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Protestant Fundamentalism and Support of Corporal Punishment

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Although there is a formal separation of church and state in the United States, religious ideas often play a role in policy decisions that affect the public as a whole. Christian groups may express concern about the weakening of religion by secular influences, but it seems at least as likely that the secular aspect of American government is in the process of being weakened by religious influences. Grasmick, Bursik and Kimpel (1991) discuss the powerful influence that religious groups exert in American politics, stating,

Religious-based groups are potentially very powerful in shaping public policy. As Wald, Owen and Hill (1988, p. 532) note, churches are by far the most extensive network of voluntary organizations in the United States. They provide an organizational basis for the communication of political messages and for the translation of policy sentiments into political action.

In the public debate over the use of corporal punishment in public schools, the relationship between religious belief and support of the disciplinary practice has often been overlooked (Grasmick, Morgan and Kennedy, 1992). However, patterns of opinions among Americans about corporal punishment are associated to some extent with different religious beliefs. Specifically, recent research has demonstrated an association between Protestant Fundamentalism (also sometimes referred to in some research as Conservative Protestantism) and support for corporal punishment.

Support for Corporal Punishment in the Schools

In 1992, Grasmick, Morgan and Kennedy published Support for corporal punishment in the schools, a study that compared the effects of socioeconomic status and religious affiliation on support for corporal punishment in schools. They based their research on data collected as part of the Oklahoma City Survey of 1989. An original simple random sample of 330 respondents was achieved, but after reductions belonging to groups that poorly represented in the sample, the researchers ended up analyzing results from a group of 302 respondents.

Support for corporal punishment was measured in the City Survey with a group of five questions that were answered on a four-point scale. Socioeconomic status was defined using three factors: the occupation of the head of the respondent's household, educational attainment and family income. Respondents' religious affliliation was classified into four categories: "Fundamentalist Protestant", "Nonfundamentalist Protestant", "Catholic" and "No Affiliation".

The authors of this article found that respondents categorized as "Fundamentalist Protestant" in general supported the idea of corporal punishment in schools more than other respondents. The trend was found to be statistically significant even after all three factors of socioeconomic status were controlled for. In fact, all of the factors of socioeconomic status, only education was shown to have a significant negative impact on support for corporal punishment.

In short, the researchers had two findings: first, that affiliation with a Protestant Fundamentalist church is a reliable predictor of support for corporal punishment and second, that socioeconomic status is not a reliable predictor of support for corporal punishment when considered in relation to the influence of Protestant Fundamentalism.

Religious Influence on Parental Attitudes Toward the Use of Corporal Punishment

Although the work of Grasmick, Morgan and Kennedy established the link between Protestant Fundamentalism and support of corporal punishment in schools, it did not supply a supportable explanation for the association. Wiehe, in his study Religious influence on parental attitudes toward the use of corporal punishment, attempted to do find such an explanation. Wiehe investigated the idea that support for corporal punishment among Protestant Fundamentalists is due to their belief in the literal truth of the Bible. He hypothesized that,

... parents affiliated with religious denominations that emphasize a literal belief in the Bible will demonstrate less appropriate attitudes with regard to discipline than their counterparts who are affiliated with religious denominations that do not subscribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible.

According to Wiehe, Protestant Fundamentalists interpret certain passages of the Bible as literal statements of support for corporal punishment and believe that these statements are to be accepted as instructions from God that must not be challenged.

In order to test his hypothesis, Wiehe sent graduate students taking a research methods course to churches in the Bible Belt states of Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. Southern Bapitst, Independent Baptist, Church of God, Holiness, Nazarene, and Pentecostal churches were classified as advocating a literal belief in the Bible. Support for corporal punishment was measured using the Adult Adolescent Parenting Inventory, a widely used and verified research instrument.

Wiehe and his graduate students found that respondents who belonged to denominations that advocated a literal belief in the Bible were more likely to support the use of corporal punishment, even after controlling for gender and level of education. Although Wiehe acknowledged the limitations of studying the beliefs of church members only in the Bible Belt, he asserted that his study provides a solid foundation for further research on the relationship between support of corporal punishment and Biblical literalism.

Protestant Fundamentalism and Attitudes Toward Corporal Punishment of Children

In 1991, Grasmick, Bursik and Kimpel published a new study which further explored the relationship between Protestant Fundamentalism and support for corporal punishment. Their research, discussed in the article Protestant fundamentalism and attitudes toward corporal punishment of children, investigated three possible reasons for the endorsement of corporal punishment by Protestant Fundamentalists.

Their first hypothesis was that support for corporal punishment is positively correlated with degree of Christian religious devotion. Their reasoning behind this first hypothesis was as follows:

If the notion that children must be beaten into submission is an integral part of the Judeo-Christian tradition in general, then those whoa re most religious in that tradition, regardless of their particular denominational affiliation, should be most favorable toward corporal punishment of children. If fundamentalists tend to be more religious than others, then their greater religiosity, not their fundamentalist affiliation per se, could be the source of their support for corporal punishment...

In short, this first hypothesis argued that Fundamentalist Protestant support for corporal punishment has nothing to do with the groups' actual religious beliefs but rather in the strength with which those beliefs are held and lived by. If corporal punishment is supported by all deeply religious Christians, and Protestant Fundamentalists just happened to be more deeply religious than other Christians, then the higher support among Protestant Fundamentalists for corporal punishment could be explained as a by-product of deep religious devotion.

This study's second hypothesis was similar to that of Wiehe's work: that belief in the literal truth of the Bible contributes to the tendency of Protestant Fundamentalists to support the use of corporal punishment. The authors argue that Biblical literalism might contribute to such support because passages in the Bible that are perceived as in endorsements of corporal punishments are interpreted by Protestant Fundamentalists as a command from God not to spare the rod.

The third hypothesis of Grasmick, Bursik and Kimpel is that Protestant Fundamentalist support for corporal punishment is due to a belief in a God who is punitive in nature. This hypothesis is based on the idea that Protestant Fundamentalists attempt to model their parenting upon their ideas of God's interactions with humanity. If this were the case, Protestant Fundamentalists might conclude that parents should be punitive of children who fail to obey their commands.

This study was based on the data from the Oklahoma City Survey of 1991, which included 368 qualified participants. The survey measured support for corporal punishment with two questions answered on a four-point scale. Respondents' religious affiliation was classified into four categories: "Fundamentalist Protestant", "Liberal/Moderate Protestant", "Catholic" and "No Affiliation". Belief in the literal truth of the Bible was measured by four questions answered on a four-point scale, and the degree of respondents' religious devotion was measured in terms of an idea called "religious identity salience", which is designed to reflect the extent to which respondents consider themselves to be religious and base everyday decisions upon their ideas about religion. To measure respondents' ideas about the nature of God they were asked to rate a list of adjectives on a four-point scale in terms of the degree to which they believed that the adjectives could be used to describe God.

A high proportion (53 percent) of respondents were classified as "Fundamentalist Protestant". 82 percent of respondents agreed that parents should use corporal punishment on their children, and 66 percent believed that corporal punishment should also be allowed in public schools.

In an analysis of the data, the authors found that all three hypotheses (degree of religious devotion, belief in a punitive God and belief in the literal truth of the Bible) were significantly related to support for corporal punishment. However, belief in the literal truth of the Bible was more highly correlated with support of corporal punishmetn than the other two factors. Also, after controlling for the variables of gender, race, age and amount of education, belief in the literal truth of the Bible was the only factor that remained strongly associated with support for corporal punishment. Grasmick, Bursik and Kimpel therefore arrived at the same conclusion as Wiehe: that Biblical literalism is the factor which most directly contributes to the support of corporal punishment among Protestant Fundamentalists.

Conservative Protestantism and Support for Corporal Punishment

The investigation into the factors behind the association between Protestant Fundamentalism and support for corporal punishment was continued with a national study using data collected through the General Social Survey of 1988. The resulting article, Conservative protestantism and support for corporal punishment, suggested a more complex causation of the attitudes about corporal punishment among Protestant Fundamentalists. The researchers proposed a model in which belief in the literal truth of the Bible, a belief in the sinful nature of humans and a punitive approach to dealing with sin were the factors that lead Protestant Fundamentalists to support corporal punishment to a greater extent than people of other religious groups.

The researchers controlled for variables of age, gender, educational attainment, family income, number of children under 18 living at home with respondents, race, native Southern upbringing and rural upbringing. For the purposes of the study, Protestant Fundamentalists were defined as those people who belong to the following groups: All Baptists except for the American Baptists, Assemblies of God, Pentecostal and Holiness groups, Seventh Day Adventists, Alliance, Churches of God, Churches of Christ except United Church of Christ, Missouri Synod and Wisconson Evangelical Lutheran, Nazarene, Jehovah's Witness. Other miscellaneous fundamentalist and evangelical sects were also included in this definition.

In support of the work of Wiehe, as well as Grasmick, Bursik and Kimpel, the researchers found that belief in the literal truth of the Bible "has the largest total effect of any variable in the model." However, they also concluded that the three factors of Biblical literalism, a belief in the sinful nature of humans and a punitive approach to dealing with sin were interconnected with each other in a complex system of causation so that all three factors were important contributors to the dynamic of Protestant Fundamentalist support for corporal punishment.

Understood together, these four studies provide the beginnings of a framework for understanding the relationship between Protestant Fundamentalism and support for corporal punishment. First, they reveal that Protestant Fundamentalists are more likely than other religious groups to support the use of corporal punishment by both parents and educators. Second, these studies show that this association stands even when related variables such as gender, race and level of educational attainment are taken into account. Third, a belief in the literal truth in the Bible is shown to be the one most powerful factor in the association between Protestant Fundamentalism and support for corporal punishment. Finally, this collection of research demonstrates that although Biblical literalism is the strongest associated factor, it is by no means the only contributing factor. Rather, Biblical literalism interacts with several other factors of Protestant Fundamentalist belief to form a complex causal link between Protestant Fundamentalism and support for corporal punishment.

It Ain't Necessarily So

Of course, none of the religious beliefs explored in the research summarized above lead necessarily to support for corporal punishment. Not all Protestant Fundamentalists support corporal punishment. Grasmick, Bursik and Kimpel point out that the Bible can be interpreted literally in many different ways. They write,

Like all religious traditions, however, Christianity is not without its contradictions. The same sacred text that proclaims, "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him." (Proverbs 13:24) portrays a messiah who is warm and nurturing toward children, encouraging them "to come unto me, for such is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew, 19:14). The most effective strategy for combating the religious roots of violence toward children might be to draw from the very same religion these nurturing themes.

The Bible is a compex piece of literature that holds many messages, some of which even seem to contradict each other. It is therefore possible, according to Grasmick, Bursik and Kimpel, for someone to adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible and still oppose corporal punishment.

Abolishing the rod offers support for such an interpretation. The author acknowledges a long-standing linkage between Christianity and corporal punishment, describing the historically Christian ideas that she believes have contributed to this linkage: ownership of children by parents, the innate evil nature of children and the need for children to fear their parents and God.

Instead of following this well-trodden path, Abolishing the rod attempts to establish a new interpretation of the Bible as a dynamic document which has changed in emphasis as it has developed through time. The author explains,

For the Christian struggling to understand the meaning of Proverbs' "rod reliance" for discipline and correction, in the current human rights' times, there must be a recognition of historical developments as God's continuing creative work. To deny historical development as central to God's management results in a stultifying adherence to the past at the cost of having God's word speak to the present.

This article presents the idea that historical change both within the Bible and in our own time is part of God's "management", that Christianity cannot be understood as a static, unchanging entity, that if God's word is to be understood at all it must be interpreted as relevant to the present social environment.

The author also explains that the New Testament can be interpreted as a statement that corporal punishment is no longer an appropriate method of child rearing. She considers the example of Christ's love to be a model for a new kind of human interaction that is based neither upon fear of God nor upon fear of one's parents. She explains,

Christ modeled for his disciples and followers the quality of the new parental/divine attitude toward children: a love without fear as he encouraged children to come to him (Mark 10:16). Not only did Christ embrace children, he now held up the faith of the previously foolish paidon as the model for all to follow. Christ emphasized the trust, the eagerness, the obedience, the electedness of the little ones who came to him. He did not dwell on their simplicity, foolishness or need of correction.

Two thousand years have passed since Christ freed his followers from fearing God in a literal and legalistic sense; the time has come for us to recognize this freedom in how we teach our children.

According to this interpretation of the Bible, Christ established a new relationship between God and humanity which was based on love instead of fear. In this way of thinking, the cross is a symbol which represents the pain of heavenly judgment that no longer needs to be experience by humanity. So too, the rod can serve Christians as a symbol of God's forgiveness that makes the pain of earthly judgment no longer necessary. Such an understanding of the New Testament makes the use of corporal punishment among Christians an historical anachronism almost 2,000 years old.

The presence of an association between support for corporal punishment and Protestant Fundamentalism suggests that the debate about the use of corporal punishment in public schools is not based on a merely rational disagreement, but rather that the the division of opinion may be founded on deeply held religious convictions. Rational argument based on academic research will probably be an insuficient means by which to persuade people who believe that corporal punishment is an effective parental and educational tool. As Grasmick, Bursik and Kimpel point out,

This position is not likely to bend easily, even with the accumulation of scientific evidence of the adverse effects of corporal punishment of children.

The research described in this summary makes it clear that if activists wish to accomplish the abolishment of corporal punishment in American public schools, they must, at least in areas with a majority of Protestant Fundamentalist citizens, construct religious justifications as well as intellectual arguments. Ideas such as those developed in Abolishing the rod appeal to the religious convictions of those Americans who most strongly support corporal punishment, and may therefore serve as the rhetorical basis with which the end of corporal punishment in American schools is finally achieved.

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References:

Ellison, C.G. & Sherkat, D.E. 1993. Conservative protestantism and support for corporal punishment. American Sociological Review, 58, 131-144.

Grasmick, H.G., Bursik, R.J. Jr., & Kimpel, M. 1991. Protestant fundamentalism and attitudes toward corporal punishment of children. Violence and Victims, 6 (4), 283-298.

Grasmick, H.G., Morgan, C.S., Kennedy, M.B., 1992. Support for corporal punishment in the schools. Social Science Quarterly, 73 (1), 177-187.

Oosterhuis, A., 1993. Abolishing the rod. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 21 (2), 127-133.

Wiehe, V.R., 1990. Religious influence on parental attitudes toward the use of corporal punishment. Journal of Family Violence, 5 (2), 173-186.

 

This article is also available at Spare The Child

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