Child Abuse by Any Other Name: When Ignorance and Bigotry Become Parental “Rights”

Some things stick with you.

I can still recall, vividly in fact, an exchange I had with a woman in one of my audiences seventeen years ago, who had come to my talk at Kansas City Community College: an address in which I examined the intersectionality of racism and heterosexism.

The woman, who identified herself as a mother of two, stood up shortly after my speech and insisted that she had every right to teach her children that homosexuality was immoral and that gays and lesbians were going to hell. How dare I, she bellowed, challenge her right as a parent to raise her children as she wished. After all, she explained, they were her property.

Seriously, that’s what she said: Her children were her property.

Putting aside the inherently disquieting nature of equating one’s offspring with one’s ottoman, or perhaps, end table — a point I made rather caustically to her, to no effect, as I’m sure you can guess — there was something even more problematic about her claims to parental supremacy, informed, in her case at least, by her hard-line religiosity. It was something I thought of again this morning when reading two news items, both of which discussed ultra-conservative Christians pitted against the public schools in which some of their children are enrolled, and which, to hear them tell it, are impeding on their religious freedom to teach their children as they desire.

The first, out of my own state of Tennessee, involves attempts by conservative lawmakers to pare back previously adopted anti-bullying legislation, by carving out exemptions for students whose religious beliefs compel them to “share their views” on homosexuality. A recent suicide by a rural Tennessee student who had been bullied because he was gay has led anti-bullying advocates to push for greater protections, while the Family Action Council of Tennessee has stepped up its push to enshrine bigotry into the law, because that’s what Baby Jesus would want, after all.

According to the proposed change, students would be immune to a charge of bullying or harassment if their mistreatment of another was impelled by religious conviction, unless their actions involved an attack on the victim or his or her property. In general, and in addition to the religious exemption, for any act to be considered harassment or bullying it would need to involve either a violent or property-related assault, or the creation of a hostile educational environment, the latter of which condition could not be satisfied by a mere showing that the actions in question had caused “discomfort” or “unpleasantness.” Even, one supposes, if that discomfort or unpleasantness were to become a daily affair.

In other words, whereas the perpetual reference to a gay student as a “faggot” might qualify as unacceptable, even under the religious right’s proposed exemption, constantly telling a gay student that he or she was a sinner, who was going to burn in hell, would be just fine. Even regularly placing notes on their desks, with some verse from Leviticus that the so-called Christian takes to be proof of the un-Godly nature of same-sex attraction, would be protected. After all, just because one is made uncomfortable by the sharing of “Biblical truth,” shouldn’t protect one from having to hear it, and especially when the proselytizing student feels themselves Scripturally deputized by no less than heavenly authority to serve as God’s little messenger.

In other words, if you believe that homosexuality is a sin, and that you have an obligation to spread this theologically-sanctioned condemnation to others, during the school day, when those others are, in effect, a captive audience, you would be allowed to do so under the proposed rule change. That your preachments might amount to psychological torture and even spiritual terrorism for some of your classmates doesn’t matter. Students would be allowed to hide behind God, as they interpret God’s word, and nothing could be done to them, no matter how obnoxiously the views were shared with others. Even students whose anti-LGBT bullying wasn’t motivated by religious belief, could always claim it was, so as to avoid consequences for their behavior.

That such an exemption as this is being pushed by the very same people who previously supported legislation that would ban the discussion of homosexuality by teachers or counselors in Tennessee schools before the ninth grade — the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill from a year ago — makes the effort even more odious. So if the Christian right in Tennessee had its way, students in middle school would be able to tell other students (many of whom are just coming to terms with their sexual and affectional orientation) that they were repulsive, disgusting, unnatural, or that they should, because of their sexuality, be killed; meanwhile, the students targeted by that behavior would not be able to turn to teachers or counselors for advice, or to discuss their sexuality or the pain this mistreatment was causing them, because school officials would be disallowed from discussing the sexuality of the student being targeted.

The second story is from New Hampshire, where the Tea Party-dominated legislature has passed a law that would allow parents to object to any part of the school curriculum to which their children are exposed, for any reason; and not merely object (which is, of course, any parent’s prerogative already), but also to demand that an alternative curricula be developed for their child, which alternative would meet with the parents’ approval.

So, if parents took exception to a discussion about the entirely settled matter of evolution (settled, at least, among scientists, if not the millions who believe in a white male God who lives in the clouds and created everything in 6 literal days, including man from dust and woman from the ribcage of that man, some 6000 years ago), they could insist that their children be exempted from learning the science that every other scientifically literate person on the planet will have been taught.

This they will be able to do, so that those children may instead be instructed that dinosaurs and people co-existed, and led to believe that the book of Genesis is a perfectly adequate substitute for a standard biology text. In other words, New Hampshire is on the verge of enshrining, as if it were a sacrosanct right, the liberty of its young to be rendered wholly ignorant, because their parents prefer it that way. And I’m quite certain that those parents, and the ones in Tennessee who desire that their little bundles of street-preaching energy be liberated from the shackles of secular tolerance (and, for that matter, basic human kindness), would likely agree with the judgment of that woman in Kansas City in 1995: their children are their property, and as with all property, may be handled as the owner of said property desires.

But therein lies the rub, and the bigger problem with this notion of ultimate parental authority, expressed to me that day so long ago, and more recently in the halls of power in Tennessee and New Hampshire: namely, even if we accept the cruel and dehumanizing notion that a person’s children are their property, when one’s property, by virtue of how he or she possesses it, begins to exact a societal consequence on other people’s “property” — like other people’s kids, for instance — or the larger commons we share, that is when others, myself included, get to chime in and exercise some limitations on what the first party can and cannot do with their possessions. Just as you are not free to stage cockfights, even if the chickens belong to you, and you are not free to dump toxic waste in your yard, even if it be your name upon the deed that demonstrates legal ownership, likewise, your supposed “right” to raise your children as you see fit, is far from an exclusive one.

By this I mean that your right to teach your kids as you wish does not impose upon the rest of us a limitation in terms of that to which we may rightly seek to expose your children as well. And this is because your children — unless you intend to keep them securely locked in your own basement, never to interact with the rest of society — are to become (already are, in fact) social beings. They attend school with other kids, from different races, religions, ethnicities, economic backgrounds, sexualities and any number of identity categories. And the schools (and society more broadly) have an affirmative interest in seeing to it that your children grow up to be the kind of people who can effectively and peacefully co-exist with those others, no matter the differences between them. If they cannot do this — because you have drummed religious, racial, ethnic, or some other kind of prejudices into them on pain of hellfire, brimstone, or just the threat of parental alienation — then you will have created a problem for us. And that is something you haven’t the right to do. As the old saying goes, your rights end where mine begin, and your right to use your “property” (in this case, children) as you wish, is limited by my right to see to it that my “property” (also, in this case, children) are not damaged by yours.

Along these same lines, if raising your children to believe that God can make the sun dance in the sky, or that people can be resurrected from the dead, or that prayer can heal serious illness without the faithless interference of medicine, gets in the way of their learning the biology, physiology, chemistry and physics they will need to be competent doctors, engineers, researchers or any number of other things, then those teachings become a problem for the rest of us; and thus, the rest of us have a right and indeed, obligation to teach them other things, even when those things conflict with the parochial instructions of their parental units. (By the same token, I should note, we have an obligation to teach people who are a bit too enamored of modern science — despite the way in which it has been used to justify the plunder of the Earth and the domination of nature — a little something about ethics, but that’s another essay for another day).

Which is all to say that you may fill the skulls of your progeny with any manner of superstitious, hate-filled, reality-allergic codswallop if that be your fervent wish, but the rest of us will equally demand the right to demonstrate to them, however subtly, that their parents are superstitious, hate-filled, reality-allergic purveyors of mindless piffle, and that while they may believe as they wish, they will not be allowed to torment others with their views, no matter the ecclesiastical authority with which they may believe themselves entitled to do so. Children are free moral agents and have a right to be exposed to a range of beliefs well beyond the rigid doctrinal confines of their parent’s faith, and we have an obligation to insist that they be so exposed, at least in public schools, if not elsewhere.

If parents wish to home-school their children and raise them on a steady anti-intellectual diet of dumbshittery, all so as to glorify the Lord, so be it, I guess. But in the public schools, the idea that parents should be able to opt their kids out of a common and academically valid curricula, and have those children still remain students in good standing, or that their children should be able to harangue their classmates with Fred Phelpsian hatred, just because they believe an ancient text commands them to do so, is asking that one’s own rights to parental authority, religious freedom and free speech should trump the rights of equal protection to which all students are entitled, not to mention the obligation of schools to teach students scientific knowledge, unsullied by the genuinely felt, but utterly unverifiable suppositions of the religious.

I suppose that to this one might argue that tolerance must be a two-way street, and that if evangelical Christians are to be forced to respect others, we must likewise respect them. But note, no one has suggested that the rest of us should be allowed to harass or bully Christians, either in school or elsewhere. The anti-bullying legislation in Tennessee would prevent, as written, any student from taunting any other student about their faith. So that even if one’s beliefs were the very definition of lunacy — like the Biblical claim that Noah lived to be over 900 years old, or gathered every species 2 by 2 on a big ship that rode out a literal 40 day flood, or that Jesus fed thousands with one loaf of bread — it would not be appropriate for a student or school official to forcefully and regularly remind one of just how fatuous their worldview happens to be. In other words, it is one thing for me to say it here, but quite another for someone to walk around haranguing pre-pubescent Bible-thumpers about their intellectual vapidity in the halls of a junior high.

As for curricula, the notion that we should be as tolerant of the academic desires of religious conservatives as they must be of scientists, for instance, is utterly puerile. Science is science and religious faith is religious faith. In science classes, only one is worthy of serious consideration, because only one meets the strictures of the scientific method. While the scientific method is not nearly as objective and precise as scientists often believe, and while science can surely become its own kind of religion in the hands of some, doing in the process its own kind of damage, to the planet and its inhabitants — a subject that should be amply covered in science classrooms to be sure — it is surely quite a bit more objective and precise than the exegetical ruminations of some fundamentalist preacher, his wife, or their children, none of which deserve the least bit of respect or consideration in a classroom dedicated to the discovery of scientific fact.

Of course, I’m quite certain that to those who push for the enshrining of their provincial and narrow-minded worldviews in schools, my words here will serve as only further proof that we, the “unbelievers,” have declared an all-out war on people of faith, and that Christians are the newly persecuted. Whatever. Though the charge is frankly ludicrous, given the ubiquity of Bible-believing Christians among the lawmaking class, as well as the regularity with which politicians are expected to believe in God — and a Christian one at that — so as to be considered viable candidates for higher office, in the end it hardly matters. If there is a religious war going on, let there be no mistake, the fundamentalists started it. For the rest of us, the obligation is to take up the battle ourselves, lest the nation be turned over to our very own Taliban, whose designs on whatever ostensible democracy we have managed to carve out are quite sincere, and whose wish to govern under Biblical law has been spelled out in their documents and from their pulpits on a weekly basis. It is up to us to stop them.

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