Deflection: When You Don’t Want to Admit Your Movement is Toxic

Since I published my original post on Jonathan Merritt’s poorly researched, badly argued response to Kathryn Joyce’s upcoming book, I’ve had the privilege of bullied online by Merritt himself and other white male Evangelicals. When you are a woman with a blog, you expect this. It’s not the worst experience I’ve had, and since other women bloggers have been subjected to things like rape and death threats, it’s as tame as online abuse gets.

Nevertheless, I think it bears noting that white male Evangelicals are still fighting to steer this discussion. Merritt’s response to criticism was to publicly demean me and Kathryn Joyce, and to direct racially insensitive comments at a third male journalist. He still refuses to acknowledge the failures in his piece, and stated that I was ‘unserious’ for bringing race into the discussion. For the record, Mr. Merritt: you’re talking about the adoption of foreign children by predominately white American Christian families. Race is already part of the discussion, and it doesn’t become irrelevant simply because you’d like it to be. Your inability to realize this is largely why I, and others, took such serious exception to your piece.

His followers have adopted similar tactics. I tweeted a joke about needing a drink after reading their comments: that led directly to a snide comment about my drinking habits. I was abused by an alcoholic. I don’t appreciate the insinuation that I have a drinking problem. That insinuation would be inappropriate even if I hadn’t been abused. Now I’m being told that comment is a joke, and I’ve got to say: I fail to see the humor. Probably because it’s not actually funny.

I’ve also been accused of hypocrisy because I have yet to use my miniscule public platform to loudly condemn Kermit Gosnell. In a way, I admire the religious right’s ability to capitalize on tragedy in order to advocate for its political agenda. Clearly it’s working quite well for them. But on the subject of Kermit Gosnell, I will say the following: I did not write about it on this blog when the story broke three years ago. I didn’t write about it because I didn’t write about very much at the time. That’s because my abusive ex-boyfriend (the afore-mentioned alcoholic) had started harassing me via the blog. It didn’t do wonders for my PTSD. Three years later, the Gosnell trial is news again. I haven’t written about here, though I have tweeted about it. Obviously, I condemn Gosnell. His abuse of the trust women place in their doctors is horrific, and so is the infanticide he committed.

But here’s the thing about Gosnell, and my coverage of it: the Gosnell trial has been covered by so many feminists that I didn’t actually feel it was necessary to repeat their work. The necessary discussions were already taking place. It’s not comparable to the abusive situations covered by Kathryn Joyce. Those situations have been enabled by the Evangelical movement’s tendencies toward insularity and silence. Joyce’s work is necessarily exactly because Evangelicals themselves haven’t covered this. Additionally, Kermit Gosnell isn’t part of the feminist movement. This is not a No True Scotsman argument. I have researched the subject and as far as I can tell, he has never identified himself as a feminist. He never organized with the pro-choice movement. He didn’t advocate for reproductive justice at the political level. Compare this to the families profiled in Joyce’s excerpt. They were considered paragons of Christian virtue for their adoptive families. And the racism that facilitated the abuse they committed certainly isn’t limited to these profiled families. The glaring absence of non-white voices in the Evangelical response to this debate is evidence of that.

Put more simply: false analogy. Good try, but holy logical fallacy, Batman.

I don’t have any patience for the arrogant privilege displayed by Jonathan Merritt and others. It’s deflection, and it does nothing to help abused children. When your ire is directed at secular journalists, and not at Merritt’s bad research or even the abuse Joyce reported, something is wrong with you. When you refuse to acknowledge that race is inextricably linked to the adoption debate, something is wrong with you. And when you would rather attack someone instead of admitting that your movement has routinely failed victims of abuse, something is wrong with you.

And that thing is privilege. It’s the attitude behind the dismissal of abuse as a ‘fringe problem.’ It’s behind the attacks on women journalists and bloggers. It’s why Jonathan Merritt didn’t bother to speak to adopted children for his piece. It’s why Russell Moore gave his adopted children American Christian names. And it’s why I’ve been harassed, for days, by Good Christian Men. Of course they’re defending their movement. It’s a movement that frames their privilege as a divine right.

Evangelical Arrogance and the Mission of Adoption

(Update: Merritt just told me I should ‘clarify’ his links to the Southern Baptist Convention, since he has no professional link to the SBC. I never claimed that he did. He does identify as Southern Baptist and has strong ties to the denomination, and I feel this is relevant, given his support of Russell Moore. He also informed me that I was ‘unserious for bringing race into the discussion,’ upon which I laughed. Hysterically. Then laughed again.

Second update: Merritt claims that I quoted him inaccurately. My sincerest apologies. He merely told me I was ‘unserious’ for ‘bringing race into it.’  Vastly different, obviously (!) He refuses to acknowledge that his comments have been racially insensitive, and to date, has not acknowledged any of the actual criticisms in my post. I suppose that if I owed my public profile to the Southern Baptist Convention, I’d probably behave the same way.)

This week, Mother Jones published an excerpt from journalist Kathryn Joyce’s upcoming book on Evangelical adoption, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the Gospel of Adoption. Joyce, whose previous work includes Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, enjoys a well-earned reputation for her investigative reporting of conservative Evangelical and fundamentalist movements in the United States. The accuracy of her work on the Quiverfull movement is supported by Quiverfull survivors, and her work on Christian meets similarly high standards. But adoption is an emotional issue, and her work has met with significant push-back from proponents of Christian adoption. Today, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Jonathan Merritt published a critique of Joyce’s work that merits critical examination not for the argument it presents, but rather for what it ignores: the colonialist implications of Evangelical mission and aid work on the African continent.

Merritt derides Mother Jones for anti-Christian attitudes which he believes are embodied in its decision to publish an excerpt of Joyce’s newest book. Joyce, he argues, ‘relies on weak sources to paint a partial and distorted picture.’ I have not yet read The Child Catchers. Since its pending release, Merritt presumably hasn’t either, but this didn’t prevent him from attempting an exhaustive critique of Joyce’s approach to the subject, solely based on one published excerpt. The excerpt never asserts that all Christian parents are abusive, or even that all Christian parents adopt for the purposes of evangelism. Joyce’s reporting is focused on a specific movement. This is consistent with her previous work, which Merritt would have known if he’d bothered to familiarize himself with it.

His refusal to do just that is evident in the rest of his piece. He criticizes Joyce for her references to Above Rubies and Debi and Michael Pearl; they must be irrelevant because Merritt himself has never heard of him. I quite seriously doubt Merritt, a life-long conservative Christian, is totally unfamiliar with the Pearls at least, but for now I’ll take him at his word because his assertion is so telling. The Pearls do not matter because he has never heard of them. It’s a remarkably ignorant statement. The writers of Homeschoolers Anonymous and No Longer Quivering could tell Merritt all about the Pearls and Above Rubies because these materials are in active use among many, many conservative Evangelical and fundamentalist families in the United States. But maybe Merritt simply doesn’t care about the experiences these writers relate. He also derides Joyce for her citation of  “homespun blogs with severely limited reach.”

These are the words of a man who has utterly failed to educate himself about the negative influences at work within his own movement. They are arrogant words, and they are disingenuous words. Joyce is hardly the first journalist to cover the ulterior motivations behind Christian adoption. In 2007, the LA Times published its report on a new Christian campaign encouraging the adoption of foreign children. Supporters of this campaign included Rick Warren, Focus on the Family, and Campus Crusade for Christ. According to the Times, the campaign called for “every orphan experiencing God’s unfailing love and knowing Jesus as savior.”

The LA Times is hardly a ‘homespun blog’ and I’m willing to bet that Merritt has probably heard of Rick Warren, Focus on the Family and Campus Crusade for Christ. One wonders if he is actually ignorant, or wilfully misleading readers. Based on his reference to Russell Moore, I believe it’s the latter. According to Merritt, Moore believes that ‘the desire to adopt children as a ruse for evangelism is little more than a tired cliché.’ This is extraordinarily disingenuous and ignores the implications of the cultural assimilation that accompanies the Western adoption of non-Western children. On his own blog, he describes his adoption of two Russian children, an adoption that included the exchange of their Russian names for new, Western Christian names. “Everything changed, for all of us, for life,” Moore wrote, and that is certainly true. These adopted children lost their access to their native culture, and were renamed and assimilated into Moore’s Evangelical culture–for life.

Moore never acknowledges the agency of adopted children, nor does he express respect for their culture. His acts imply the opposite: that their native culture is inferior, and therefore these children are guaranteed to benefit from exposure to his own, superior culture. It’s the same cultural hierarchy that originally propelled Protestant missions work. That hierarchy continues to influence Christian missions, and is ever-present in the adoptive families described by Kathryn Joyce. But Moore, and Merritt, too, never acknowledge this. To Merrill, adoption is simply a good thing Christians do. But it is still a thing that Christians do to others, and that is evidence of a power imbalance.

It is only possible to laud the Christian adoption movement if one totally ignores Christianity’s historical involvement with Western colonialism. Trafficking and coerced salvation are inextricably embedded within the colonial consciousness. Then too did Christians laud their interference in the affairs of the colonized as ‘a good thing,’ a thing justified by God himself. The profoundly negative consequences for indigenous culture and polities cannot be overemphasized and this history ought to be considered by any Christian interested in a responsible conversation on adoption and evangelism. Merritt’s refusal to acknowledge Christianity’s bloody history is evidence that colonial arrogance is still an active force among American Evangelicals.

For that reason, I applaud Kathryn Joyce’s work, and support tighter regulation of international adoptions. Merritt has failed to adequately address the concerns she raises and the attitudes reflected in his piece perpetuate rather than check the abuse she describes. If Evangelical Christians are truly concerned for the orphan, then they owe the children of the developing world a greater willingness to submit to scrutiny.

Homeschooling: Creative Alternative or Brainwashing Tool?

Update: This post is now featured at Homeschoolers Anonymous. 

The Daily Beast’s coverage of Homeschoolers Anonymous has reignited the perennial debate over the homeschooling movement and parents’ rights. As a former homeschooler, this is an intensely personal debate for me: I disliked the homeschool experience and I remain deeply critical of the Christian curriculum my parents employed. My own experience is not identical to the stories detailed in the Daily Beast article. I did not grow up in a Quiverfull home and my parents eventually became wary of the movement’s fringes. As a result, they did agree to send me and my brother to private and then public school. They’re not homeschool activists in any meaningful sense. Nevertheless, this article resonates with me, and I agree with the premise put forward by the members of Homeschoolers Anonymous: that homeschooling left me totally unprepared for the real world, and facilitated religious abuse.

Before I continue I want to make it clear that I understand that homeschooling isn’t intrinsically a social evil. Done well, it can certainly prepare children to excel in higher education. Moreover, I don’t intend to argue that the alternatives are without flaw. The state of public and private schools in the US is a valid concern. I’m not going to summarize that debate here, but I’m referencing it in order to show that I do understand why parents (like my own) may make the decision to homeschool. I’m concerned by a specific branch of the homeschool movement, and its emphasis on religious indoctrination.

Certain common themes emerge from the Daily Beast story. Readers are introduced to adults who spent their formative years engaged in a battle against secularism. There is much praise for homeschooling’s ability to encourage children’s natural gifts, but as these stories demonstrate, many Evangelical and fundamentalist families encourage these gifts in order to advance a specific ideological agenda. Those of us raised in the religious right will recognize the rhetoric. We’re meant to be culture warriors, engaged in battle to return America to its Christian roots. Homeschooling is meant to create a pure environment. Christian parents are free to teach (read: train) their children in an atmosphere free of secular corruption.

For obvious reasons, this attitude toward education lends itself easily to abuse, particularly when you consider that most of these families adhere to traditional gender roles that revere the father as the head of the household. When your father is your chief disciplinarian, spiritual adviser, breadwinner and the principal of your school, a patriarchal structure is so firmly entrenched that the possibility of addressing domestic abuse is incredibly unlikely. Additionally, it reflects the belief that children are the property of their parents, that children have no rights, independent of their parents. The potential consequences this attitude poses for the children subjected to it are evident from the Daily Beast piece and from the other stories provided by Homeschoolers Anonymous.

There are additional points of concern; namely, the overlap between this fringe and Christian reconstruction. R.J. Rushdooney, truly the father of contemporary Christian reconstructionism, advocated homeschooling as an alternative to secular education. Later figures like Michael Farris continue to champion homeschooling as a religious obligation for Christian parents. Precociousness is considered evidence that homeschooling works. In the comments of the Daily Beast piece, you’ll find at least two adolescent homeschoolers engaged in a passionate defense of the movement. They repeatedly cite their personal success, and the successes of their homeschooled peers, as evidence of homeschooling’s superiority.

As a homeschool alumna, I don’t credit my own academic success to my parents’ decision to homeschool. If anything I believe I’ve succeeded in spite of it. I’ve never received accurate scientific instruction and I had to re-teach myself history and government. My decision to pursue political theory at the graduate level is partially inspired by this drive to strip my thought process of the misinformation and bias I learned as a child. Similarly, I reject the belief that my current progressive views are derived from mere rebellion, as many current homeschoolers like to assert. Those of us who object to the movement do so for valid reasons, and I hope that this Daily Beast article marks the beginning of a critical national conversation about children’s rights and the need to better regulate home instruction.

The Servant Gender

Service: for complementarians, servanthood defines femininity. We are helpmeets, subject to our husbands and, by extension, to God himself. It is a role that we’re expected to enjoy due to our innate sensibilities. Moreover, we’re expected to accept it without question.  The consequences of this attitude is perfectly embodied by a new piece by Emily Wierenga, and since it’s addressed to her ‘feminist sisters’ I’ve decided it could do with a feminist response. Wierenga’s piece is difficult to follow, not least because it constructs an almost totally incoherent narrative, yet I believe it merits a response due to its troubling implications for abused women.

Wierenga begins her piece with a personal anecdote:

“The other day my husband asked me to make nachos with him. To stand at the counter and cut onions for him, while he prepared the cheese and the chips and I was picking up books our children had strewn across the floor and I snapped. ‘I am not your servant!’ I cried.

To Wierenga, this response is evidence of her fallen nature. She’s defied her husband, and this failure to submit is a source of shame to her. She segues directly from this anecdote to another. This one concerns her mother, and something her mother said to her long ago: that she’ll “find it hard to get married” because of that defiant nature. More on the mother later, but for now, let’s examine this first anecdote. Wierenga totally absorbs the blame. She never questions her husband’s behavior. There’s no acknowledgement, for example, that perhaps her husband could have been more considerate. He didn’t actually require her help. Even if he made the request for help simply because he wanted her company in the kitchen, he could have acknowledged that the request was ill-timed. Wierenga was busy elsewhere, maintaining their shared home.

But no. As she explains it, the blame is hers. The responsibility to communicate, to behave sensitively, is hers alone. It isn’t necessary to be a feminist to understand this is an unhealthy, unbalanced version of an adult relationship. And the dysfunction continues as Wierenga describes the relationship between her parents. She strongly criticizes her mother for occupying a dominant position in the home, and directly attributes her own lack of respect for her father to her mother’s dominance. It’s a neat trick, actually, this ability to place the blame so squarely on the female sex in every domestic situation, while simultaneously refusing to assign any responsibility at all to the men concerned.

Case in point: Wierenga describes her father as an emotionally abusive man. She doesn’t elaborate about this emotional abuse, and while she certainly isn’t obligated to do so, it’s a strange juxtaposition to her willingness to describe, in detail, her mother’s domestic faults. In perhaps the most absurd section of her piece, she attributes her grandmother’s divorce and subsequent suicide to this inherited rebellious streak. Even in death, women shoulder the blame.

She transitions, awkwardly, from criticizing her dead grandmother to expressing sympathy for abused women around the globe, with a brief stop in between to explain that the Hebrew word for female means ‘punctured, bored through.’ In the comment section, Christian commentator Preston Yancey takes issue with her interpretation of the word; if I could link directly to his comment, I would, but since I can’t, I advise people to look for it. Wierenga’s definition, located as it is in between the tale of a woman literally killed by her defiance and stories of domestic abuse, seems specifically intended to impress upon her audience that they are defined by their servitude. She describes the story of an abused friend:

“I know about my friend in Lebanon whose husband broke her teeth when she became a Christian. (And how she stayed with him, anyway, and how he became a Christian because of the way she continued to serve him.)”

What is the point of this anecdote, if not to illustrate that women have a responsibility to serve their husbands, regardless of abuse? It’s difficult to isolate an overarching theme from these disjointed, disturbing anecdotes, but if one exists it appears to be ‘obedience.’ Wierenga states that she fears women have become too angry to serve. No acknowledgement that perhaps, at times, this anger might be justified, that an abusive husband has no right to expect anything but anger from his partner. No realization that anger might even save lives, in the right situation, if it spurs a woman to leave a dangerous home.

There’s no nuance in the world portrayed by Wierenga. In yet another anecdote, she describes her mother’s battle with brain cancer (defiance must always be punished, it seems). Wierenga’s father supports his partner in this most brutal of struggles. This is exactly what I would expect from any partner of an ailing person and yet here it is noteworthy. Wierenga states that he ‘delighted in being needed,’ as if his neediness is her mother’s fault. Her mother had to face death in order for her husband to truly support her, and yet, the message Wierenga states that we’re meant to glean from this is that really, her mother ought to have facilitated this neediness long before her illness.

And then there’s this gem:

“When we stop being afraid of what men can do to us, or angry about what they have done, and start serving the God whose image they are made in, then men will start filling our church pews again.”

In an update to her post Wierenga asserts that she did not intend to condone abuse in her post. Yet this quote is very clear: women are responsible for male behavior. We are responsible for their reactions to our anger. We are even responsible for their church attendance. This is, at best, unbelievably tone deaf. At worst it directly condones toxic, perhaps even abusive, behavior toward women.

Wierenga says she celebrates women. But this post doesn’t celebrate women. Rather, it uniformly condemns them. This post celebrates men. It celebrates patriarchy. It celebrates one-sided, unhealthy relationships and poor communications skills. It celebrates the punishment of rebellious women. It celebrates men at the expense of women, specifically, and in this it takes complementarianism to its logical, and incredibly disturbing, conclusion.