The Evangelical Crusade Marches On
ABC World News Tonight (in conjunction with BeliefNet.Com) is running a series called "Under God," and it is a revealing look at the cultural impact of evangelical Christianity on contemporary America. In the first report (aired on Monday, 2 May 2005), correspondent Erin Hayes told us about the growth of specifically Christian cheerleading camps. Founded in reaction to the "sexually suggestive" forms of cheerleading that are in vogue, Christian cheerleaders incorporate the "Holy Spirit" into their spirited routines. This means "no lewd dance moves, no bare midriffs and no routines that would embarrass parents." And it's becoming popular: 25,000 students attend Christian cheerleading camps each year. They are taught routines that demand gymnastic prowess, but they are also taught to honor the Lord. "We represent not only our selves, but the Lord," says one cheerleader.
In 1983, there were only 59 Christian camps and clinics in the country. Today, there are more than 500, and the Fellowship of Christian Cheerleaders has also started camps and clinics in the Czech Republic and Russia. And the smaller Christian Cheerleaders of America is watching its attendance grow by about 25 percent a year.
The growth in Christian camps, like the growth in Christian literature, Christian music, and Christian radio, is viewed as a "faith-based alternative" to the "spiritual limitations" of a "coarsening," "secular," "popular culture." The aim is to help young people to understand that "God is not just one aspect or compartment of my life; He is my life."
The second segment of the ABC series focused on "tough-love parenting." Polls tell us that 65% of American adults approve of spanking to punish children; certain evangelicals have taken that practice to a higher, "spiritual" level, arguing that "Scripture clearly endorses, even encourages, the practice." Out of "faith and love," these evangelicals "regard corporal punishment as a religious and parental duty." The Old Testament book of Proverbs declares: "He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly." As one parent puts it: "The bottom line is: people who do not think it is OK to paddle their children do not believe God's word."
Joey Salvati of New Kingston, Pennsylvania is one "carpenter who makes paddles and gives them away online," along with instructions as to how many swats each offense merits—as long as the swatting is never done in "anger."
Some Methodists and Catholics have responded negatively to this growing evangelical "spanking" crusade; they seem to draw different lessons from the son of another carpenter. "Jesus, for instance, said children are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven," says one dissenter. "And you don't treat people like that, like they're circus animals."
Ultimately, it's all a struggle over Biblical interpretation and the very "direction of Christianity itself." Al Crowell, director of the San-Francisco based advocacy group Christians for Nonviolent Parenting, asks: "Why don't we also keep slaves now? Stoning our daughters who may be gotten pregnant before marriage? All that is in the Bible [Old Testament] too."
This is not just about the direction of Christianity, of course; there may be a deeper issue at work: There is this portion of the evangelical movement that revels in the imagery of violence. It may even explain the fetishization of violence in such films as "The Passion of the Christ," which attracted both evangelicals and conservative Catholics in droves. As I wrote in my article, "Caught Up in The Rapture":
A blockbuster film such as "The Passion of the Christ"—which was condemned initially as "anti-Semitic" by some critics—has now grossed nearly $400 million. That figure does not include director Mel Gibson’s cross-promotional merchandising efforts—sales on such items as metal replica crucifixion nails and thorn-adorned necklaces and bracelets. The extremely violent content of the film seems to have inspired some churches to more realistically dramatize the redemption through most precious blood. Some of these dramatizations express forcefully a wrath for the secular "pagan" symbols of the Easter holiday. As the Associated Press reports, in one instance, at an Easter show in Glassport, Pennsylvania, children were traumatized as the actors whipped the Easter bunny and crushed Easter eggs on stage. Performers declared: "There is no Easter Bunny." One 4-year old child cried hysterically, asking his mother "why the bunny was being whipped." "It was very disturbing," said another parent. The youth minister at Glassport Assembly of God said that they were only trying "to convey that Easter is not just about the Easter Bunny. It is about Jesus Christ."
The key here is this: We are dealing not only with a political problem (one which Jason Pappas summarizes well here, where I have left a comment as well). We are dealing primarily with a cultural problem. And it is one that goes far beyond the growth of cheerleading camps or the use of corporal punishment.
Many religious people are, no doubt, reacting against what they perceive as the triumph of subjectivism, relativism, and nihilism in various aspects of popular culture. But in celebrating their own isolation from that culture, they make possible the further alienation of young people from a world that demands their rational engagement. Worse: the embracing of instrinsicism, which inculcates a faith-based adherence to moral "absolutes" regardless of context, is no genuine alternative. Humane values are passed on to children and young people by appealing to their growing, yet delicate, rational faculties. Reason is the only legitimate alternative to faith and force. And teaching children to use their minds is the surest way to raise healthy and happy adults.
P.S.: Be sure to check out Arthur Silber's post, "Why You Should Protest the Torture and Abuse of Children." He offers some provocative thoughts about the long-term psychological (and, in some cases, physical) damage done to children by some of the child-rearing practices at issue here.