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September 16th, 2014
03:50 PM ET

Adrian Peterson and the false gospel of spanking

Opinion by Matthew Paul Turner, special to CNN

(CNN) – There’s one detail about the Adrian Peterson child abuse charges that no one seems to be noting: his alleged crimes didn’t happen simply under the guise of “parenting” but rather “Christian parenting.”

But the NFL star's Christianity shouldn’t be missed or undervalued in the sharp debate about his actions. Those of us who grew up in conservative Christian churches know all too well the culture that shapes the parenting beliefs of people like Peterson.

Today, the most notable proponents of spanking are American evangelicals. They not only preach the gospel of corporal punishment, they also impart messages that lay the foundations for abuses against children and the protection of such abuse by our legal system.

We have books about spanking. Popular Christian talk shows promote the benefits of spanking. Pastors preach and theologize spanking. Organizations like Focus on the Family offer parents resources about how and when to spank.

The ties between Christianity and corporal punishment are so strong that a large number of conservative Christians parents simple deny studies that suggest spanking does more harm than good.

Now, I’m not saying that evangelical churches are to blame for what Peterson did to his son. But the church isn’t innocent in the matter, either.

Without the church, the popularity of spanking would have dwindled. Stricter laws would probably be in place to protect the rights and livelihoods of children. And people like Peterson would not feel as though he has a license to do whatever he wants to his child.

For decades, American evangelicals have fiercely fought any legal or cultural limits on parents’ “rights” to discipline their children.

As a result, American children are some of the least protected people in the world. They are often innocent pawns to the vile disciplinarian doctrine of folks like Michael and Debi Pearl, pro-spanking theologians who suggest that corporal punishment should begin when a child is only 6 months old.

But spanking theologies are not simply the teachings of Christian extremists.

I was spanked. Not simply because my father was spanked or because I grew up in a part of the country where spanking was deemed acceptable but because my family and I belonged to a church that often preached the “good news” of spanking.

Spanking wasn’t simply one of my parents disciplinary methods; it was a part of their gospel at the time, an idea that they believed was commanded by God in the Book of Proverbs:

Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell. (Proverbs 23: 13-14)

Those verses trumped all other outside messages that suggested spanking wasn’t good for a child.

While I don’t believe my parents enjoyed spanking, because our pastor said that parents disobeying God by not spanking their kids would result in the ruination of America, they spanked me.

Today, I’m a Christian parent who doesn’t spank my kids. Not because I don’t believe in being obedient to God but because I think the Bible, at least as interpreted by a large number of God-fearing Americans, is wrong about spanking.

But many evangelicals believe that God is an Almighty spanker and that in order to be “good Christian parents,” they must obey God and spank their kids.

That faith-based ideology is what has manufactured the American culture of spanking. It’s also why so many conservative Christians are among Peterson’s most vocal apologists, because obedience to God trumps the rights of children in favor of the benefit of the doubt for parents.

That’s why the details of Peterson’s crimes, pictures that showcase the lacerations and bruises on his child’s back, buttocks, hands and scrotum, don’t change their minds about the benefits of spanking.

They believe that God suggested “spare the rod, spoil the child” - a phrase that never appears in the Bible - and they will do whatever it takes to protect their rights to do just that.

Because of scenarios like Peterson’s, many of the loudest Christian cheerleaders promoting spanking have, in recent years, added boundaries, caveats and kinder language to their pro-spanking positions.

These edits and limitations are meant to make their encouragement of biblical discipline less rigid and more socially acceptable, at least in theory.

In the end, the Christian doctrine of spanking isn’t about obeying scripture or God; after all, nobody is promoting God’s idea of our stoning our kids for disrespecting their parents as outlined in Leviticus 20:9.

Christian spanking is about parents wanting to wield control, instill their values and put children in their place when they question their parent’s authority.

A few hours after being let out of jail on bail, Peterson tweeted Bible verses and Christian devotionals in his defense against his critics.

This suggests that spanking his kid wasn’t just a onetime mistake. It seems engrained into Peterson's faith: that God has given him a license to beat his children.

And there’s nothing holy, good or true about that.

Matthew Paul Turner is the author of "Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity." The views expressed in this column belong to Turner. 

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Christianity • Crime • Culture wars • Ethics • evangelicals • Opinion • Violence

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.