When “physical discipline” in accord with the Bible conflicts with child welfare

Child Abuse: The Limits of Religious Freedom in America

By Jonathan Merritt


Indianapolis, 07.09.2016 (The Week) – A woman in Indiana who was charged with child abuse claims that she was merely disciplining her 7-year-old son according to her evangelical Christian beliefs, and is therefore protected under Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Kihn Par Thaing allegedly beat her child with a coat hanger, leaving more than 30 bruises. As justification for her behavior, court documents cite a passage from the Old Testament book of Proverbs claiming that a parent who “spares the rod, spoils the child.”

Thaing’s case has gained widespread attention in a moment when the limits of religious liberty are being adjudicated nationwide. In 2014, Hobby Lobby successfully argued before the Supreme Court that privately held companies should be exempt from providing contraception to their employees if it conflicts with their sincerely held religious convictions. And last year, SCOTUS ruled that a prisoner could grow a beard in accordance with his Muslim beliefs even though it conflicts with the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ regulations. Meanwhile, other appeals to “religious liberty” — such as Christian cake bakers, florists, and photographers who wish to refuse wedding services to LGBT couples — have failed.

Some conservatives speak about religious liberty as if it is the ultimate trump card. Even if the law prohibits an action or deems it discriminatory, they say, religious persons should be exempt if the law conflicts with their beliefs. Cases like Thaing’s take that position to its extreme.

Does religious freedom have limits? If so, then surely child abuse exceeds those limits.

Thaing is correct that the Bible often encourages physical discipline, as in the case of the popular verse she cites. Unsurprisingly, Christians support spanking children at a higher rate than the general population. But what is spanking? And when does it cross a line? Many parents feel a slap on the hand is acceptable, but what about a smack with a belt? What about 10 smacks? What if you use a coat hanger instead of a belt? A literal reading of the Bible provides an astonishing amount of leeway.

Corporeal punishment in the Bible is performed with a “whip” or “rod” that smacks the back, not the buttocks, of the one being disciplined. The Christian scriptures proscribe no age limit — for example, a husband could “spank” his wife — and allows for leaving “bruises” and “wounds.”

And what about the notion that a parent should wait to spank until they’re calm, cool, and collected? As William Webb, professor at Tyndale Seminary and author of Corporal Punishment in the Bible, writes, “This sort of ‘love but no anger’ approach is a great plank within the platform of today’s spanking advocates. Unfortunately, it simply is not a biblical concept.”

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