Religious Attitudes on Corporal Punishment
by Rita Swan
Corporal punishment, defined as discipline that intentionally causes physical pain, has been meted to children throughout recorded history in most cultures. However, beginning with Sweden in 1979, a growing number of countries have banned all corporal punishment. As of April, 2016, according to the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, 49 countries have prohibited all corporal punishment of children, including in the family home, and at least 54 more have expressed a commitment to full prohibition. (Timely updates can be found at endcorporalpunishment.org/.)
A few religions have spoken out against corporal punishment while others not only permit it, but declare it to be divinely mandated.
The United Methodist Church is the first Christian denomination to take an official position against corporal punishment. The church passed resolutions in 2004 discouraging parents from hitting children and calling upon states to prohibit corporal punishment in schools, daycares, and residential facilities for children. The resolutions were renewed and strengthened at the church’s 2012 General Conference.
In the 19th century the founder of the Baha’i faith prohibited corporal punishment of children in his scriptures. Some scholars say Baha’i was the first religion to oppose corporal punishment.
While few denominations have taken a position against corporal punishment, individual clerics and devout believers have written that Jesus’ teachings advocate respect for children and training without striking them. End Physical Punishment of Children posts several such statements on its webpage at www.stophitting.org. Teresa Whitehurst’s How Would Jesus Raise a Child? and her webpage at www.jesusonthefamily.org, Christians for Nonviolent Parenting at www.nospank.net, and the Lawrences at www.parentinginjesusfootsteps.org present Jesus as leading by example with the qualities of the beatitudes to nurture the internal moral compass of individuals, including children. Jesus valued affirming, nurturing relationships above legalistic rules, they say.
The Catholic Church does not have a national policy on corporal punishment, but the Ohio-based Center for Effective Discipline wrote to 174 Catholic dioceses about their policies. All of the 132 dioceses that responded either prohibit corporal punishment in their schools or said that none of their schools use it. Several diocesan spokespersons told another researcher that their policies against corporal punishment related to theological teaching on the dignity of the human person.
Several studies have shown both the practice of and belief in corporal punishment to be much higher among fundamentalist Protestants. Researchers for www.religioustolerance.org found they are the only religious group that publishes doctrinal justifications for corporal punishment.
Many fundamentalists believe that hitting children is sanctioned or mandated by the Bible. They cite these verses in the Old Testament’s Proverbs as authority for their belief: 3:11-12, 13:24, 19:18, 20:30, 22:15, and 23:13-14. The latter claims that if you beat a child with a rod, he will not die, but instead will have his soul saved. One tape-recorded sermon advises parents to “wound” the child with corporal punishment because Proverbs 20:30 says a wound cleanses away evil.
Punishment by putting tabasco sauce on the tongue or clipping a clothespin on the tongue is recommended for verbal defiance, biting, and lying in Lisa Whelchel’s Creative Correction. She cites Bible verses as authority for her disciplinary methods. The publisher is Focus on the Family founded by James Dobson, the most prominent advocate of corporal punishment.
No recorded words of Jesus recommend corporal punishment of children or subjugating them. No New Testament verses say that children should be struck with the hand or with implements. In Hebrews 12, St. Paul speaks of fathers “chastening” and “correcting” their sons as an analogy for the trials Christians encounter in their spiritual growth, but the verses do not indicate that chastening should be physical. Paul says that children should honor and obey their parents, but also says fathers should not anger or discourage children (Ephesians 6:2-4, Colossians 3:20).
Paul does, however, set forth an authoritarian model for the family with wives and children subjugated to the adult males. A few verses after declaring that women should keep silent in churches and be in subjection, he says that fathers must rule their households and keep their children in subjection in order to be able to take care of the church (1 Timothy 3:4-5).
Several scholars indicate that conservative Protestants’ approval of corporal punishment is based on their beliefs that the Bible is inerrant and has the answers to all human concerns, that children are born with original sin, and an apocalypse or “rapture” is coming soon. Many fundamentalists advocating corporal punishment read Proverbs as a literal injunction to hit children with implements. They reject advice from secular parenting books because the Bible has the correct advice on all matters. Their determination that the Bible is the literal, absolute word of God throughout leads to insistence on authoritarian relationships. They fear that sensuality and libertarianism in popular culture threaten their ability to impart religious values to their children. They do not see the government as supporting their parenting ideals, but rather as interfering with them. They believe that babies are born sinful and naturally inclined to rebel against God and their parents. Reflecting the divine order, men should be in control of their wives and children. A child’s reluctance or refusal to obey a parent’s order is as offensive as Satan’s original rebellion against God. Corporal punishment is sacralized as a divine mandate. Parents must break a child’s will in order for the child and parents to be saved from hell when judgment day takes place in the near future. Fundamentalists are more likely than others to hold images of God stressing punishment and judgment.
Fear of rebellion is prominent among fundamentalists. Dobson recommends that parents be flexible and use various non-violent discipline methods for most problem behaviors of children. But for “willful disobedience” he believes corporal punishment should be a parent’s first resort and that a parent must “win decisively.”
Many, but not all, fundamentalist advocates of corporal punishment recommend striking children with implements rather than the hands so that the parents’ hands will be perceived as instruments of love. Some emphasize that corporal punishment must be continued until the child’s will is broken as shown when the child “accepts” the punishment. Some advocates warn that children may cry during corporal punishment as a strategy of rebellion and should then be hit harder.
Several present corporal punishment as a ritual with firm directions about how to do it, what to use, when to stop, and what to do afterwards. Dobson recommends holding the child close after he accepts his punishment, assuring him of the parent’s love, and then praying with the child in confession that we have all sinned and asking for God’s forgiveness.
Articles on the Christian Parents Network at www.christian-parents.net say parents have a religious duty to do battle against a child and win. Corporal punishment gives children “a foretaste of the potential terror and pain of eternal separation from God,” one says. Another warns parents not to have sympathy for the child when they hit him and accuses non-spanking parents of laziness.
Several fundamentalist advocates for corporal punishment place important caveats on its use. The majority say parents should never strike a child in anger or frustration for then they will be displaying loss of control. They say that children will develop their image of God from the parents’ behavior and therefore parents should show love as well as punishment of sin that is inevitable and consistent.
Dobson and others set age limits. Corporal punishment should not be used on babies younger than fifteen months and rarely if ever used on children more than ten years old, they say. Some fundamentalist leaders, however, recommend hitting infants with switches because they are born with the sin of rebellion and the earlier corporal punishment is started, the easier it will be to control them later.
Judaism does not interpret the verses in Proverbs as authority to hit children with implements nor does it believe children are born into original sin. Israel prohibits all corporal punishment of children.
While several scholars believe that a hierarchical, authoritarian model of sacred and secular relationships and strict gender roles contribute to endorsement of corporal punishment, the Mormons are an interesting counter-example. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) has an all-male priesthood, to which every boy over the age of twelve may belong. Gender-prescribed roles are a map to salvation and the basis of hierarchy and distinction in church doctrine.
The child training literature of this patriarchal religion, however, is radically different from that of fundamentalist Protestants. The Mormon Church’s sacred scriptures do not express the doctrine of original sin, view children as inherently rebellious, nor recommend corporal punishment to break their will.
Joseph F. Smith, the church’s tenth president, advised parents to “use no lash and no violence” with their children. Gordon Hinckley, the fifteenth president, said, “I have never accepted the principle of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child . . . .’ Children don’t need beating. They need love and encouragement.” The church’s magazine Ensign publishes articles calling corporal punishment ineffective and promoting other methods of discipline.
Several studies indicate that religious belief is a better predictor of corporal punishment than socioeconomic status. Features of the larger society, however, may shape religious beliefs or parenting practices. For example, rates of corporal punishment and of religious belief are high in the African-American community. While there may be a causal relationship between those two factors, several scholars have found that racism, urban violence, and high rates of incarceration are causes of corporal punishment among African-Americans. Many of these parents spank their children severely because they want to protect them from street violence and from the punishments of a white power structure.
Critics of corporal punishment say that most injuries and even deaths due to physical abuse of children begin as discipline. Beatings have gone on for hours because children would not apologize or meet another parental demand. Some say that a religious rationale increases the emotional harm done by corporal punishment. Insisting that the physical pain comes because of love and that a supernatural being has ordered it compounds the assault on the child’s sense of self. The parent’s love is conditioned upon stripping the child of will.
Critics also point out that hitting children with implements makes the parent less aware of the force being used. They find the claim that parents may win salvation by hitting their children insidious. Some claim that even the conservative Protestants’ emphasis on hitting without anger is harmful. They feel that this religious group has made corporal punishment a ritual in which the parent becomes emotionally detached and irresponsible on the assumption that he is acting as God’s agent.
Furthermore, the doctrines of supernatural evil and original sin may lead adults to believe the child is demon-possessed and to attempt an exorcism. Children have been tortured and killed because of belief in demon-possession.
Most research on the impact of corporal punishment is criticized as unscientific and misleading by proponents or opponents. The many variables involved make scientific conclusions difficult. Elizabeth Gershoff reviewed 88 studies of corporal punishment with 62 years of data and found that corporal punishment was associated with ten negative outcomes for children and the only positive effect was short-term compliance. Robert Larzelere, however, found that corporal punishment confined to loving parents’ infrequently giving toddlers a few swats on the buttocks was beneficial. One study found that persons who believe the entire Bible is literally true have more unrealistic expectations of children and less empathy toward children’s needs than nonliteralist Christians. Another found that fundamentalist Protestants who are involved in their churches spend more time participating in their children’s activities and talking to them than other parents. The quality of the total parent-child relationship influences the impact of corporal punishment.
Twenty-nine states prohibit corporal punishment in public schools. Most of them also outlaw it in state-licensed daycare and residential facilities for children. Only two of those states, Iowa and New Jersey, prohibit corporal punishment in parochial and private schools. New Jersey became the first state to abolish corporal punishment in the schools in 1867 and Massachusetts became the second state in 1972.
Many fundamentalists lobby for school personnel to have a legal right to hit children. The trend, however, is to prohibit it in more public schools, partly because of civil liability. In nine of the 21 states that allow corporal punishment by state law, more than half of the students are in school districts that have banned it. In the 1999-2000 school year, Texas had the highest percentage and number of children given corporal punishment by school staff with 73,994 instances. By 2005, however, the school districts of Austin, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and many other Texas cities had prohibited corporal punishment.
Forty Christian schools filed suit to overturn the United Kingdom’s ban on all school corporal punishment, charging that it prevented them from teaching morals to their students and interfered with religious freedom. The European Court of Human Rights and UK courts ruled against them. In South Africa 196 Christian schools brought a similar challenge; the South African Constitutional Court ruled against them.
Given the strength of religious conservatism in the U.S. and the lack of consensus in scholarship, the U.S. is highly unlikely to ban corporal punishment of children by parents in the foreseeable future.
References and Further Reading
Bartkowski, John and Christopher Ellison. “Divergent Models of Childrearing in Popular Manuals: Conservative Protestants vs. the Mainstream Experts.” Sociology of Religion 56, no. 1 (1995): 21-34.
Capps, Donald. The Child’s Song: The Religious Abuse of Children. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.
Dobson, James. The New Dare to Discipline. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 1992.
Ellison, Christopher. “Conservative Protestantism and the Corporal Punishment of Children: Clarifying the Issues.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 35, no. 1 (1996): 1-16.
Ellison, Christopher and John Bartkowski. “Religion and the Legitimation of Violence: Conservative Protestantism and Corporal Punishment.” In The Web of Violence: From Interpersonal to Global, edited by Jennifer Turpin and Lester Kurtz, 45-67. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
Ellison, Christopher, John Bartkowski, and Michelle Segal. “Do Conservative Protestants Spank More Often? Further Evidence from the National Survey of Families and Households.” Social Science Quarterly 77, no. 3 (1996): 663-73.
Gershoff, Elizabeth. “Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences: a Meta-analytic and Theoretical Review.” Psychological Bulletin 128, no. 4 (2002):539-79.
Gershoff Elizabeth, Pamela Miller, and George Holden. “Parenting from the Pulpit: Religious Affiliation as a Determinant of Parental Corporal Punishment.” Journal of Family Psychology 13, no. 3 (1999): 307-320.
Greven, Philip. Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
Grille, Robin. Parenting for a Peaceful World. Alexandria, Australia: Longueville Media, 2005.
Hines, Denise and Kathleen Malley-Morrison. Family Violence in the United States: Defining, Understanding, and Combating Abuse. Thousand Oaks, Cal.: Sage Publications, 2004.
Kimmel, Tim. Grace-based Parenting. Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2004.
Larzelere, Robert. “Child outcomes of nonabusive and customary physical punishment by parents: an updated literature review.” Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review 3, no. 4 (2000):199-221.
Straus, Murray. Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and its Effects on Children. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2001.
Whelchel, Lisa. Creative Correction: Extraordinary Ideas for Everyday Discipline. A Focus on the Family book. Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House, 2000.
Whitehurst, Teresa. How Would Jesus Raise a Child? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2003.
Web pages with material on corporal punishment
[A version of this article appears in Encyclopedia of Domestic Violence edited by Nicky Ali Jackson and published by Routledge.]