Though some observers argue that we live in a “secular age,” religion remains central in many Americans’ lives. More than half of us describe ourselves as “religious” and worship regularly in churches, temples, and mosques, mostly churches. The number was even larger in previous generations, and, in truth, far more grew up “religious” than not. For most of us, religion was a positive influence in childhood: a set of beliefs, a way of seeing the world, and a pattern of ritual that offered meaning, comfort, and community. But for some, religion proved a source of trauma.
Note: This article was originally published in the Fall 2004 edition of The Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
Child Abuse in the Name of Religion
By Robert Fulton, MA, LISAC, Administrator, The Meadows
The father, like an Old Testament prophet, roars out the moral law at the child he cannot control. If the parent does not see or hear what the child's sinful deeds or thoughts are, certainly God does, and nothing gets past God. If the child does not learn to behave according to the holy law - to abide by its prohibitions against impure sexual thoughts and deeds, against drunkenness and dancing and sloth, to be neat and finish one's food - the child is damned. Obey God; obey your parents. And if punishment is not enough to change the child, God's damnation will be forthcoming as certainly as the sun rises.
The Bible-thumping parent, like the Old Testament God of wrath, lays down the law to his child.
He teaches that right and wrong are external concepts, sanctioned by a relentless God, and that disobedience is the measure of personal failure and evidence of flawed humanity. This substitution of power and control for nurture and love is the setting for traumatic abuse in the name of religion - a denial of the inherent worth of the child and the perfect imperfection of his developmental energies and appetites. Often there is a sexual element at the heart of the parent's own developmental immaturity.
Religiously abusive parents instill in their children a fear of an ogre in the sky with a great big chalkboard, writing down everything these children do - and that if these deeds are not erased, they will be damned. These parents have no idea how to maturely educate and guide their children, usually because they were never taught by their own parents. They make God into a Marine drill sergeant whose bellowed orders cover up their own feelings of parental inadequacy. Their denial of their anxiety and fear and the repression of their sexual energies infect the air like an undiagnosed epidemic, and it is the child who becomes diseased.
Let us say that a religiously abusive parent discovers his child's masturbation. He says to the child, "I know what you are doing, and although I may not see you doing it, God knows and sees what you are doing. If you continue to masturbate, you are going to be damned." The parent, because of his own psychosexual immaturity, cannot walk the child through a natural sexual evolution in a functional way, and rather projects onto the child his own primitive fear of sexuality. In angry self-righteousness, the parent invokes external authority to maintain control and to go one-up so that he can, like the Wizard of Oz, hide behind his role on the family throne. Most often, these "God-fearing" parents think they are frightening the wits out of their child for the child's own good. The child will now feel defective around a normal developmental stage, which the parents do not celebrate or honor. Instead, they demonize normal sexuality and shamelessly terrorize the child in the name of "holiness."
Parents who revert to the authoritarian threat of Biblical punishment are fear-based. They need an external control system because they don't have an internal control system. The child will carry the poisonous inheritance of his parents' shameful immaturity as he grows into adulthood, ruining his own attempts at intimacy in posttraumatic throwbacks to his original shaming.
Having been tyrannized into the same emotional and intellectual box with his parents, that child, should he ever become reflective and seek freedom from parental coercion, will rebel and develop the core issue delusion of taking his value from one being. But it is a sad truth that the budding desire to gain freedom will be shame-based and will eventually take a dark side, as the adult wounded child seeks relief from his shame. And as we see so often at The Meadows, this search for lessened shame will take on a medicative state, even if it is addiction in the name of a delusional freedom, a delusional selfdefinition and the delusional authenticity of rebellion.
Since the child's gratification will be shamed-based, resentment and remorse enter his adult relationships whenever he seeks gratification. All of his emotions are knotted up in the tentacles of carried shame, so when he steps outside the template of his parents' shamelessness, he takes their shame with him; he re-experiences the notion that he is defective, even in the midst of gratification. He feels the childhood shame of his parents' debasement of normal human developmental emotions, even in the rebellion through which he seeks his freedom from tyranny.
When he experiences the ecstacy of being outside the box, the wounded adult child has his wires crossed and must go outside the norm in order to find this ecstacy. Perhaps this adult wounded child will look to a prostitute in order to get subconsciously in touch with the shame, fear and intensity his posttraumatic stress require. The adult wounded child will demand shame, fear and intensity from the experience, because these emotions were present at the ego age of his original wounding. To be himself, he will search for the familiar, even though it is painful and degrading. He has become hardwired by posttraumatic stress.
These kinds of shame-based actings out will involve the adult wounded child in the blame game, in which he blames his partner for the remorse, guilt, inadequacy and anger he experiences when he has sex or when he seeks relational gratification. Daddy gets the blame, the partner gets the blame, and religion gets the blame. Everything but himself is at fault.
He does not have the tools to be self-empowering and accountable. Not having the power to defend himself, he will characteristically react as a victim - of everything bad that happens in his life. The adult wounded child goes into a victim stance as a way of coping with his lack of personal skills. He feels himself a victim to the spouse, to the parent... he is even a victim of God: "Dear God, how can You have abandoned me?"/p>
Some stay in the "poor-me" victim stance, while others flip into the aggressive offensiveness of "screw you." Not able to ask what their role was in all of this, or what they need to do in order take care of themselves, they attack from the victim position. These victim attacks take them from one-down to one-up. Addiction, always a one-up posture, is often concomitant with the victim stance.
Abuse and the Parish
When I was involved in parish life, a corps of volunteers kept the parish running. The pastoral team would always falsely empower these people by lavishly praising them. These volunteers needed self-esteem - people who did not have self-care, people who wanted a daddy or a mommy because they didn't have one when they were growing up to tell them how wonderful they were.
In parish life, so many people get their esteem externally. The healthy goal is to give from a place of fullness, to give of the fullness of yourself freely, without manipulation. If I give myself away so that you will tell me I am wonderful and I can feel good about myself, I have given myself away, and this is codependence. It is not self-esteem; it is other-esteem.
The good of the institutionalized church is not more important than the good of the individual. The persons who suffer in this paradigm of other-esteem are the children of parents who, while serving the church, are not at home parenting. They are at church buying their esteem. The church, by being a failed parent to its own priests and parishioners, recruits failed parents who willingly accept the church's abuse of authority and labor for the greater glory of the church, inc.
What this says to the children of these needy parents is that both parent and child have no value; they are less-than. It perpetuates a vicious shame cycle in which the parents get their esteem on the outside, and are abandoning their children in order to do it. The church requires failed parents to buy into its own failure of parental responsibility, and it applauds the failure by calling these abused parishioners "the faithful."
The spiritual demise of the church occurred because the church has opted for power, greed and secrecy over connection, empowerment and intimacy. The invitation of St. Francis of Assisi was to rebuild the church - not in terms of bricks, mortar and coffers - but in terms of being present and spiritually connected: to give a voice to the voiceless and to empower the powerless. The church needs to accept that invitation, so, like a parent to a child, it can nurture and love and be loved by God in return.