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The Unholy Trinity in Fundamentalist Parenting: A Rhetorical Analysis | Righting America

by Camille Kaminski Lewis 

Camille Kaminski Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Rhetorical Studies with a minor in American Studies. Her book, Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism, was a scholarly attempt to stretch the boundaries of both Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory on tragedy and comedy as well as stretch conservative evangelical’s separatist frames. (The story of that publication is available at The KB Journal.)  Last year she published an edited volume, White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity (Peter Lang); see here for our interview with Lewis about this book. She is currently working on an original manuscript titled, Klandamentalism: The Puzzling Intersection of Race, Religion, Revivalism in America” and an edited volume, “One Hundred Years of Women Debating the Equal Rights Amendment: An Anthology, 1923-2023 (Peter Lang, 2024).

Two weeks ago the Huffington Post published my story about the catalyst for my leaving fundamentalism. Watching Amazon Prime’s Shiny Happy People made me remember again what I had left behind when I said “no” to Bob Jones University’s campus day care: no, they were not allowed to hit my 2.5-year-old son. 

As I said for HuffPo, for too many people the grace alone that they claim for their personal salvation never applies to the children in their care. Adults get grace; children get hit. Some people say it like this: in fundamentalism, you have to go through hell to get to heaven. 

As I was combing through the “receipts” from our exodus, I rediscovered a folder of 2010 recordings from a ladies’ Sunday School class on parenting. 

It was chilling.

This example illumines why spanking is so necessary to the process of producing Shiny Happy People like the Duggars. For these fundamentalists, hitting vulnerable children is a sacramental, painful transaction that, they claim, guarantees a child’s salvation. 

It’s a sacrament.

Surveying all the conservative evangelical literature on parenting since the 1960s, it becomes plain that spanking is “a means of grace.” The parenting experts contend unequivocally that parents save their children from eternal damnation when they hit their little ones.

The particular texts I saved are from a 2010 parenting seminar in a conservative evangelical church here in Greenville, South Carolina at Mount Calvary Baptist Church.

Jan Patterson’s Handout on Discipline of Children

Jan Patterson, a missionary for the Gospel Fellowship Association, handles the “discipline” talk in this 9-week series for women-only. Now “discipline” for fundamentalists is never about life-long education or what the Greeks called paideia. “Discipline” is always code for hitting. The Duggars ominously call it “encouragement.”

Patterson explains to her fundamentalist audience why they must hit their child. She says [31:42], “you spank the foolishness out … but you replace it with God’s wisdom.” She uses Proverbs 22:15 as her proof which states “folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.”

Jan Patterson’s Handout on Discipline of Children

Now let’s think about this for a second. Proverbs are by nature never literal. A stitch in time never literallysaves nine. That English proverb isn’t even really about sewing. It’s an easily remembered rhyme to remind us that when we do small work now, we mitigate larger work later. Clean up the breakfast dishes now so you don’t have a huge pile tonight. And it’s not even a command. It’s advice

So, none of the “rod” proverbs are intended to be literal commands. 

Look at Proverbs 22:15 again: the verse makes the “rod of discipline” the agent of the action which opposes “folly.” Discipline or instruction is the antidote to youthful foolishness. That’s the message. Of course, a child wants to eat nothing but chicken fingers and fries, but eventually through education (from parents, teachers, and life experience) that child will realize there’s a wide variety of choices out there and picking variety is better in every way. 

But notice how Patterson alters the proverb. For her, the entire weight of this education rests on “you.” “You spank the foolishness out,” she says, and “you replace it with God’s wisdom.” You, alone, hit. You, alone, subsequently install godliness—like you’re defragging a hard drive or cleaning out a closet. If you map it out, you see that for these fundamentalists, the individual adult parent holds all the knowledge and wields all the power, and the child must passively receive it. No teacher, no neighbor, no aunt—not even the Holy Spirit—intervenes between that single parent hitting out the bad and replacing it with the good. And this hitting is, according to these fundamentalists, commanded by God. “There is no way to avoid this and be an obedient Christian,” Patterson concludes [16:48]. 

Jan Patterson’s Handout on Discipline of Children

Putting the entire weight of redeeming a child’s soul through hitting that child is mind-blowing. Coding that hitting as “instruction” is twisted. And any curriculum that’s intentionally pain-based is irrational, ineffective, and sadistic.

It’s painful, but secret.

But for them the pain is essential. One of the speakers, Jana Brackbill (a Bob Jones University Class of 1973 graduate) concedes in the discipline talk that the “rod” in Proverbs might be interpreted broadly [30:00]. That is, it could be a glue stick, or it could be a wooden spoon or a piece of PVC. But that’s the extent of the variation. Whatever it could be, the “rod” must be a material instrument that causes pain. 

It must hurt, she says, since “it is supposed to be corrective. It is supposed to be sufficient to cause to bring about that correction.” The parent must dispense “real pain” and should “want to give some pain,” “execute pain,” or “inflict pain.” Pain is the only means of education for these evangelicals. If there’s not pain, it’s not biblical.

Yet in the same paragraph where Brackbill is insisting on imposing pain, she warns her younger audience in a coded fashion [43:50] that “we do have to be careful about, you know, bruising or causing huge welts or things like that … [since] our children have to be in nurseries and go to the doctor.” The warning about bruising and welts is necessary not because it’s bad for the child. The warning is necessary because it’s bad for the parent. It’s bad to get caught by the legal system. These mothers must hit but they must never leave evidence of hitting. Three times these older women caution the younger ones not to do their hitting “publicly.” Brackbill vaguely explains that “there are ways that you can work around those things” where “those things” are the civil protections of children.

If hitting is so clearly commanded by God, why hide it? Is it possible that mere proverbs are not so clear after all? 

It’s transactional.

Another (unidentified) woman chimes in at the end of the talk with the same infantilized voice Michelle Duggar uses, but she still speaks with an authoritative tone. She describes her recent difficulty with her four-year-old child [47:22]. She had hit him so much in one day that he was “black and blue.” It’s a startling confession after the warning about bruises. 

At the end of the day in her example, the mother “went to give [her son] a hug,” and the little preschooler repeated to his mother, “and God doesn’t love me, right?” She actually said “yes” – that God didn’t love the child because of his behavior – and continued, “Your sin will always keep you away from God just like it keeps you away from Mommy and Daddy.”

Imagine being four and being told that your childlike actions cut you off from your mom and dad. It all depends on you. The transaction is all in your hands. You either passively comply and get love, or you are utterly alone in the universe. 

This is terrifying.

“You” have to hit hard enough to hurt in a hidden place on a child’s body and in a hidden place in the community so that you can save your child from eternal torment. It all depends on the “you,” the parent while it all depends on the child as well. 

This maniacal curriculum is what I left behind when I said “no” to Bob Jones University. God the Father commanded it in a vague proverb about instruction and leaves the individual parent to follow blindly. Jesus never enters their metanarrative, and the Holy Spirit will never dissuade them away from causing the welts and bruises God commanded. Their unholy trinity is the parent, the pain, and the child.

Is it any wonder that these evangelicals align with a maniacal tyrant to lead them? If they comply with the power, maybe they’ll be less likely to get hit themselves.