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.