A Year Later — Justin Harris

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Last year I blogged about a “State of Perversion” in Arkansas. The news broke with a sensational expose by the Arkansas Times on our local state representative Justin Harris. Now a year from his outing, this seems an appropriate time to check on how far we’ve come. (Or haven’t.)

Here, in part, is what I wrote:

“Justin Harris is serving his third term in the Arkansas Legislature where he has introduced conservative measures ranging from abortion restriction to denying funding to the state’s department of human services under the campaign promise to reduce government spending. He and his wife own and operate a preschool in his legislative district town of West Fork, a largely rural constituency with a high percentage of fundamentalist church followers. Alongside the alphabet and fingerpainting, Mr. Harris’ school teaches religion.

  • UPDATE: Since the scandal broke, Mr. Harris announced he would not run for another term. However, he refused to resign, meaning he continues to serve at the state capitol until January 2017. Even more disgusting has been the utter and abject failure of any Republican legislator to criticize Mr. Harris.

“In 2012, Harris found himself on the hot seat after a formal complaint was filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Seems Mr. No Government Funding had his hand in the public till by obtaining grant funding for his preschool. Over a million dollars had flowed into his coffers, courtesy of a state agency charged with providing tax monies in support of preschools that addressed the needs of ‘underserved’ youth…

“Mr. Harris mounted a vigorous and outraged defense of his right to all that money. He brought in a team of attorneys from Arizona who specialized in defending schools who want to teach Jesus on the public dime. Subsequently, the ABC program promulgated a set of rules specifically addressing the issue of religious instruction. It is unknown whether the ‘solution’ was put forth by the Arizona attorneys, modeled on rules operating in other states, or sprang from a singular Arkansas process, but the novel approach defines an ‘ABC day’ as a set number of hours of purely secular instruction. Whether religious instruction occurs before the ABC day commences or after it ends would not be the state’s concern.

“Since then, Mr. Harris has expanded his operation and state funding approaches a million dollars annually. His students arrive as early as 7:30 a.m. and leave as late as 6 p.m. The ABC day begins at 9 and lasts until 3. Before and after, it’s all about Jesus.

  • UPDATE: An exchange of information with Americans United for Separation of Church and State reveals that under current federal guidelines, states can use tax dollars in this way. Apparently there’s no compelling interest in establishing a viability test where a school would have to prove that its religious instruction could exist separately without the use of tax dollars. In the case of the Harris school, if tax dollars didn’t support the rent, utilities, and salaries for operations, the school would cease to exist. Repeated questioning of DHS money managers produced zero interest in developing or implementing such a test.
  • Likewise, we can hardly expect much interest for reform among current members of Congress who quake in fear of the Religious Right. Closing a loophole that recruits so many young minds to their way of thinking is simply not to be considered even if that loophole stands in clear violation of the U. S. Constitution.

“Soon after the flap over school funding, the Harrises…decided to adopt little three girls whose dysfunctional family had lost custody. The girls were fairly well adjusted in a foster home, but the natural mother allegedly made a personal plea to Justin Harris. This arguably admirable effort left many to question Harris’ quick use of the girls in a family portrait promoting his re-election campaign (a violation of adoption policy), the nearly $30,000 tax break that came with the adoption, and the monthly stipend allotted to Harris in the form of state support. Clearly, the adoption wasn’t all about benevolence.

“Firmly fixated on the adoption idea, the Harrises refused to listen to DHS field agents who reported that the girls would not be suitable in the Harris household. With all the arrogance befitting a person who believed God directed his acts, Harris apparently used his elected office to pressure DHS to approve the adoption. Local caseworkers opposed to the adoption mysteriously changed their recommendation after their boss advocated on the Harris’ behalf. That Justin Harris held a powerful position in the legislative committee which controlled DHS funding seems never to have been examined as a possible contributor to this department head’s advocacy, which resulted in a local juvenile court judge granting the adoption. Unfortunately, because the case involves adoption, DHS has not released any information.”

  • UPDATE: Unfortunately, nothing is known to have changed regarding inappropriate legislator influence over DHS activities. But the incident does reveal the ugly underbelly of an organized evangelical movement to adopt children. The objective is two-fold: provide a viable argument against abortion rights for women and brainwash vulnerable youngsters to extremist religious views.

“Within a year, the Harrises decided to ‘rehome’ the girls to another family. By early 2014, one of the girls had been raped by her new ‘father,’ Eric Cameron Francis. Later that year, Francis would be convicted of multiple counts of child abuse and is currently serving time. As it turns out, Francis had been an employee at the Harris preschool and his wife was good friends with Mrs. Harris. Not surprisingly, Harris chose to stay quiet about his role in placing the victim in the Francis home until a reporter from the Arkansas Times connected the dots. The story went public in March 2015.

“When the adoption/rehoming scandal broke, Harris held a press conference as reported by the Arkansas Times. He presented himself and his family as the damaged party.

“…He said one of the girls — the implication was the middle sister — had to be medicated to stop hurting her sister, and that he was advised by therapists to treat her RAD [Reactive Attachment Disorder] by removing toys and other belongings from her room.

  • UPDATE: Harris never publicly accepted responsibility for the harm inflicted on these girls. While his initial reaction seemed to portray him and his wife as the aggrieved parties, his last public statement on the issue included a comment to the effect that he felt sad about what happened to the girls…as if he personally had nothing to do with it.
  • ABC News produced a close-up on the Harris adoption scandal. The report failed to address the ignored caseworker input and accepted at face value the excuse of Reactive Attachment Disorder. In response, a statement from a collective of mental health professionals criticized the ABC report and refuted RAD as a legitimate diagnosis.
  • On a more promising note, however, the girls are reportedly well adjusted in their new post-Harris adoptive home. And newly-elected Governor Asa Hutchinson saw fit to accept the resignation of the head of DHS and has hired a new person to fill this slot. He has also instigated a complete revamping of the department.

“Harris said he sought DHS assistance at that time but was given none. He said he thought he’d found the ‘perfect solution’ in handing the girls over to…Eric Cameron Francis. Eric Francis is serving 40 years in prison on charges of raping the child.”

  • UPDATE: Justin Harris has continued to hire questionable employees to care for the vulnerable young children attending his preschool. A school bus driver failed to notice that a child remained on the bus. The child was not discovered until early afternoon. Fortunately, the temperature remained fairly mild that day and the van was parked in the shade. The child suffered no ill effects. Nevertheless, the driver was prosecuted. The Harrises fired the driver immediately upon discovery of the incident and accepted no responsibility even though the school failed to abide by its own protocols in checking attendance which would have discovered the missing child.
  • Additionally, word has leaked out that another male employee was fired in December 2015 for inappropriate contact with the students. Seems the Harrises might need to employ better screening methods for prospective employees other than learning whether the candidate regularly attends church.

“Within a month of the revelation that Arkansas DHS had no rule or restriction on the rehoming of adopted children, the state legislature passed a law making rehoming a felony. Harris voted for the bill, in essence making himself a retroactive felon. He resigned from the chairmanship of the public health committee, but failed to yield his legislative seat. He has also refused to accept any responsibility for the little girl’s sexual abuse. At the peak of this fiasco, his school billboard proclaimed that ‘God Himself will fight for you. Just stay calm.’”

  • UPDATE: Happily for all of us in South Washington County who must drive past the Harris pre-school on a daily basis, the school’s outside billboard has remained empty of Godly exhortations since the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, with the exception of a brief period during Christmas.

“Throughout the intense scrutiny on Harris and his failure as an adoptive parent, a considerable body of information has come to light about ongoing religious activities at his preschool. Although random spot inspections by the state theoretically rule out the chance of illegal religious activity during the ‘ABC day,’ reports from former teachers and others allege that children who misbehave are routinely taken to the office where they are prayed over to ‘cast out demons…’

  • UPDATE: There’s been no official (or unofficial) statement from any elected leader or state agency on the use of prayer to cast demons out of misbehaving youngsters. Why would it be so difficult to issue a blanket policy statement about the negative impact on young minds of promoting the belief that demons might inhabit a person or that such demons, rather than oneself, is the party responsible for misbehavior?

“…While firmly denying funding to DHS based on his campaign promise to reduce government spending, Mr. Harris (as legislator) fought for government handouts to fund his religious school in spite of the fact that he knew he was breaking the law by teaching religion in a tax-supported program. As an elected person who held himself up as an example of Christian righteousness, he should have been the first person to recognize he was crossing the line between church and state as delineated in the U. S. Constitution. Instead, assuming he understood the thrust of the Founding Fathers’ intent, he no doubt privately justified his behavior with his belief that God willed it…

“This kind of simplistic medieval thinking lies behind the ability of political handlers to capture votes from the evangelical demographic. The compelling argument is that demons rule the ‘other’ party, that gay marriage, abortion, and other private activities are the proper province of political action, and only by voting for Mr. Righteous can we satisfy the will of God.

“There are many features of modern life that scare the hell out of those who simply cannot understand science or other changes increasingly widespread in the world. Our technology and culture have evolved faster than our mental or physical state. Everything is too fast and too complicated. It’s only been a hundred years since picking peas and saddling a horse served as the requisite skill set to get through life.

  • UPDATE: Which brings us to the candidacy of Donald Trump. Although no one would claim that Trump is a model of evangelical righteousness, he embodies another characteristic evidently more important to the religious right: the ability to dominate. Of almost equal importance is Trump’s wealth, which evangelicals view as God’s gift to a righteous man.
  • Just as the religious right’s concept of a Supreme Being embodies power and arrogance, so does Trump. By reflecting back the anger, fear, and blind hatred toward those unlike themselves, Trump approaches the brink of gaining the Republican nomination for president. The collusion of willful ignorance and the result of years of religious education (versus education based on logic and fact) now stands before us.

One final encouraging note: Justin and Marsha Harris’ West Fork home is up for sale. It may be asking too much, but one can hope that at least this one preschool operation will be taken over by an educator, not another evangelist, and that the children there will learn rational thought along with their ABCs.

Finally, we’re pleased to note that Mr. Harris earned the top ‘dick’ award for 2015.

Coming soon…an update on the Duggar family’s equally outrageous 2015.

 

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Legal. Immoral.

Artists-impressions-of-Lady-Justice,_(statue_on_the_Old_Bailey,_London)For better or worse, religious affiliation remains an important thread in the social fabric of these United States. ‘Better,’ most would say. Political candidates campaign on their religious credentials. Religious leaders are sought out as advisers in business and community affairs.

A large segment of the population assumes that religion provides important moral guidelines for life. The theory is that without religion, there would be no morality.

But what if the opposite were true? What if religion gets in the way of moral behavior?

The assumption has been that highly religious people such as our locally infamous Justin and Marsha Harris are highly moral. They go to church. They ‘witness’ their faith in public. Mr. Harris has used his Christian standing in his successful campaigns for public office. Their religious mission is to ‘grow God’s kingdom’ at their pre-school by indoctrinating children with religious teachings.

In the last year, events have unfolded that cause many to question the morality of the Harrises. Believing that God guided their steps, about four years ago they adopted two little girls. Within a relatively short time, the girls became such as problem that the Harrises gave them away. The six-year-old was subsequently raped by her new ‘father.’ In March 2015, the story became public.

In addressing that horrible outcome, Justin Harris belatedly stated he felt sorry for the little girls’ experience. Aside from that, he has blamed the state’s social services agency for not helping more. That’s it.

The irony is that the Harrises felt free to dispose of their newly adopted young daughters and then, in the public fallout after their ‘rehoming’ came to light, agreed that such a practice should be defined as a felony.

Is such an act wrong only if it breaks a law? Did the act of rehoming change somehow once the law was passed, so that when Justin and Marsha rehomed these girls, it wasn’t wrong?

The moral reality is that if it’s a felony now, it was a felony when it happened.

Unfortunately, this is often how religion works in people’s minds. An act is immoral, wrong, bad only when someone has already written a rule or law about it. Does the religious person have license to ignore (or never bother to understand) a greater responsibility to adhere to an inner moral code that would say, emphatically, that dumping young children you’ve pledged to make your own is wrong, bad, immoral?

It’s the ultimate mea culpa. Throw up the hands. “Nobody said…”

Justin and Marsha found themselves at a loss about how to handle these two troubled young girls. They pulled out all their parenting skills to punish bad behavior—isolating, taking away privileges, removing toys and entertainment. They prayed out demons and perhaps did not spare the rod. Nothing worked. The behavior became worse.

This would have been a rich opportunity for the Harrises to learn some new parenting skills. Perhaps positive reinforcement, or long sessions of hugging and other positive physical contact, or one-on-one time pursuing new and interesting activities would have been useful in breaking down the wall of mistrust and anger that grew between these adults and their two young daughters.

Sympathetic observers point out that the Harrises had successfully raised three sons, concluding that they must be decent parents. It remains to be seen how well the sons turn out. But it’s also worth questioning whether the Harris’ success in raising their own children wasn’t a result of stellar parenting as much as a result of the boys’ adaptation to repressive, authoritarian parenting from Day One.

We know the girls were capable of appropriate behavior. The foster parents who cared for them before the Harris adoption as well as the family who have subsequently become the girls’ parents have remarked on the girls’ loving nature. Neither families have run shrieking in terror from the girls or found them a threat to the stability of their households. It’s not much of a stretch to conclude, based on this evidence, that the problem between the girls and the Harrises was the Harrises.

The rape has dominated discussion of the Harris’ rehoming decision. But a much bigger issue looms in the background. That is, the immorality of legal behavior.

For example, law enforcement beats up an innocent person because he didn’t instantly abide by police orders. A hunter spends $50,000 to kill a trophy animal. Legal. Immoral. A list of other examples would be long.

As far as I’ve heard, the Harrises have never said they did the wrong thing. Justin never admitted that he may have used his legislative seat (as representative for my home district) to push through an adoption against the expressed advice of caseworkers and the girls’ foster parents.

Yet it was a chain of events propelled by the Harrises which led to their custody of the girls in the first place. Where exactly does the responsibility begin?

Were the Harrises wrong to be so arrogant that they ignored advice from experienced caseworkers? Was it immoral to commit to parenting two very troubled young children and then renege?

Yes.

How is it possible for the Harrises to have engaged in immoral, arrogant behavior and still—after all the exposure and shame—not recognize the depth of their immorality?

I would suggest that their hubris stems directly from pride in their own religiosity.

A recent study found that religious people aren’t more likely to do good than their nonreligious counterparts.[1] This isn’t the first or last evidence that religion does not impart morality. Here’s just one of many comments on this question.

  • These studies begin to provide empirical support for the idea that like other psychological faculties of the mind, including language and mathematics, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong, interacting in interesting ways with the local culture. These intuitions reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance as much as our opposable thumbs are.[2]

It makes sense that humans possess innate morality. In the view of those who subscribe to evolution, morality is an evolved necessary component of our continued existence. In the view of those who adhere to beliefs in extraterrestrial interference in human existence, morality would have been a key ingredient in intelligent design. Either way, all investigation points to an innate morality in human consciousness.

Recognition of innate wisdom and individual responsibility should be taught in every pulpit. Instead, especially in fundamentalist religions, individuals are taught to be afraid of their instincts. They’re taught to follow rules laid out in religious texts and nothing else matters.

Inevitably, a person’s avid embrace of institutionalized religion can and does interfere with the application of inborn human morality. The person trusts the religion, not himself. The religion’s rules or lack thereof in any given application supersedes any instinctive understanding of right action.

Assuming that the fundamental element of morality in human nature is not somehow missing in the genetic code of Justin and Marsha Harris, an interested observer would be forced to conclude that it was their religion that got them into this mess. Religion is the reason why, even months after their poor judgment became front page news, they still have not said they made a mistake, have not said they regret what they did. Have not apologized to the state agencies they maligned. Have not asked forgiveness of the public they supposedly served.

They did what they believed their religion and the law allowed. They parented according to a model condoned by the church, perhaps modeled after how they themselves were raised. What they did wasn’t a felony when they did it, therefore they did nothing wrong.

Harris has announced he won’t run for another term in office but stopped short of resigning from a seat he’ll hold another eighteen months. He continues to wield regulatory and fiscal power over the same state agency which he says forced him and Marsha to dump the little girls. He and his wife continue to operate their pre-school where they pass on their questionable religious teachings to innocent children.

As an embarrassed constituent who never voted for this man in the first place, I’ve given up hoping for a Harris epiphany any time soon. Even more regrettably, I doubt we’ll ever hear a word of censure from his equally-religious legislative colleagues and governor.

Perhaps the most we can salvage from this unsavory affair is to recognize the broader lessons. Religion doesn’t confer morality. Worse, an individual’s duty to pursue moral behavior is easily abdicated in favor of going to church.

We need more morality and less religion.

[1] http://www.livescience.com/47799-morality-religion-political-beliefs.html

[2] http://www.qcc.cuny.edu/SocialSciences/ppecorino/INTRO_TEXT/Chapter%208%20Ethics/Reading-Morality-without-Religion.htm

The Report Is In

Child's hand 0001Initiated in early spring, a study of Arkansas’ Department of Human Services (DHS) is Governor Asa Hutchinson’s first step in addressing systemic problems within the agency. The driving force behind this initiative was the ‘rehoming’ and subsequent rape of a six-year-old girl originally adopted by Rep. Justin Harris and his wife Marsha of West Fork, owner and operator of a pre-school, Growing God’s Kingdom.

Harris’ excuse for their ‘rehoming’ of two already traumatized little girls was that he had asked DHS for help and they had refused. He stated that the girls had been “damaged by previous abuse and he couldn’t manage them,” according to Friday’s coverage by the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (July 17, 2015).

Unfortunately, the governor failed to require this study to investigate whether Harris abused the power of his legislative position to coerce DHS approval of the adoption in the first place.

The couple fostering the two girls prior to the Harris adoption have voiced their belief that Harris had done exactly that. More than one observer cited local caseworkers’ opposition to the adoption. Harris was warned that the girls would not be suitable for his household. He pushed the adoption through anyway and immediately included the girls in a photograph used in his reelection campaign.

Less than a year later, when he and his wife decided the girls were too much to handle, Harris ‘rehomed’ them to a Benton County couple, Eric Francis and his wife.

Harris may have believed that the Francis household would serve as a suitable home. He cited the couple’s adoption of other children as evidence of their suitability. In hindsight, an observer might suspect that the couple’s eagerness to adopt had to do with the husband’s predilection for molesting children rather than any altruistic urge.

Prior to a stiff “I’m sorry for what happened to the girls” statement in June, Harris has admitted no wrongdoing. Now that the governor’s study is complete, it seems no blame will be assigned. We can take small comfort that Harris won’t run for another term.

State police investigating the extent of Francis’ abuse forced Harris to acknowledge to parents of his preschool students that a former employee had been convicted of sexually molesting children. Investigators found no specific evidence that Francis abused any children at the preschool, but several parents removed their children from the program anyway.

A year passed.

Without a reporter digging into the matter, the link between the conviction of Eric Francis and the role of Justin and Marsha Harris would never have been made public. Harris had reasons not to want any of this known. Not only was he holding elected office and operating a religious pre-school, he served as the co-chair of the House committee with control over the Department of Human Services. The whole debacle reflected poorly on his judgement.

Apparently none of this lit up on Gov. Hutchinson’s radar when he commissioned the study of DHS even though the trigger for the study was Harris’ accusation that he had to rehome the girls because DHS wouldn’t help. There has been nothing from the governor or in the report to criticize Harris for ignoring DHS advice and pressing for the adoption. There’s been no known follow-up on whether Harris held up the DHS budget request as part of his coercion as alleged by some observers. There’s been no statement by any of Harris’ Republican colleagues in the state legislature as to his ethics–or lack thereof.

Yes, DHS has problems and the report confirms just how bad they are. None of that excuses what Harris did.

Gov. Hutchinson brought in Paul Vincent to conduct the study, an experienced career man who formerly headed Alabama’s social services department. Vincent has conducted similar studies in numerous states. His analysis reveals a state agency in deep distress, understaffed and suffering long-term problems, all of which fell under Harris’ purview as Vice Chair of the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth and as a member of the Joint Budget, a powerful committee which approves all appropriations for state agencies.

The study found that caseworkers in Arkansas are expected to handle twice as many cases as the national average (29 versus 15). The state has only two foster homes for every three children who need them which results in one of every five children in need being placed in a non-family living situation. Some caseworkers are forced to hold the child overnight at the office or at their own home.

The problem gets worse by the day. The number of children in foster care increased in just the last two months from 3,875 to 4,323. Fifty-five percent of fostered children are placed outside their home county because adequate arrangements aren’t available locally. With this kind of pressure within the system, the default option for caseworkers is to ignore cases where abuse is not clear cut.

The outcome is horrific. In 2011, 23 children died in families where social services had been in contact but had not taken the child out of the home. By 2014, the number jumped to 40. Most recently, a six year old boy died of intestinal rupture after being raped by his father. Social services had previously visited the home twice and found nothing to justify removing the child from the home.

The six-year-old raped after being rehomed by Justin and Marsha Harris came from an extremely troubled home situation. According to reports, this middle child of three daughters had already been through hell.

  • The girls had been taken into DHS custody in early 2011 after suffering through a staggering sequence of chaos and abuse. First, [the mother Sarah] Young discovered her husband sexually assaulting Jeannette, the oldest of the three girls, and turned him in; he is now in prison. (Other sources claim Young waited for days to turn the husband over to the police.) Young then became involved with a man who cooked and sold methamphetamine; a fire started by his meth lab provoked a police investigation that sent that man, too, to prison. The child abuse hotline soon thereafter received a call from an individual concerned for the girls’ safety, and investigators found the children in the care of a woman in a house with multiple adults who tested positive for meth; one man at the home had been sexually abusing both Jeannette and Mary, and he is now serving a 120-year sentence. When DHS collected the children, the eldest was 5, the middle girl was 3 and the youngest was under a year old. (More here)

Vincent pointed out the frustration experienced by caseworkers who want to help children and yet are left without sufficient resources and methods by which to do so. In response to the report, Gov. Hutchinson estimates it will mean hiring an additional 200 caseworkers at a cost of at least $8 million. No one knows where that money will come from.

Price tags remain unknown for the report’s recommendation for better and more accessible mental health care for foster children and others in the state’s care. For years, law enforcement and prison administrators have called for better mental health interventions for troubled offenders who end up incarcerated. The death toll among mentally ill prisoners continues to climb along with deaths of abused children while to date the state legislature has made no real strides in addressing this need.

Meanwhile, in their 2015 sessions Harris and fellow legislators spent countless hours fomenting unconstitutional laws to restrict abortion rights and to allow a Ten Commandments monument to be erected on state capitol grounds. And they’ve given themselves a pay increase from $15,869 to $39,400 per year.

If the Justin Harris case hadn’t been brought before the public by a reporter at the Arkansas Times, it’s questionable whether this study would have occurred. Because that’s how things are done in Arkansas. We don’t want to go looking for trouble.

We know trouble is out there. We know we are among the poorest states but other than appropriating scarce tax dollars to bribe companies to locate here, we can’t figure out how to do better.

Nearly 17% of Arkansans never graduate high school and less than 14% obtain a college degree. We have the next to lowest per capita income in the nation. Our crime rate is significantly higher than the national average and our prison population is growing accordingly. We also rank high in poor health, obesity, and use of tobacco and other dangerous drugs.

Despite the continuing lousy achievement levels in Arkansas, we seem incapable of trying to change anything. The conservative voters of this state loathe national standards in education; they want local control and tax dollars for programs such the Harris preschool where children are taught that their misbehavior is the result of demon possession.

Conservatives are outraged by the Affordable Care Act and legislators promise to end the state’s participation despite its progressive reforms including increased coverage for mental health care.

The governor says he will take the DHS problems to the faith-based community to increase foster care resources and improve care. Because religion helped Justin and Marsha Harris make good choices? Because religion guided Eric Francis? Because religion saved those little girls?

Why am I not reassured?

Us and Them

usandthem-470x330

We thought we were the top of the world. The most advanced. The richest. The strongest. The U. S. of A., best of the best. All those things are true in so many ways. Aside from our wealth of natural resources, the nation’s strength and riches are what we, each and collectively, have to offer.

But strengths and riches aren’t all we have to offer. We also perform acts of insane violence that kill young children or innocent churchgoers, of smug self-righteousness that allows a brother to repeatedly molest his sisters, that allows an adopted six year old girl to be ‘rehomed’ and raped by her new ‘father.’

Why do deep veins of ignorance, hate, and fear continue to burn through our national body like a stream of caustic lye?

More urgently, what are we going to do about it?

Cultural Tradition: The Scots, for example

Following centuries of armed conflict between the native Scots and the British, in 1745 the British brutally terminated the last rebellion. Traditional Scottish kilts were outlawed and inherited lands were taken from the ruling class. A century earlier, Britain had moved large numbers of Scots into northern Ireland in an effort to weaken the equally rebellious Irish. (The volatile results of that maneuver continue to simmer today.) This Scots population of northern Ireland became known as the Scotch-Irish.

Aside from the desire for self-rule, the Protestant Scots and Catholic Irish fought the Anglican British over religion.

Between 1717 and 1775, nearly a quarter million Scots and Scotch-Irish migrated to the American colonies. Earlier settlers had already built their towns, farms, and plantations along the eastern seaboard so these newcomers moved west to unsettled land. They fought Native Americans and the wilderness to carve out a life where nobody told them how to worship or what to wear.

quotescots copy (Wikipedia)

These are the people who formed the predominant original working class white populations of the southern states and parts of the Midwest. Already inured by generations of religious conflict in their native lands, the Scots clung fiercely to their religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and desire for independence from government rule. Generally not slave-holders, they nevertheless rallied to the Confederate cause, seeing it as their own because it was against government control, against someone telling them what to do.

The defeat of the South with its quarter-million deaths, injuries that came home with the veterans, and the loss of land, homes and families added to a long memory of defeat and humiliation. It is in this memory that the South will rise again, just as Scotland will once again enjoy independence from its British overlords. This is the vein of anger that holds tight to the Confederate flag, not because it is celebrated as a symbol of white over black, but because it serves as the rallying point for independent men against a conquering army. Rational analysis or details don’t matter. It’s the feeling of injustice that holds sway.

Many American Scots and Scotch-Irish have moved on, accepted the evolution of modern society and its rewards of broader understanding and tolerance. But many have not. For these folks, if you’re not with them, you’re against them.

They are but one example of ancient traditions which continue to guide attitudes and influence behavior in modern America.

Instinctive Fear: Racism

Humans innately tend to associate with others of our own kind. Researchers have given the labels of ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ in discussing this behavior. Within an ‘in-group,’ individuals are assured of mutual support in everything from caring for an injury to defending against attack. We can count on our in-group guys.

At the most primal level, an instant response rises when confronted with someone who doesn’t fit the model of our ‘in-group’. This was an important survival instinct among early humans who relied on visual cues while the stranger remained at a distance. A fight-or-flight reflex rises from the old brain upon encountering a person clearly not of our in-group and we respond accordingly.

What we hope for and strive for in an advanced multicultural, multi-racial society is an immediate secondary and reasoned response that supersedes the instantaneous first reaction to a stranger. We look again and think about whether there’s a real risk. Just because that person doesn’t fit our in-group criteria doesn’t mean he’s a threat.

A fear-based response underlies behavior like freshman Senator Tom Cotton’s advocacy for a new war against Islam. Extremist Christianity such as embraced by Cotton focuses on differences as a way to define and protect group identity. Kill the out-group! A more loving and confident mindset seeks grounds of commonality. A more realistic stance for responsible elected leaders involves negotiation and understanding to lower barriers between groups.

But the more stressed the person or occasion, the more likely the primal reflex remains in force. Cotton may suffer residual PTSD from his two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tests have shown that people are more likely to identify an ambiguous object in a stranger’s hand as a weapon if the stranger is from an out-group. Most importantly, people who regularly operate from a position of feeling threatened are more likely to react instinctively. Everyone but me and my known friends are ‘other.’ (Click here for more.)

Within our most stressed populations, acts of violence are committed by persons of a self-identified group against those seen as outsiders. The outsider is a target for the anger, frustration, and hatred of the in-group member who wants desperately to prove himself to the rest of his group. This behavior can be found in gang warfare, where fabric color designates group identity. It can be found in acts of violence in the Middle East, where a disagreement in 632 about the rightful heir to Mohammad’s leadership resulted in Sunni and Shia still killing each other 1383 years later.

Such acts on behalf of the in-group are carried out as a moral imperative.

The Charleston shooter clearly stated his moral imperative in murdering nine innocent people. They were African-American. “They” were raping “his people, taking over his country.” He did it for his group, whites. His reality, his moral imperative.

Jesus: Not What I Meant. Not What I Meant At All

Murder on behalf of racial purity is little different from those who murder on behalf of their religion. Each Islamic sect claims to be the true follower of Allah. By definition, all others are not ‘of God.’ All others deserve to die. Similarly, many Christian denominations in the U. S. believe all but their kind will burn in the fires of hell.

Faith traditions are, by their very nature, a useful measuring stick by which people may define their most important in-group. More than any other group, religion and its rules ensure a mutual understanding of appropriate behavior, ethics, traditions, and hierarchy. Ideally, religion could serve as the bridge between disparate groups and unite us in spiritual brotherhood.

Sadly, religion has more often than not become yet another means of categorizing a person as out of ‘our’ group. Thus Ronnie Floyd, current head of the Southern Baptist Convention, second largest religious denomination in the U.S. after Catholics, has proclaimed his intention to defy the highest court in the land if it rules in favor of same-sex marriage. He stated that “God, not the Supreme Court” holds final authority over marriage, as if the licensing of marriage were not a legal function of the government.

The issue of gay marriage is but one conflict between primal instinct and the tolerance and acceptance evolving as a world culture. “Raising consciousness is a persuasive enterprise,” Michael Walzer writes in his new book The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, “but it quickly turns into a cultural war between the liberators and what we can call the traditionalists.” This conflict gives rise to fundamentalism and religious ultra-orthodoxy in unexpected places around the world, including the United States.

The more threatened an individual may feel, the more likely he will invest in behavior that he believes will strengthen his in-group. Floyd speaks for all Southern Baptists in voicing fear of a social change perceived as a threat to their religion. This unreasoned primal reaction ignores the reality of the situation: gay marriage has no effect on traditional marriage—unless, as the quip goes, one of the partners in a traditional marriage is gay.

Ideally, religion serves as a pathway not only to seeing the entire human family as the in-group but also to higher self-esteem, respect for others, and a general sense of well-being, all of which help move an individual toward a less fearful stance in life. But this is where religion often plays its most destructive role. Extremist teachings emphasize differences and negatives. Only a few will be chosen. Homosexuals are not like us. Demons can control our lives. We have no personal power. Everything derives from an angry and punishing God.

Differences in economic status are also seen as a reflection of God’s will. The Protestant work ethic involves the relationship between religion, work, and capital. In order to demonstrate our Godliness, we are expected to work hard. With sufficient effort, our labors produce wealth, a sign that we have pleased God. This is why the wealthy are seen as uniquely imbued by God’s grace. For the religious extremist, the wealthy are almost worthy of worship in their own right.

If you’re poor, it’s because you’re unworthy of God’s blessings.

This is why worshipers gravitate to big fancy churches. God likes it there.

Our natural inclination is to accept authority from those we deem more worthy than ourselves. This is why corporate interests have been able to shape American lives around materialism and consumption, a development staunchly supported by religious extremists in spite of Biblical teachings that specifically condemn wealth. (More here)

Adoration of the rich and powerful is why marginalized populations resent any effort by government to assist the poor. It defies God’s will to give  assistance, especially since the funding for such assistance derives from those who have worked hard and gained God’s favor. This holds particularly true in prejudices against African-Americans or Hispanics, who are often caught in a vicious cycle of economic disadvantage and notable markers of an out-group (different skin color, speech patterns, social traditions).

Likewise, yielding authority to self-anointed leaders of religion occurs as a form of obeisance to the leader of the in-group. Recently the Arkansas Times quoted employees of a preschool operated by Arkansas legislator Justin Harris, whose failed strict parenting of two adopted girls resulted in rehoming and the subsequent rape of a six year old: “This was way out of control,” said the worker quoted throughout this piece. “You know how you have an ‘aha moment’? I said the other day to [a co-worker], ‘Why didn’t any of us make a hotline call?’ She said, ‘I don’t know’ … I think because Justin is so religious, we sort of accepted it.”

Did the Charleston murderer understand instinctively that his act would call into question the entire concept of group trust? Should the church members now carry guns, mistrust all newcomers? There can be little doubt that his act, in his tiny mind, served a goal of his self-identified in-group which was/is to destroy the ‘other.’ In that, he now sees himself as a victorious hero.

Similarly, the murder of Christians or other non-Sunni sects by ISIS serves the purpose of their in-group. As one cleric has stated, “We’re ridding the world of polytheism and spreading monotheism across the planet.” (Cite)

The Failure of Education

Our nation’s citizenry can’t operate on a level playing field if they are not educated equally as children. Breaking through destructive cultural, economic, and religious barriers seems an obvious avenue toward eliminating or at least defusing in-group fears and prejudices. And it is.

Which is why members of extremist in-groups violently resist efforts like school integration and uniform curriculum standards.

One might assume that any parent wants his/her child to love learning the lessons of history, the ways of numbers, the use of language in communication and reasoning, the amazing details of biology. We have, as a nation, understood that a thriving economy and successful democracy depend on the fruits of education, which is why we dedicate significant tax dollars to support our public schools. It is why we have set standards for teacher education and defined specific educational goals, why we have forced integration and provided school lunches. We need every child to develop to his/her fullest potential.

For some, the nation’s success or even the child’s well-being hardly register on the radar when held up against the perceived value of in-group traditions.

The more embattled parents feel in protecting their religious beliefs, for example, the more likely they will fight efforts to extend their children’s acceptance of broader cultural norms.

The increase in homeschooling is a product of this mindset. Homeschooling gained its first significant boost after forced integration. With the cultural changes of the 1960s and the rise of the religious right in the 1980s, it continued to pick up steam. From 2003 to 2007, the percentage of students whose parents resorted to homeschooling in order to provide religious or moral instruction increased from 72 percent to 83 percent. (Other reasons given for homeschooling included concerns about the school environment such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure and dissatisfaction with the academic instruction available at other schools.)

Germany, among others, has outlawed homeschooling for this very reason. But in the United States, Supreme Court decisions have found that parents have a right to homeschool their children or send them to private schools based on the definition of ‘liberty’ in the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The only saving grace of these court decisions was the finding that the extent and content of private or home schooling must meet standards set by the government. (See more here.)

Because of the ‘liberty’ protected in the high court’s rulings, not all homeschooling is equal. Each state has its own set of rules about what is or isn’t required for homeschooling. While homeschooling can produce thoughtful, well-rounded children ready to pursue life as a functional American citizen, many such efforts fail utterly to meet that goal. The end result is a significant population of undereducated adults. Currently about 3.5% of young people, or around two million, are homeschooled. A majority of this segment of our nation’s people poses a real and present danger to the future of the American way of life.

Which is just what their parents intended.

Critical skills such as the scientific method of investigation and logical reasoning processes are often left out of extremist curriculum, partly because the parents have never understood such things and therefore have no appreciation for the benefits they offer. For these reactionary parents, already threatened by their perception that valued cultural traditions are being eroded, the goal is not to provide an excellent education by academic standards which mesh with the rest of the nation and world but rather to insulate their children from those very things and thus preserve the norms of their in-group.

There seems no easy resolution. The most recent effort has been the development of Common Core Standards, a widely vilified move to bring clarity and commonality to the nation’s education systems including homeschool curricula. The result of a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the standards were developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators, and experts to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare children for college and the workforce.

These standards focus only on language arts and mathematics, unfortunately leaving aside a more ambitious (and contentious) goal of setting standards for such important subjects as history, social studies, or the sciences. The government’s method of enforcing these bare-bones standards is to withhold federal education funds from states which do not adopt the standards. Eight states have so far refused to adopt them, but the situation remains in flux.

Inevitably, American children fall through the cracks all the time. The Charleston assassin had advanced only as far as ninth grade, a fact which underscores his likely inability to reason clearly or appreciate the broad scope of the world around him. (As noted in a previous blog post, persons with low intelligence are more likely to nurture racial prejudices and view the world from a perspective of threat.)

At their most progressive moments, federal and state governments attempt to break into the cycle of poverty, ignorance, and entrenched in-group thinking. Whether the methods actually help is another question. For example, in an effort to reach children in at-risk populations, the U. S. Department of Education hands out vouchers through its Child Care Development Fund which parents can use anywhere including religious schools.

Such programs target children with at least one of the following characteristics: Family with gross income not exceeding 200% of federal poverty level; Has a demonstrable developmental delay as identified through screening; Parents without a high school diploma or GED; Eligible for services under IDEA[1]; Low birth weight (below 5 pounds, 9 ounces); Income eligible for Title I programs; Parent is under 18 years of age at child’s birth; Limited English Proficiency; Immediate family member has a history of substance abuse/addiction; Parent has history of abuse or neglect; Or is a victim of abuse or neglect.[2]

Noble goals. But by inadvertently encouraging the expansion of religious instruction, such programs may do more harm than good. In Arkansas, this avenue of government aid for children in need has become heavily trafficked by people on a religious mission.

Rep. Justin Harris’s preschool, Growing God’s Kingdom, receives nearly a million tax dollars a year through such programs. Despite theoretical restrictions that religion cannot be part of the academic day, these schools teach religion in the hours before and after the academic day, taking advantage of the extra time children are in their care while parents remain at work. Further, the state’s only method of monitoring these schools for violations is through random inspections.

That’s effective. “Stop praying, the state is here.” Numerous current and former employees of Harris report that children who misbehave during the academic day are taken to the office where they are prayed over in order to cast out the demons causing their misbehavior.

The message inculcated in these young minds is that God is in charge and prayer is the answer.

Rational thought? Personal responsibility? It’s all up to God. Join God’s group and everything will be fine. Such early indoctrination easily leads to a continuation of the conditions that led to their qualification for such programs in the first place. Pregnant at 16? God’s will. Pray. Victim of domestic abuse? Women are to submit to their husband. Pray. Addicted to meth? I’m a sinner. Pray.

At the height of Mr. Harris’ public shaming over the rehoming and subsequent rape of his adopted six year old girl, his school’s signboard proclaimed his membership in his self-identified in-group: “God Himself will fight for you.” To date, Mr. Harris has not acknowledged that he did anything wrong.

In states with the highest populations of at-risk children, legislators in charge of determining everything from curriculum to school funding are increasingly drawn from the ranks of religious extremists. Unable or unwilling to see beyond the walls of their in-group, such legislators circle the wagons against ‘outsiders’ who attempt to set new standards or otherwise interfere with group identity. In Arkansas, the only entity legally empowered to remove Justin Harris from his elected office were his like-minded legislative colleagues. Despite evidence that he illegally used his elected position to gain adoption rights to the two girls he subsequently gave away, there was no investigation. He remains in office and his school remains in operation.

Nowhere in such arguments do we hear that professional educators should be in charge of deciding the best methods of education. (This makes about as much sense as allowing politicians to decide best accounting methods for CPAs or best construction methods for engineers.) A consensus among professional educators is that homeschooling often involves inadequate standards of academic quality and comprehensiveness, lack of socialization with peers of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, the potential for development of religious or social extremism/individualism, and potential for development of parallel societies that do not fit into standards of citizenship and community.

Specifically because parents fear of loss of in-group values, professional educators do not control the purse strings or the programs. Children continue to be victims of their parents’ fears and prejudices, prey to the ebb and flow of political opinion. We continue, as a nation, to suffer the consequences.

What are the solutions?

I don’t pretend to have presented all points relevant to this complicated state of affairs. Nor are my proposed solutions an exhaustive or foolproof list.

But given the failure rate to date, I think it’s safe to say that religion does not and cannot serve as the unifying force for humanity.

What we need is for each person to develop so fully that his/her self-esteem and intellectual skill set outweighs the primal need for narrow in-group identification.

We need to invest in strategies which reduce perceived threats and increase opportunities to break down barriers between groups.

We need broader educational standards so that children in private and home schools have to pass tests for subjects including state, national, and world history; basics of scientific method and the facts of biology, geology, and other sciences; social studies—how government works, the role of voters. Parents need to be held accountable if 17-year-old homeschooled kids can’t pass key tests.

We must stand firm against attempts to teach Creationism as an alternative to science. We must eliminate tax funding which in any way supports religious instruction at any grade level.

We must find ways, both institutionally and personally, to facilitate in-group/out-group encounter sessions and counseling alongside cultural education at all grade levels.

We must end the war on drugs. Legalize and tax all of it. Get over the idea that government can dictate what people ingest to alter their consciousness or that altered consciousness is in itself a crime. Demilitarize our police forces and deliver our communities from the tyranny of criminal gangs. Use tax dollars currently wasted on bigger prisons along with new revenues produced from legal drug sales to initiate pro-active programs in support of early childhood health and education, family intervention in cases of abuse and neglect, substance abuse treatment, and free/low cost mental/physical health care in every community.

We must require a significant period of public service from young people. Such service would broaden the scope away from a family or church or racial in-groups and instead build ownership in the in-group of our nation.

Don’t agree with the actions of our current elected leaders? Don’t support the policies of our nation? The instrument of change lies in our hands. An informed, self-confident electorate can be—should be—the strength of America.

We can feel a bit of relief in the amazing power of television and the Internet to instill greater understanding of different lifestyles, different races, and unfamiliar cultures. Social media such as Facebook allows us to engage in constructive dialogue with members of out-groups without the immediate threat of physical violence. These are opportunities we must use carefully in order not to trigger an even more visceral in-group identification among the ‘other.’

Many of these things are already being done.

Finally, there’s this:

“…The data…demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical ‘cultures of life’ that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developed democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data – a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.”[3]

[1] http://idea.ed.gov/

[2] http://www.arkansased.org/public/userfiles/rules/Current/ade_257_Arkansas_Better_Chance_October_2012.pdf

[3] “National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies,” Gregory S. Paul. Journal of Religion & Society Volume 7 (2005) http://moses.creighton.edu/jrs/2005/2005-11.pdf Accessed June 19, 2015

The Devil Within

ID-100214173(1)In my last blog post, I wrote about Josh Duggar, Justin Harris, and Arkansas’ continuing stream of revealed perversion by rightwing religious and political leaders. I thought I said it all. I turned off the light and went to bed.

Then came responses in defense of Josh Duggar. Oh, he was a kid. It happened a long time ago. It wasn’t that big of a deal, and anyway he confessed and asked forgiveness. They prayed and he became closer to God.

So let me first address those points.

There is no evidence that Josh Duggar came forward as a penitent to admit his wrongdoing. The heavily redacted police report allows for multiple interpretations of who said what. “Someone” tearfully came to the Duggar parents, stating that “someone” had been sneaking into “their” bedroom at night and that it had happened “four or five times.”

Another objection to the public airing of the poor boy’s ‘minor offense’ is that he was only fourteen. Yes, when first reported in March 2002, Josh was fourteen. His parents considered ‘discipline’ a sufficient response. Four months later in July 2002, Josh was found to have resumed his incestuous behavior. He was again ‘disciplined.’

Because if it didn’t work the first time, it’s sure to work the second time.

This too failed to achieve the expected results. Once again apparently oblivious to potentially permanent psychological and emotional harm suffered by Josh’s prey, the parents continued life as usual. A full year after the first report, in March 2003, the now-fifteen year old Josh’s incestuous abuse again came to the parents’ attention.

Clearly Josh sought opportunities to ‘cop a feel.’ Just as clearly, his targets did not report every single incident at the time it happened. Josh knew how far he could go without triggering a complaint. This is not the behavior of a child, but rather a person capable of calculated predation.

It was only after this third complaint that Josh’s father Jim Bob Duggar consulted with church elders. That’s because everyone knows that in cases of sexual deviancy and incest, church elders are the experts. According to the police report, the initial consensus was that Josh should be placed in treatment. On second thought, Mr. Duggar voiced concern about the possible negative effects of exposure to other youth at the treatment facility. It was this threat of contamination by troubled non-Christian peers that drove the placement of Josh with a known Christian friend in Little Rock.

Apparently the overriding concern focused on Josh. Get him away from his tempting sisters. Place him with an understanding adult male where no such temptation existed. Put a hammer in his hands and set him to hard labor for a while.

Based on statements made to date, we assume the possibility of mental health care never came up. Evidently a treatment program was initially viewed as a punishment, not a means to access therapy that might have helped Josh understand why he felt such urges. Counseling for his victims also apparently never entered the discussion.

A different face of the same problem awaits appropriate closure in the failed adoption of three sisters by Rep. Justin Harris and his wife Marsha. Certain that God guided them to bring the girls into their home, the Harrises pushed through a private adoption against the advice of therapists and caseworkers for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, who warned that the girls had endured significant sexual abuse in the home. According to the foster parents who had kept the girls in their home for over a year, Harris used his position as a state legislator to pressure DHS to sign off on the adoption.

Almost immediately, the oldest of the three, age six, was sent away after the Harrises experienced the extent of her disturbed behavior first hand. For the next year, the two younger girls suffered through the twisted parenting of Justin and Marsha which included being locked in a room stripped of books, toys, and other diversions and allowed no contact with her sister. The girls were signed in as ‘present’ at the Harris preschool, ‘Growing God’s Kingdom,’ but often were not present. And despite denials by the Harris attorney, former and current school employees have described Marsha Harris’ practice of ‘praying out demons.’ [The Arkansas Times’ ongoing coverage of the Harris adoption/preschool story has included use of assigned names for the three girls. The youngest, age four at the time of the incident described below, has the name Annie.]

The former classroom aide recalled a specific incident in 2013 in which Marsha Harris voiced a conviction that her adopted girls’ behavior was fueled by demonic influences. “I remember [Annie] was in the classroom just crying and crying, and [the other teacher] couldn’t even talk to her. I sat on the floor and started saying, ‘I see a purple dinosaur,’ or whatever was around the room. She’d cry, and then stop and look, and cry again, and I kept talking and kind of brought her out of the little tizzy she was in.

“I finally asked her what’s wrong. She said she wet her pants, and I said, ‘That’s OK, we all have accidents,’ and I went out, took her wet ones off, and was getting some other ones. About that time, Marsha came storming in and said, ‘What’s going on in here?’ I said [Annie] had an accident, and she said, ‘That was no accident.’

“And that’s when she told me that it was one of her demons that was making her do that. Then that afternoon or maybe later, she told me that they’d already driven out nine demons, but [Annie] still has one that’s making her do those kind of things.”

It wasn’t long after, in late 2013, that the Harrises gave up entirely on the girls and shuffled them off to another family, Eric and Stacey Francis.

Evidently God had changed His mind.

Only a few months after that, the middle girl now age six was raped by her new ‘father.’ After that incident and several other revealed instances of sexual abuse by Mr. Francis, he was ultimately sentenced to forty years in prison.

Just as the Duggars kept Josh’s secret for twelve years, so did the Harrises fail to notify parents of their preschool flock that a former instructor, Eric Francis, had been convicted of child rape and molestation. Harris also failed to mention that his and Marsha’s adopted girls had been given to the Francis household. Undoubtedly they would have preferred their role in the whole sordid mess never see the light of day. Only the careful journalism of an Arkansas Times reporter uncovered the mess.

Harris has yet to apologize for his role in this little girl’s rape, for his utter and abject failure as an adoptive parent. Instead, his only response has been through an attorney and an occasional Biblical quote on social media such as: The wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at him.

Oh poor Justin Harris!

Which brings up the bigger problem.

The crushing outcome of the Harris involvement in the lives of these already horrifically traumatized young girls didn’t earn Mr. Harris any censure or removal from office by his rightwing colleagues in the state legislature or a rebuke by the rightwing governor. Based on Mr. Harris’ most recent public appearances and remarks in social media, he continues to view himself as the victim. It surely has not occurred to him that he and his wife might benefit from mental health care in addressing Justin’s god complex and Marsha’s belief in demons.

Where is oversight—government or church—that could intervene? The Harrises are daily in charge of over one hundred vulnerable young minds in an operation funded by our tax dollars.

The failure of the Harrises, Duggars, church elders, and even a state police officer and elected officials to understand the need for mental health care for abuser and victims stems from the pervasive practice of willful ignorance among fundamental/evangelical extremists in general. They view mental health caregivers in the same ilk as witches and ‘godless pagans.’ There’s a belief that what a person ‘thinks’ is between him and God. Prayer is the cure for all ills.

For most extremists, practice of faith has moved a few steps away from refusing all medical care. But anyone can see a broken arm. No one can see the terror and confusion inside little girls who have lived with sexual abuse by meth addicts in their family home, then suffered moving through foster care to finally be adopted before learning—from their new parents—that they are demon possessed. No one can see emotional trauma that results from sexual molestation such as anxiety, fear, or post-traumatic stress disorder likely to surface years later in the Duggar abuse case. No one can see the obsession controlling the abuser’s acts, the neurochemical and dissociative high produced by intense sexual fantasy likely to surface at some point in Josh Duggar’s future.

This willful ignorance and inevitable negative results hold true not only in Christian fundamentalism-evangelism, but also in Amish communities and populations of orthodox Jews. One Israeli study confirmed that “…religious Jews who were in prison were more likely to be in for sex crimes.”[1] A study of freshmen at a southern university in the U.S. found that “…those who had been sexually abused by a relative were much more likely to be affiliated with fundamental Protestant religions.”[2] It probably goes without saying that Catholics have a sordid history along these lines. A study of religious affiliations among adult sexual offenders found that persons who maintained religious involvement from childhood to adulthood had more sexual offense convictions, more victims, and younger victims, than other groups including atheists.[3]

Studies in social dynamics have long shown that placing a person in absolute authority over others often leads to tyrannical behavior. The set-up for sexual abuse is inherent in patriarchal environments required by fundamentalist religion. The all-powerful male gains a sense of divine empowerment: “I can do anything. God is with me.” Abusers believe forgiveness through confession and prayer solves any problem. The abuser struggles with obsessive responses to sexual repression. The victims are within easy access, either siblings, children in a church group, or a church member seeking emotional support for some personal crisis. The victim trusts the abuser and accepts his authority. Fear and shame often prevent the victim from talking to anyone about the experience(s).[4]

In 2001, Dr. James Dobson’s evangelical radio show “Focus on the Family” hosted a discussion about a “crisis” among pastors of evangelical churches. A study had found that 21% of evangelical/protestant pastors had had inappropriate sexual contact with members of their congregations including children and youth. Sixty percent had a problem with pornography. Victims were pressured not to report the abuse—it would harm the church, harm the mission. God does not want you to tell, the Bible says to handle such offenses privately.

It’s almost as if sex offenders self-select for extremist religion because (a) they don’t understand their secret desires would be more appropriately addressed by mental health care, (b) God will cure/forgive them, and (c) they are more able to indulge their illness in an environment rich with molestation opportunities.

The rot goes all the way to the top.

After a particularly threatening scandal came to light in a 2011 20/20 report, the nation’s flagship fundamentalist institution Bob Jones University commissioned an internal study by a group called Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE). GRACE was founded by Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham and a professor at Liberty University. In 2003, driven by his experiences as a sex crimes prosecutor, Tchividjian set up a team of investigators including lawyers, pastors, and therapists. He sums up his work over the intervening years by stating that evangelicals are worse than Catholics at covering up sexual abuse.

[An extensive article about the work of GRACE can be found here.]

GRACE spent over two years working on the Bob Jones University case. They found that men in top positions at the school, one of them charged with providing counseling to students, routinely engaged in victim blaming and shaming in order to suppress complaints. After BJU reviewed preliminary copies of the GRACE study, they attempted to cancel the study. That too became public and they re-engaged. Released in late 2014, the study revealed that Bob Jones III, chancellor and grandson of the founder, and Jim Berg, counselor and dean of students for thirty years, earned the harshest criticism. (Typical for such cases, Berg had zero professional training in counseling.)

GRACE found that students who reported abuse were blamed for bringing it on themselves and that proper authorities had not been notified. The organization said Jones, as the president from 1971 until 2005, and Berg, who stepped down as dean in 2010, were primarily responsible. The report recommended that Jones be disciplined and that Berg be banned from both counseling and teaching counseling and that the school no longer use or sell his books or DVDs.

To date, BJU has ignored these recommendations. Berg remains on staff. BJU ‘investigated’ and found that his teaching materials followed the Bible and there was no reason to discontinue them. The school evidenced no concern for the emotional or psychological health of the victims, not only students at BJU, but people everywhere who relied on Berg’s teaching materials for guidance on how to handle such problems.

What did GRACE find at BJU that caused them to recommend the dismissal of Berg? Here’s a small sample from the report:

[BJU student Cathy] Harris said she was counseled by Berg for six months in 1996 after she started to have flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse. She said she’d go to his office on the second floor of the Administration Building weekly and sit in a wing-back chair. He remained seated behind his desk.

She told him she wanted to go to the police, she said.

“He said the police wouldn’t believe me,” she said.

He told her a report would bring shame on the cause of Christ.

Berg also asked whether she felt any pleasure during any of the abuse and, if she did, she needed to repent, she said.

[See more here ]

Tchividjian says the goal of GRACE is to avoid a major scandal for Protestants similar to what happened over a period of years within the Catholic church. He wants churches to be more open, more responsive to the victims’ needs. Tchividjian worries that while a few larger institutions and even a few homeschooling systems have accessed GRACE and followed its recommendations, many who commission studies refuse to accept the final report. It’s a perfect storm of denial and the inability to comprehend the full extent of the problem.

Even worse, many churches and homeschooling networks in particular continue to operate with the traditional patriarchal framework that leads to such abuses in the first place: authority of males over females, an obsession with sexuality, tribalism, hostility to science and anything else modern, and an extremely literal interpretation of the Bible.[5] The persons in charge are those who have the most to lose. They won’t let go easily.

Coming Soon: The Threat of Willful Ignorance

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

[1] Ben-David S, & Weller L (1995). Religiosity,criminality and types of offences of Jewish male prisoners. Medicine and law, 14 (7-8), 509-19 PMID: 8667998

[2] Stout-Miller, R., Miller, L., & Langenbrunner, M. (1998). Religiosity and Child Sexual Abuse: A Risk Factor Assessment Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 6 (4), 15-34 DOI: 10.1300/J070v06n04_02

[3] Eshuys, Donna and Stephen Smallbone, “Religious Affiliations Among Adult Sexual Offenders.” August 2006. http://static1.squarespace.com/static/500ee7f0c4aa5f5d4c9fee39/t/53e90d54e4b07e6a4418caff/1407782228523/Religious+Affiliations+Among+Adult+Sexual+Offenders.pdf

[4] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/07/03/does-religion-and-not-just-catholicism-produce-more-than-its-fair-share-of-child-abusers/

[5] “The Duggars: How Fundamentalism’s Teachings on Sexuality Create Predatory Behavior ,” Diary of an Autodidact. May 23, 2015. http://fiddlrts.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-duggars-how-fundamentalisms.html