survive,” do people pay attention.

But even still, many people could care less that these children want to survive. Conservatives love to pull out their trump card of abortion to ignore just about any social ill that inconveniences them. This shows the paucity of their political worldview. Instead of addressing those social ills with integrity and openness, conservatives simply point to the “holocaust” of abortion and then sweep the other social ills under the rug, attacking those who object as being “hypocritical” for caring about some children but not unborn children.

As if one cannot care about all children at the same time. As if the existence of one social ill does not mean we should ignore other social ills. As if intersectionality did not tell us we should lift up women and children at the same time.

This is how the plight of children is reduced to a political arms race, or a game of “Who is a Better Savior for the Children?”, instead of being the inspiration for systematic change that helps and frees children.

Child abuse can also be made religious. When people argue for practices that harm children, such as corporal punishment, circumcision, and faith healing, they often cast their arguments in religious language. They use religion to justify the abuse.

The United States is the only country that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and that is specifically because of the efforts of conservative religious leaders like Michael Farris. These religious leaders argue that their faith implies that children are to be controlled, punished, and inducted into their faith without questioning. Children’s rights, to these religious leaders, are a Trojan Horse that could bring about the downfall of Western Civilization. And that’s a serious concern to them. They believe that empowering children means parents lose rights, and parental rights are sacred to them. To them, parental rights are a golden calf, to which children are rightly sacrificed.

There is, in fact, a long tradition in the United States of parents and adults sacrificing their children to their greater god of adult rights. Courts have consistently ruled that parents and adults have more rights than children do, and that they have rights over the children’s lives that the children themselves do not have. It is as if child abuse is itself a religion of sorts to many Americans. It is woven into the fabric of our society; it is ordained by our presuppositions about and biases regarding children.

To many Americans, it is considered good and holy to beat your children. In fact, if you don’t, you are alleged to be violating God’s commands.

To many Americans, it is considered good and holy to mutilate children’s genitals. If you don’t, you are sinning.

To many Americans, it is considered good and holy to force your children into your faith. Again, not doing so is considered sacrilegious.

Even though the religion of most Americans—Christianity—speaks directly and on many occasions to the empowerment and liberation of children, adults in America would rather focus on those few passages that they believe give them the right to beat, maim, and control their children.

I think we need to start envisioning child abuse as more than simply an individual crime. Yes, child abuse is perpetrated by individual adults against children, but it is sanctioned in so many ways by our political and religious systems. We need to contextualize child abuse and see how broader social forces contribute to it and exacerbate it. It is a systemic problem, not just an individual crime. This is why the Jewish prophets, when they took up the cause of orphaned children, railed against “laws and rulers,” and not just individuals. Marginalization and oppression of children is built into the very fabric of societies.

To challenge that marginalization and oppression, we need to start examining our societal fabric. We need to consider the way that we politicize, and make religious, child abuse, so that we can dismantle those ideas and bring in alternative viewpoints that lift up children.

Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

One thought on “The Politics and Religion of Child Abuse in the U.S.

  1. Howard Pepper – Southern California – For purposes of this Natural Spirituality blog, I began it as "spiritual but not religious" but, since about 2010, I have re-embraced my Christian roots -- this time as a "Progressive Christian" under a very different view of God and the Bible, etc. than my upbringing and many adult years until about 1995. I don't much like labels; tolerate them as a necessary "evil". I believe we are all "religious" in the broadest sense, as well as "spiritual." My community involvement is more about a "philosophy of life" and meaningful action that includes the spiritual than about religion as usually meant. My intellectual life includes a strong interest in both historical issues (especially Christian origins) and theological ones. I am intent on applying both of these to current life issues, so am not into "intellectual games" for their own sake. I do have extensive "formal schooling" in psychology, counseling, theology and religious education. Beyond such academics, I have great natural curiosity and a strong desire to contribute to people's growth toward spiritual freedom and maturity and the benefit that brings to society. I am an optimist seeking to support deeper mutual understanding, respect and humanitarian cooperation among people of all levels and types of religion/spirituality.
    Howard Pepper says:

    Good article, R.L. I’ve not been reading this blog or hardly any others for quite a while, nor even able to be posting to my own (which I do like doing, and try to stay with it.) Glad to see you’re “at it” yet.

    You make some good points. I totally agree with the idea that our American approach to religious freedom and “rights of parents” in relation to those of children is in an immature and sad state. Also that, in general terms, the Evangelical world is condoning and even encouraging (indirectly if not directly) things that should not be part of society.

    It tends to be about control and survival as what is perceived to be a “beleaguered” or even “persecuted” minority (of “righteous” folks). With a strong childhood and adult pedigree in mainstream Evangelicalism, up to about age 45, 23 years ago, and ongoing observation since, this year I’ve been learning just how dark and insidious is the “shadow side” of particularly Bible Belt “biblical” views and practices. Maybe I’d not been aware of these aspects and their historical roots much as I’d been mostly exposed to a milder, more culturally inclusive, less paranoid form of West Coast Evangelicalism (other than by reading or very brief travels).

    Now I’m involved in the United Church of Christ, and even in this progressive denomination, my understanding is that in parts of the country, some of even its churches can be very conservative, culturally as well as theologically. My own mission I take increasingly to be to promote an intellectually consistent form of “liberalism” (in the best sense) that is unafraid to embrace the kind of changes of mores and culture that inevitably come anyway. But incorporate them in a more deliberate and purposeful way, seeking common ground much more than how to set Christians (or “Christian culture”) apart as distinct and superior.

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