Month: February 2017

The Tenacity of Hate

Thanks to the University Press of Kansas for inviting me to contribute to their blog series. I appreciated the opportunity to think more deeply about a question that continues to draw me in: How do we love and hate at the same time?

This kind of thinking never gets done alone, and so I want to say thank you to my friend Andrea and to my husband Jason for their work in pressing me to think more deeply about the topic–even when they didn’t realize that the conversations we were having were about this.

Above, a WBC-produced video explaining that “Love They Neighbor Equals Rebuke.” I generally don’t link to primary sources like this one, but I think it’s a helpful artifact in understanding how people can understand the actions others perceive as hateful as loving. This link takes you to a YouTube Video, not a church website. Please, note, though, that it contains images and words that are likely to offend. 

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While you’re at KU Press’s website, check out “Are Public Lands for Sale?” It concerns all Americans, but my friends in Utah will be especially interested.

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Any Good Thing March Writing Challenge Starts Soon!

typewriter

You probably don’t write on an ancient typewriter, like the one in the picture above. Whatever works for you is great–but if you want to put some money on it, it’s even better. 

For the past three weeks, writers participating in the Any Good Thing Writing Challenge have been pumping out words–400 x 5 days per week per person. While the February results aren’t in yet, here are the results of January’s Writing Challenge:

Folks who wrote 5 out of 7 days produced, on average, 13,698 words.

Our “highest volume” writer generated 16,432 words.

Our “most consistent” writer wrote for 25 days out of the month–blowing past the expectation of 20 days. This writer basically squeezed an extra week of writing into the month.

Our “highest daily average” was 1040 words.

Our group daily mean was 627 words per day of writing.

And collectively, AGT Writing Challenge participants wrote 99,983 words.

If these numbers are encouraging to you, I hope you’ll consider joining us for our March Writing Challenge, which starts March 5 and go through April 2. Here’s how it works:

 

  1. You commit to writing at least 400 words each day for five days of the week, Sunday through Saturday. That’s 2000 words per week or 8000 words–an academic article, 16 blog posts, 8 book reviews, a chapter in a novel…whatever you are aiming for–in 4 weeks.
  2. Email me at anygoodthing@outlook.com to let me know you are participating. Include this participation-form
  3. You send me a check for $20 to cover one month of participation or pay via Facebook Payment if we are FB friends. I don’t cash your check…yet.
  4. Each day that you write, you email what you wrote to anygoodthing@outlook.com.  (No, I’m not going to read it, but, yes, I’m going to make sure it’s new words each day.) Include the word count in the subject line to make my life easier.
  5. If you write at least 400 words for 5 days a week for 4 weeks, you get all your money back. (Plus probably more.) That’s $1 per day of writing.
  6. If you write for 19 days of the 20, you get $17 back. If you write for 18 days, you get $14 back. If you write for 17 days, you get $11 back. If you write for fewer than 17 days, though, you surrender the full $20.
  7. Any funds surrendered for not writing the full 20 days go into a kitty that is divided between all those who wrote each of the 20 days MINUS $5 that will be awarded as a gift card to one 20-day-writer whose name is drawn at random.

This is a free exercise, so there’s no cost to participate (unless, of course, you don’t meet your goals), and all the money pooled goes back to participants.

Fill out the form linked above, and I’ll send you an address for the check at that point (or if we are FB friends, you can pay via FB Messenger). If you can’t participate now, we’ll do it again in April.

Participation also gets you into our secret Any Good Thing Writing Challenge Facebook group and, if you want, an accountability partner you can email daily or weekly (as you prefer) to summarize what you’ve been working on. If there are other ways you want this group to be helpful to you, just let me know.

 

 

 

Life Hacks, Guiding Principle, Systems Wanted!

Last week, I shared some principles that (mostly) help reduce stress in my life. I’d love to hear yours. If you have a system, a life hack, etc. that you really, really love, let me know. I’ll share it as part of a blog past here, and one participant will be drawn at random for a small prize. Email your ideas (with pictures, if you have them–just make sure that any photos don’t include kids’ faces) to anygoodthing@outlook.com to add your thoughts.

Quick Ideas for “Work-Life Balance”

Mostly, I think efforts on “Work-Life Balance” are stupid. Or, rather, deflective. They tend to be pitched to women (because men, in general, are doing less in terms of their “life”–less housework, less childrearing, less emotional labor, and less work at maintaining their appearance), and they are blamed for finding the arbitrary demand to work a 40 (or more) hour work week stressful. The answer isn’t in bullshit workplace wellness programs or mindfulness exercises, both of which pass along responsibility for managing workplace stress to the victims of it. The answer is in a reduced workload (not just reduced work hours, though this isn’t a bad idea either).

But I get that this isn’t entirely within our control (and, for some of us, not within our control at all.)

Still, I write to share some quick principles that have helped me enjoy both work and the rest of life a bit more. I share them here specifically in response to a question a friend asked me about enjoying both a relatively demanding academic career and a rambunctious family.

Decide what must be done well, what must be done good enough, and what doesn’t have to be done at all.

For me, research has to be done well or it won’t be useful to anyone. I want most of my teaching to be done well, too, but it’s okay if some of it is “good enough”–meeting all expectations, exceeding some of them, and always caring about my students’ learning, success, and wellbeing but not reinventing the wheel or working harder than my students. In practical terms, I select 1-2 courses to be fantastic at (always my senior capstone) and 1-2 to do “good enough.”

In terms of the other domains of my life, I want my friendships to be fantastic and my house keeping to be good enough. (One of the nicest–if inadvertent–compliments I ever received was a guest who came over for a pumpkin carving party our family hosts each year. Seeing our family’s “good enough” housekeeping, she commented, “I wish I were confident enough to have guests over when my house wasn’t perfect!”)

Apply the “touch-it-once” rule.

This one is straight from my mother, who rarely allowed us to watch TV unless we were also folding laundry, ironing (which falls into my “doesn’t have to be done at all” category), or keeping our hands busy in some other way.

Here is how it works: If you touch it, you finish it.

Don’t open the mailbox until you are ready to handle what’s inside. (This is why I check the mail twice a week.) Sort it on the way inside (which is so much easier after you got yourself off unwanted mailing lists), dropping off the recycling on the way in and taking the rest to shred or (if you must) file immediately. If something must be dealt with (a list you’ve reduced to nearly nothing because you autopay your bills, right?), do it right away. On days I check the mail, I visit the box twice: once to bring in the mail and another time, 10 minutes later, when I return the next day’s outgoing mail.

Fold laundry while it’s hot (admittedly, a hard one for me). Clean up the dishes by putting them directly into the dishwasher, not the sink. Make the bed (if that’s on the list of things you do) when you get out of it.

Respond to email when you read it. Don’t label,sort, or file to deal with later. Deal with it now. (I know this isn’t possible if you don’t have an answer right away.) I respond to student email once per day (twice the day before a major assignment is due and not at all the day an assignment is due), and I don’t open them sooner than that. Why read something you aren’t going to handle?

Every time you pick something up, then put it down, you are forcing yourself to make a decision about it now AND later. Don’t. That just takes precious brain energy.

Box it.

A scientific study of my hatred for housework indicates that 70% of housekeeping in our family is moving stuff back where it belongs. (The other 30% involves removing unidentifiable sticky residue.) We make it easier by giving each kid a box, then tossing everything for that child in that box. If the box is not emptied promptly, my husband attempts to throw it away, arguing that if the Lego pieces, crazy socks, hair bands, etc. in the box mattered, they’d be put away. I plead with him like Esther before King Ahasuerus, and somewhere in there,  fearful that he’ll really do it this time, the kids put their stuff away.

esther

Above, Queen Esther implores the king not to throw away the pieces to the Lego Batman Dynamic Duo Funhouse Escape because it was expensive and also the only thing the kid asked for for Christmas. No, wait, that was me on Saturday. This is Bernardo Cavallino’s Esther Becomes Queen, 1645-50.

Just say “no.”

I mostly hate Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, even though I also think that women in particular tell themselves “no” too often. And I think that many of us can do a lot more than we think we can. BUT I also think “no” is an important part of keeping our lives under control. I don’t mean small “no”s but big ones–blanket statements that take entire arguments off the table. Here are some of our “no”s:

  • sleepovers
  • nail polish
  • gum
  • cats
  • also, rodents
  • more than one after school activity per child
  • parents doing all the housework
  • anything from Pinterest

If you struggle with saying “no,” try: “Our family doesn’t do [slumber parties, travel sports teams, unnecessary home improvement projects, the school science fair, Christmas cards, etc.].” Obviously, some of these will be important to your family (We LOVE Christmas cards!) or your individual child, but I’m betting lots of us have kids or partners who would prefer to do less–or we just really, at this point in our lives, don’t want to attend another obligatory wedding (Send a really nice gift instead.) or organize a mostly pointless meeting (“Can this be addressed via email?”).

just-say-no

It did not work to reduce adolescent drug use, but the “Just Say No” ribbon above might help you remember that children never bring drinks into the car and that you will not get a new pet until the current one dies.

Reduce your systems.

If you are a successful career person, you probably like systems. Bullet journals!  Cozi calendars! Apps to monitor your everything!

Look–I get it. I spent years of my life enjoying the new-highlighter high of back-to-school office supply store sales. There is something really comforting about having systems for managing your kids’ unending preschool artwork, the backlog of new articles you need to read in your field, handling kids’ clothes (top dresser drawer is for clothes that don’t yet fit, middle drawers for those that do, and bottom drawer for outgrown ones), your dinner schedule and shopping list. Systems are great for reducing decision making (It’s Tuesday, so we eat a quiche made from yesterday’s leftovers and green salad for dinner.)

But they also might be a sign that you have too much going on, especially if they are stressing others out. Do the kids seem unable to learn the rules of your system? Are you mostly failing at your system? Are you spending more time building and maintaining systems than doing real work? Did you need to buy gear or actually build something to make it work? Those might be signs that your system is too demanding.

I like principles rather than systems, in general, because systems need to be maintained–which means I’m putting in energy to something that was supposed to save me energy. I also tend to fail at them, which means then I’ve got guilt, plus wasted time and money. Principles guide my choices, while systems demand my attention. It’s not that I don’t use them. (I like our chore system.) But I keep them to a minimum.

Try hostile architecture.

Do a quick look around. While I’m a firm believer that a messy desk is a good thing, a dinner table, kitchen counter, or front entrance table covered in mail, to-do lists, permission slips, old homework, etc. makes life harder. Take a picture of these spots. Decide which, if any, principles (or, if you gotta have ’em, systems) you need to get things in order (You might start with “Touch it once,” above.), and try them for a week. Then look back at that picture. Is the spot any less messy now? If not, remove the horizontal surface if you can. (Put the coffee table in the garage for a few days; put the kitchen chairs on top of the table.) Force your cohabitators to make decisions about the papers that flow into the house by giving them no place else to put them except the place where they belong. If they don’t–box it.

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What are you doing to make your life easier? Share your ideas (with pics, if you like–but no kiddos’ faces, please) with me at anygoodthing@outlook.com before March 1 to have them included in a future blog post. One lucky participant, drawn at random, will receive a very special prize, probably involving coffee or books.

 

 

 

Things Donald Trump Has Ruined for Me

Donald Trump can be rightly blamed for ruining or attempting to ruin a lot of important things: trust in the Electoral College, public education, the environment, health care, free speech, women’s lives. They are all far more important than my personal complaints, but, on this Presidents Day (a holiday that I once loved out of my adoration of Lincoln that now gives me no joy), I share my list of personal grievances:

  • I can’t pretend  certain relatives and old high school friends aren’t racists.
  • I can’t listen to NPR because I barf a little bit in my heart when I hear a hatemonger referred to by a title that Lincoln wore. For my late November birthday, I’d actually asked for a new radio for the kitchen so I could catch All Things Considered as I prepped dinner. After November 7, I changed my mind.
  • I have to make sure that everywhere I shop hasn’t been targeted by the #GrabYourWallet campaign.
  • I’ve lost friends who can’t abide my constant stream of negative comments about the failure of the Democratic Party to beat the worst candidate in recent US history.
  • I don’t want to check my On This Day in Facebook. The dire predictions of what a Trump presidency would mean for democracy were already sounding a year ago. Clearly, key voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin were not reading my FB page. (Sniff!)
  • I look at every Baby Boomer, white woman, and white evangelicals and think, “What the hell is wrong with you people?” And I’m a white woman who loves a lot of Baby Boomers and white evangelicals. nicht-mein-fuhrer

Above, our family says “Never” to the anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, nativism, and misogyny of the Trump administration at a local rally for immigrants. 

There are two pluses: My work in hate studies seems to be on solid footing for the next few years, and a DT administration has pushed forward questions I’ve been examining on the mainstreaming of hate. So, bad for the world but good for my work. 😦 And I’ve been writing a lot more. WordPress tells me I’ve now written over 100 blog posts, and many (if not most) deal with the fallout from Trump in some way. Not sure if that’s unhealthy or a coping mechanismunhealthy or a coping mechanism.

Walls, Doors, and Rooms: Can Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Feminists Work for Women Together?

In law school, you spend a lot of time defining the walls of an argument, then finding the windows. What is the limit of the law? Is there an exception to that limit? It’s tremendously fun (I think–tortes was my favorite class–but it may also be one of the reasons lawyers have such a high divorce rate.), but it’s not how most of us live our real lives. Most of us aren’t pushing toward the limits or searching for the exceptions. Yet this is almost wholly how we talk about abortion. In fact, it’s how Roe v. Wade operates: the state can make no limits to abortion in the first trimester, some in the second, and more in the final. And most of our state laws focus on those exceptions: for rape or incest, for fetal abnormalities incompatible with life, for minors, for life or health of a woman. It’s all walls and windows.

We’d do better, I think, talking more about the rooms we actually occupy.

Understand that those who think differently than you do about abortion are probably placing their empathy somewhere you do not. Prolifers emphasize empathy with embryos and fetuses (and, to a lesser extent, to women who, they argue, are often coerced into abortion or who are not given the full facts about how abortion may affect them). In contrast, prochoicers emphasize strongly with women and rarely talk about fetuses (except in terms of how they affect women’s health). Being empathetic to either is not wrong–but empathy does not necessarily lead to good policy.

Above left, a prolife image comparing a fetus and a newborn, both sucking their thumbs. The caption asks, “What’s the difference?” To the right, a young white woman looks at the results of a pregnancy test with worry. The prolife and prochoice movements stress empathy for different populations: embryos and fetuses or pregnant women. But that’s not a smart strategy for working for either. 

Here I give prolifers credit: they are much more likely to address their opposition’s view about women than are prochoicers are to address prolifers’ views of the embryos and fetuses they term the “unborn” or “preborn.” When prochoice arguments do address embryos and fetuses, it is often to note that their “right to life” can never overcome a person’s right not to be pregnant. And that takes us right to the walls and windows again. (If your sister were dying and only your blood would save her, would you have to donate? No. If you found a stranger’s baby on your doorstep during a blizzard, would you have to bring it inside to care for it? Probably not, as most states do not have a duty-to-rescue law. If you use illicit drugs during pregnancy, are you abusing your child? No. But, really, do you want to lump pregnant women seeking abortions into the same category as someone who wouldn’t donate blood to her sister or someone who would let a baby freeze to death on their front stoop?)

But we occupy rooms. Most abortions in the US aren’t out there on the periphery. They are not exceptional but ordinary, one of the most common medical procedures done in the US–between about 700,000 and 1.4 million per year since Roe v. Wade. Most women who have them already have kids–so they know something about fetal development and about parenting. Most women who have them do not report regret. The exceptions are important–and often gut-wrenching and awful–but when politicians drag them out as examples, beware. Most abortion providers are not Kermit Grosnell. Most women seeking abortions aren’t “addicted” to them. Most abortions after 20 weeks aren’t to save the life of a woman, and most truly “late term” abortion–third trimester stuff–isn’t either. (Sorry, HRC.)  And most prochoice people aren’t cheerleaders for abortion. We need to talk about those exceptions and why they occur and what they mean, but the exceptional cases are not where we should start.

apc-2011-lowest-since-73

Above, data from the Guttmacher Institute shows the decline in the abortion rate. Not show on the chart is the most current data available: just under 700,000 abortions for the reporting areas, our lowest since Roe v. Wade.

One of the best parts of democracy is that we can agree on policies without agreeing on the principles that get us to them. I think there is room for prolife (fetus-empathetic) and prochoice people (pregnancy-person-empathetic) to do that. Here are some starting points that I suggest, knowing, as a friend noted in a FB discussion on the topic last week, that we often end up bad guys in other people’s stories. My hope is that a certain type of prolifer–the consistent, pragmatic ones–can find something useful here and that my prochoice friends will likewise find new ways of thinking about people they often understand as political opponents.If you like these, feel free to crib them in your next FB fight.

  1. Recognize that most abortions occur because those seeking them don’t want to have children right now. It’s not because they don’t want to be pregnant (though this may be the case–pregnancy is hard and, in our family-unfriendly nation, women are penalized for it), so let’s be clear: it’s the baby that comes at the end and lasts for at least 18 years. This doesn’t mean women choosing abortion are anti-child or anti-family (though, irrelevantly, they may be).
  2. Women do not seek abortions because they are legal. Vegetables and 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week are legal, but even national campaigns can’t sell them to folks. Tighter abortion restrictions do curtail legal abortion, but they also increase illegal abortion and create a lot of human misery, mostly for poor women and children. In fact, globally, the tighter the abortion restrictions, the higher the rate of abortion in a nation. You are not creating a culture that welcomes children and supports parenthood when your focus is on making abortion even more inconvenient or unpleasant.
  3. If you want to significantly curtail abortion, end unwanted pregnancy. (This will not end abortion, as there will still be women who terminate wanted pregnancies for other reasons–like a threat to her life or health or fetal abnormalities that she does not want to or feel prepared to deal with as a parent. These are the exceptions. Do not fight with your prolife/choice opponents about them. Stay in the room.) This is actually much easier than you might think, but it requires a change in prolife strategies that may not be possible with the current marriage of religion and prolife politics: provide long-acting, reversible contraception options to women for free or low cost; our best science tells us that, no matter what Hobby Lobby believes, these prevent the fertilization of eggs, not the implantation of already-fertilized eggs, so they are not abortifacients by even the strictest definition. Invest in the development of similarly reliable and easy birth control methods for men. Such birth control methods are not fool-proof, but they are very, very good–and they are especially effective at preventing unplanned pregnancies among the young women who are most likely to find an unplanned pregnancy disruptive of their educations and who are in unstable relationships.

This may be, I know, where faithful Catholics who adhere to Vatican teachings prohibiting any artificial means of birth control have to exit. But if you see abortion as a scourge–if you really see the result of Roe v. Wade being 60 million dead children–then this is easy: prevent unwanted pregnancy at any cost.

  1. If abortion is the very most important political issue for you, vote for politicians whose policies are proven to reduce abortion, not those whose policies are proven to increase it, at every level. From school board members who support comprehensive sex ed and reject abstinence pledges and other damaging purity culture ideas to Senators and Representatives who support the ACA (or, one day, single payer health care!), this means voting for progressive candidates. We are already seeing a dramatic decrease in abortion–the lowest annual total since Roe v. Wade!–linked the the ACA. We know a lot about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies and lower the abortion rate. Educate yourself on what works, and be willing to let go of what doesn’t, whatever your political ideology.
  2. Stop allowing your prolife commitment to be politically exploited.  Wise up: some “prolife” politicians are lying to you. And even those who are honest in their commitments need to know that they cannot bundle other hateful policies with anti-abortion politics and expect your vote.  Your “we vote prolife” bumper sticker lets Republicans know that you will tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and the widespread economic swindling of the poor and middle class, as long as they vote against abortion. But since racism, sexism, and poverty are significant causes of unintended pregnancy and abortion, your “prolife” vote is…well, ineffective. we_vote_pro_life

    Above, a “We Vote Pro-Life” bumper sticker tells Republicans that they can mistreat everyone but embryos and fetuses and you’ll still support them. 

  3. If you are prolife, get radical and consistent about it. There is a reason why prolife arguments about the sanctity of life are met with scorn: because so many prolifers are not fully, inclusively, passionately prolife (by which I do not mean blowing up abortion clinics, as I hope is obvious). They are probirth but are always looking for new ways to kill people. They want to prevent the termination of pregnancies but not support the education, feeding, housing, or health of children. Join prochoicers in calling these folks out in their hypocrisy. If you value the life of born children, you already have more in common with prochoicers than you do with many who call themselves prolife.

I know many prolifers who are all in–and they are occupying tough ground, because in opposing capital punishment, slow violence, and war, they are often standing beside people do not agree with their pro-life politics. These are the folks who are putting their money where their mouth is (including, yes, adopting children via foster care because they DO believe that everyone child is a wanted child). If you are prochoice and against other kinds of violence, you probably already have more in common with these radically prolife folks than with prochoice people who are also cool with drone wars.

  1. And if you are prochoice, stop saying that prolifers can’t be feminists. If you make no room for them, they will retreat to the only place that welcomes them: a Republican party that is viciously anti-woman, anti-child, anti-family, and pro-death in its policies and dishonest in its rhetoric. Understand that people who are opposed to prochoice politics are not inherently anti-woman. Are some of them? Uh, yeah. And people who are pro-choice are not inherently pro-woman. Can you be pro-choice and still be an abusive misogynist? Uh, yeah. But one’s abortion politics are not the only measure of one’s commitment to the ideals of feminism, and there are multiple ways of being prolife—including ways that align with feminist goals.welfare-as-we-know-it

Above, President Bill Clinton signs the insultingly titled “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996,” showing that you can be prochoice and still destroy the lives of women and children.

This doesn’t make the conversations about legality of or access to abortion go away. But whether you are prolife or prochoice (or, like most Americans, somewhere in between), good policies can go far in reducing unwanted pregnancy, supporting maternal health, transforming unexpected pregnancies into welcomed ones (by making it possible to be a parent and a student, for example), and bolstering families of all kinds.

Right now, so-called prolife forces are working hard to curtail both the right to abortion and access to it, but it’s progressive social policies that are bringing down the abortion rate. If prochoicers would bring willing prolifers into the feminist fold, we could see a continued decrease in the abortion rate and a relenting of anti-abortion rights politics as prolifers left the regressive, reactionary Republican party.

 

 

 

Follow-Up to Weber State Brown Bag

Content alert: religiously-justified violence against and neglect of children

Thanks to the Weber State University Sociology and Anthropology Department for inviting me to speak at a brown bag event recently, focusing on family life and children and youth in Westboro Baptist Church. The students were eager listeners who asked great questions. At the time of the talk, I suggested that students with follow-up questions email me so that I could answer them here. Thanks to the many student who did! I’ve answered them in Q and A format below, combining a few questions in cases where they were very similar.

the-signpost

Above, The Signpost, the Weber State student newspaper, covered my recent talk. The coffee stain tells you it’s been read by an academic. 

Q: Do you think children are harmed in Westboro Baptist Church?

A: The first generation of children born in Westboro Baptist Church–people now in their 40s and 50s–tell a variety of stories about abuse. Some, like ex-member Nate Phelps, give detailed stories of physical abuse, violence that goes beyond what would have even then been considered “appropriate” physical punishment. Some of his siblings indicate that their father, the founding pastor, Fred Phelps, was harsher in his physical punishment of children than most people would be comfortable with. Still others say that they witnessed nothing that would rise to the level of abuse. All of them may be telling the truth. Abuse in families often focuses on one child and isn’t spread across families. Fred Phelps’ 13 children were born across more than a decade. The youngest was quite young when her older siblings, including Nate, left the church. It’s possible not only that their memories and experiences were different but that their parents parented very differently between the first and the final child.

Among the second generation–those born to the first generation–physical punishment is still an available option for parents, but no children have identified it as abuse. Additionally, during my time at church events, I never saw a child spanked or smacked. Finally, even ex-members talk about their families as being loving and kind. Lauren Drain has written a memoir, as has Libby Phelps, and they do not suggest child abuse, though some in their generation–like their parents–have noted that there were moments when their parents may have used more than the minimum amount of force that would be suggested.

The absence of evidence does not prove abuse, of course; it’s never possible to say with 100% certainty that no child was ever abused in any church. But there is no reason, from what I can see, to think that children in Westboro would be more likely to abused than children in other churches. If anything, public scrutiny of the church should be a protection against such abuse.

I’ve answered the question in regards to physical harm. Emotional harm and spiritual wounding is a different story. I think that story is still unfolding, but some former members certainly feel that they suffered emotional and spiritual abuse, even as they also feel that they were loved by their families.

Q: Do you think that the government should have the right to remove children from the home due to the ideology of the parents?

A: The law is very clear: as long as the religious practices of a group are legal, parents have every right to rear their children in their religion. Even if the practices conflict with the law–for example, using prostitution as a means to finance the organization–the government cannot intervene unless the people are practicing that part of their faith. So, for example, a group can teach that the use of illicit drugs is sacred or that polygamy is next to godliness, as long as these are mere beliefs. If believers act on those teachings, they may find themselves in trouble.

Even here, though, there are exceptions. The Amish, for example, are legally permitted to withdraw their children from school after 8th grade–though non-Amish children can’t drop out that young. We might wonder, though, if a group that isn’t romanticized in the same way as the Amish would find a similar friend in the US Supreme Court.

There are certainly cases when parents use religious justification to physically abuse–even to the point of death–or medically neglect children. In those cases, the state can intervene, though many states have exemptions to child abuse laws that protect parents from charges of manslaughter on religious grounds. It can be very difficult to weigh respect for the First Amendment with the state’s responsibility to children. In some cases, the unfamiliarity of a religion or our discomfort with it can also cloud our judgments. For example, the US prohibits female genital mutilation (FGM), but, for some people, this may be seen as a religious practice. Is there a way to preserve religious freedom here while also protecting girls?

Interestingly, at the community level, religious beliefs that promote obedience to authority and physical punishment do not correlate to higher levels of child abuse, even though individuals who hold more conservative views of the Bible are at higher risk of being abusive.

To answer with an example: Heath Campbell is a Nazi from New Jersey who’s had a number of children with a variety of women (a family pattern not uncommon among white supremacists). They include babies named “Adolf Hitler,” “Honzlyn Hinler” (yes, it’s not quite spelled right), and “JoyceLynn Aryan Nation.” Turns out that the state can’t remove children from the home because you name them “Eva Braun” or “Rommel”–but they can remove them when you are a domestic abuser.

Q: You said that this topic might be of special interest to people in Utah. Why?

Utah’s colonization as a Mormon settlement has always brought scrutiny to the place. The continued presence of Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints and related splinter groups in the state and in the region provides us with a living example of a group that has a high level of tension with the rest of the world–in part around their promotion of polygamy and child marriage. At times, the state has been too enthusiastic in its effort to eradicate alleged abuse, only to find that its actions were unwarranted or worked to evoke sympathy for the targeted groups–as with the 1953 Short Creek Raid in present-day Hildale, Utah, or the 2008 state intervention at the Yearning for Zion ranch in rural Texas, which was actually populated by those who fled Utah after the Short Creek Raid.

Above, images from the Short Creek Raid and the investigation at the Yearning for Zion Ranch. 

But it’s not just those extreme examples we should consider. Among Utahns in general, mental health is relatively shaky, and that is true for the mainstream LDS subset, including women and youth, who are especially and increasingly vulnerable to suicide. There is speculation that the poor mental health of folks in the state is linked to the high altitude, but we have to keep looking, also, at how religion, both beliefs and practices, can be a negative force in people’s lives.

Q: You conducted ethnographic work. Can it really be applied to other cases outside of Westboro?

A: The cases I’ve referenced here–WBC, The Family, Rastafarians, the Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, FLDS, and even LDS–are all different in their details. We need ethnographers to help us understand those details so we don’t make gross generalizations.

At the same time, each of these groups is protected by the First Amendment; each operates within the US and so encounters US law, so they do have something in common–they are religious minorities, often treated with hostility–in a land where they have, for the most part, not created the rules they must adhere to, which can create conflict.

branch-davidians

Above, the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, burns after federal agents attempted to end a months-long standoff there.  More than 80 people died in the event.

When we understand these religions better, we can better uphold the principle of freedom of religion while also insuring that vulnerable populations–such as children–are given the protection of the government that they deserve. The eminent sociologist of religion Nancy Ammerman presented a report to the Justice and Treasury Departments after the 1993 disaster at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. In that report, she stressed that the state–in this case, the BATF and the FBI–must understand religion from both a scholarly perspective and from the perspective of believers–that is, from both the etic and the emic perspectives. We could have saved lives had decision-makers there been better informed. I hope that religion scholars will be heard in these debates, which are important in protecting both religious freedom and vulnerable populations.