By Cary McMullen
A harrowing recent series in the Tampa Bay Times detailed how for 30 years a handful of homes for troubled youth have used a misguided exemption in Florida law to get away with all manner of abuses by using religion as a shield.
These homes have gone unregulated because of a 1984 provision that removes religious homes from state oversight and places them under what is essentially a self-regulatory body whose oversight is, to say the least, lax.
Among the abuses committed by these homes were beatings, extended isolation, shackling and sexual crimes as well. The homes have almost completely gotten away with it until now, and fortunately the Times series has forced the state to start an investigation.
The series did not give the history behind the 1984 exemption, only that it was passed due to the efforts of a handful of pastors – presumably of a fundamentalist Christian persuasion – and a powerful state legislator. Reading between the lines, my guess is that this exemption and the mess it created has to do with corporal punishment, which was beginning to be forbidden in schools and state-supervised homes about that time.
The behavioral sciences have since the 1960s discouraged corporal punishment on the grounds that it does more harm than good, and this defines a clash of values. The issue is not just about spanking. Fundamentalists, and sometimes their more moderate cousins, evangelicals, distrust the philosophy that would forbid corporal punishment.
It’s true that psychology and sociology sometimes have far-out ideas, but for conservative Protestants the distrust lies in their assumptions about the nature of human beings. The behavioral sciences tend to assume that human nature is naturally disposed toward improvement. The right techniques that lead to greater self-awareness will result in better mental health, more happiness, etc.
Protestantism traditionally has taken a more skeptical view. Protestant theology has asserted that human nature is naturally sinful and incapable of improvement on its own and that the only remedy for this is reliance upon the grace of God. Only by obedience to the will and ways of God is a human being able to find joy and ultimately salvation.
Regrettably, this theology sometimes has been twisted and exaggerated to produce a harsh, unyielding form of disciplining children that has little to do with the Bible from which it is supposedly drawn. It is overlaid with secular conservative values – independence, traditional views of gender roles, admiration for physical courage and so on.
So when psychologists say that spanking is bad for a child, it goes against the grain. It’s one more bit of evidence to fundamentalists that the behavioral sciences embrace views that are contrary to the word of God.
In this case, they wielded political muscle to isolate themselves from obeying the laws of the state, laws that were put in place to protect children from the excesses that some of these misguided people thought were necessary to uphold their values.
To be fair, not all evangelicals hold these views, as the Times’ Alexandra Zayas points out in one of her stories. And even officials at Southern Baptist Children’s agencies were against the exemption at the time it was proposed because of the potential for abuse.
It goes without saying that this exemption was a bad idea from the beginning. When the welfare of children is at stake, even well-intentioned people cannot be given a blank check.
Of course, if the people running these homes had paid closer attention to the teachings of Jesus, including the Golden Rule – “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you” – there might not have been any abuses in the first place.
Cary McMullen is a journalist and editor who lives in Lakeland. He can be reached by email here.