Updated: Mar 10, 2021
Within the conservative Christian community in which I was raised and long worked, I saw how many Christians prided themselves on having a faith which is an individual choice, to have or not have a personal relationship with Jesus. Moreover, these Christians claim that they have no fear of individuals investigating their faith, because if they research, they will discover that the existence of Jesus, his life, and his teachings can be proved true. I recall receiving a book to answer faith questions as a high school graduation present, presumably because I was entering the big, secular world and may suddenly doubt my faith. Withstanding the “lies” of secularism as a young and independent adult was the theme of many books, programs for teens, and the cautionary tale impressed on us before leaving home.
Armed with my lifetime of Christian teaching and the assurance that nothing could disprove my faith, I attended BIOLA University (an Evangelical Christian University that requires all students to sign a faith statement, code of conduct, and get a minor in Biblical Studies). Fresh off four years of further education, I had no doubts and embarked on my career in international human rights, specializing in the protection and promotion of religious freedom worldwide. I immediately started learning about the beliefs, practices, and forms of government/religious institutions in other countries and how they controlled populations, often attempting to enforce conformity with a state approved religion.
I continued to learn about other faiths and political entities utilizing faith such Hindu nationalists in India who are responsible for the killing and attacks on numerous Muslims and Christians, in an effort to purge the country of religious minorities. Buddhist adherents in Laos and Vietnam have colluded with communist/nationalist government authorities to persecute those who convert away from Buddhism, resulting in beatings, attacks, and expulsion from their homes and villages. I have met and know of many more ex-Mormons who have faced shunning from their families, or lower level hostilities preferring that individuals pretend to still have faith, whether they do or not. History is replete with this behavior, be it the Catholic inquisition, Puritan laws in the New World, or the Salem Witch trials.
Yet, I was satisfied and confident that there was no compulsion in MY Christian faith…that is until I had friends leave Christianity, until I was mistreated for having different views within my Christian faith from Evangelical employers and pastors, and when I was challenged with how I would approach faith as a parent to my two young children in a shared custody situation with their Dad being an Evangelical. I started contemplating how compulsion was utilized in my religious upbringing and that of many I’ve encountered through my life, from a variety of religious backgrounds. A theme began to emerge. One that seems universal, control. People of faith often use fear and compulsion to keep their families and communities believing in a specific faith.
I started typing my thoughts and completed a blog post. Within a few hours I realized that I had successfully vented my frustration in the article and addressed some important topics, but it wasn’t a balanced approach. My goal isn’t to badger people who disagree with me, but to educate and demonstrate a better way for people of faith. So, I decided to write about my frustrations and concerns, but also to share the legal protections for parental rights within the rights to freedom of religion or belief because true improvement will only come from parents willing to choose less controlling methods and to have rational discussions with their children, instead of utilizing control and fear.
I’ve come to believe that there are less blatant forms of compulsion used in religion, ones that prevent children from proper cognitive development and having the ability to confidently make choices based on their own investigation and convictions. Many of these forms of compulsion are broadly accepted in American society. They are religious systems in which children are isolated from the outside world, often educated in home school or religious institutions affiliated with that faith group, ones which punish children for daring to think outside that religious system, and ones that physically prevent those children from exposure to outside ideas and interactions. In this way, many children in modern countries are essentially raised in cults or cultish environments with a focus on absolute control of thought and behavior. These children are prevented from proper cognitive development to recognize the spiritual, and often accompanying physical and sexual abuse.
I’m thinking of missionary agencies who raise children in boarding schools such as my personal experience in Panama under absolute control, children raised in the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints in polygamous communities in which girls are married to older men in plural marriages, not of their choosing, and in which some young boys are chosen for abandonment on the side of a road without education, money, or any real world experience, all because the older FLDS leaders view them as competition for the younger girls. I’m thinking of children raised in Amish communities in which they are educated and raised without modern technology. After their time of “Rumspringa” in which they can explore the outside world, they have to choose whether to leave the only community they’ve ever known, or to be shunned and try to assimilate into the secular world without any proper education or socialization. These children are raised with major handicaps in that they rarely have a suitable education to pursue further education and success outside their own isolated communities. Moreover, their only support system is within that religious community, so choosing to leave without money, a place to live, or the basics necessities of life is scary and often considered an insurmountable obstacle. What choice do these young people really have moving forward in life? They’ve only been raised and educated to function within a controlling religious community.
Having been an Evangelical and working in public policy, I’ve had a LOT of contact with the Christian Conservatives, which is constantly pumping out information about not losing religious freedom in America. There are numerous scholars/fellows who focus exclusively on these issues, publishing reports, followed by advocacy campaigns from these institutions to promote policy that supports their views.
Individuals of this persuasion cling dearly to their rights to raise their children according to their principals. The fear of state intervention in raising children within one’s own faith is so great amongst this community, that the US is the ONLY country that has not signed on to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, despite former Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s administrations participating in negotiations and offering amendments. Conservative Christians contend that signing this treaty would undermine US sovereignty, and parents’ authority in raising their children. They often use fear tactics citing rare stories of children being removed from a home by social services, or parents being unjustly accused of child abuse.
These tactics are SO prevalent, that I did not contact any NGO or state agency for help when in an abusive marriage, all for fear that if I involved a government authority, I could lose my children. In retrospect, this is the first thing I should have done. The harmful teachings by this community demonstrates how complete power and authority of adults over children is most important to them, so that they can ENSURE their children believe as they do.
My personal experience was bad, but not as severe as kids raised in religious groups such as the Church of Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, FLDS, Amish, and Full Quiver Movement who often have even less access to education and outside information.
A number of faiths, including most strains of Christianity, teach that unbelievers will go to hell. No matter how much a pastor teaches about God’s love, mercy, and grace, you cannot get around that fact that this deity will punish you for eternity if you do not believe and act in accordance with those teachings.
The pressure is intensified in the case of children who not only face the external compulsions, but also learn, often from the very beginning of their life, that they will go to hell unless they accept their parent’s beliefs. This was certainly the case with me. I clearly remember my “conversion.” I was three years old and my family lived in Panama where my parents had just started their missionary career. My family was discussing the Sunday sermon which focused on a Jewish man who “got saved.” I asked if I was going to be saved and go to heaven. I was told that I would not, but that my parents and siblings were going to heaven because they had “gotten saved.” Terrified that I would be left alone and go to hell, I immediately agreed to recite a prayer for salvation. Millions of individuals worldwide have had a similar experience and it forces me to ask if children raised in this way really have a choice? Faced with eternal damnation, constant teaching by one’s parents and religious community promoting fear, and limited access to any other information, results in “believers” of compulsion.
Whether you are an Evangelical Christian forcing your child to home school in avoidance of secular teachings and social interactions, a conservative Muslim forcing your daughter to wear a head covering and limiting her social and academic options, or a Scientologist giving your child to the Sea Organization and allowing them to be educated and used for labor by the Church of Scientology, they all have a commonality…they control the children’s access to education, information, socialization, and most importantly from being allowed proper cognitive development and the ability of maturing to make decisions on their own, without fear of immediate punishment and/or eternal condemnation.
The importance of empowering children to think and make decisions for themselves was driven home to me by one encounter my son had a couple years ago with an atheist. My son was about 5 years old and asked him if he believed in God. The man told him that he did not, and my son immediately became very upset and distressed. It became clear he thought that individual would go to hell for his lack of belief. Imagine the weight of that belief and “knowledge” on a young child…thinking they have the truth and know who will and who will not be worthy of salvation.
Over the last couple of years, I started to change the way I discussed faith with my kids and now present a variety of viewpoints, rather than only give them one and insist it is the truth. I have told them since they were very young that I will never force them to believe what I do and that I want them to be free to explore and come to their own decisions…and that I love and support them, regardless of the faith or lack of faith they eventually choose.
I remembered talking with the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief a several years ago. Since the Rapporteur in this position published 2 thematic reports on religious freedom each year, I remember our discussion regarding his planned themes, and was surprised when he told me he was going to write about children’s rights within religious freedom and how it was really tricky because there are parental rights and a healthy practice of religious freedom for children is dependent on this little phrase in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child…”evolving capacities of the child.”
I re-read Dr. Bielefeldt’s 2017 report, Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (Focus: The rights of the child and his or her parents in the area of freedom of religion or belief). The report provided a really well -balanced explanation of the rights of parents and children within a state, and within the UN Convention, with special attention to concerns from individuals concerned with losing parental rights.
Despite many religious conservative’s fears regarding UN conventions, and particularly those pertaining to parent/child relationships, the concern is unsubstantiated. In fact, the UN Convention on the Status of Children, and the aforementioned report by Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt iterate these rights in detail and should provide confidence in parental rights and abilities to raise their children within their own faith tradition.
What are these guarantees?
The overarching philosophy regarding the parental role in this convention, cited in the preamble says that the child “should group up in a family environment”, and that family is “the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its member and particularly children.”
Article 7, Paragraph 1: makes clear that a child should have “ the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.”
Article 9, Paragraph 1: “ensures that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will”, except in very specific circumstances, yet asserts that the state “shall respect the right of the child who is separated from one or both parents to maintain personal relations.”
Article 14, Paragraph 2: emphasizes rights and duties of parents stating “to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right” to freedom of religion or belief.
The state cannot compel parents to raise their child in a religiously neutral environment as some have argued. Dr. Bielefeldt specifies that Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) “protects socialization processes broadly, as part of the right to manifest one’s religion or belief ‘in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.’"
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 18, Paragraph 4, directs states to “ undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”
The right of parents to have their children initiated in religious ceremonies before the child has reached an age of maturity to have input.
Parents have the right to send their children to private or denominational schools where they will receive religious education, as long as the educational standards are approved by the state.
As you can see, the list of parental rights are rather comprehensive. Unfortunately, many people of faith do not recognize that children have rights as individuals, outside of their family.
My experience within the Evangelical community is that (outside of the right to life), the focus is so much on the rights of parents to teach their children and raise them in the way they deem best, that it diminishes important protections for children.
This belief of children is based in Biblical scripture. There are numerous verses, but here are just a few that were constantly taught to me as the basis for unquestioning obedience to my parents and religious leaders. They were not just admonitions but came with threats of punishment and ultimate death if one did not appropriately obey one’s parents.
Ephesians Chapter 6: 1-3 (KJV)
1 Children obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.
2 Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;)
3 That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.
Colossians 3:20 (ESV)
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord
Matthew 15:4 (KJV)
For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. (yes, fear of death was incurred)
Proverbs 22:6 ESV
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Proverbs 13:24 ESV
Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.
Proverbs Chapter 23:13 – 14 (KJV)
13 Withhold not correction from the child: for [if] thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.
14 Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.
(this one used to say “I don’t WANT to discipline you, but God commands it so that you learn to be more like him).
Deuteronomy Chapter 21: 18 – 21 (KJV)
18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and [that], when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:
19 Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;
20 And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son [is] stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; [he is] a glutton, and a drunkard.
21 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
Rights of the Child
Now we must examine the other side. What are the rights of the child? For the complete list, please read the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Those cited below are the ones most relevant to the topic of this article, but by no means comprehensive. There are many other articles regarding protections for children from economic and sexual abuse, torture, and expressing the right of children to rest, leisure, and to engage in age-appropriate play and recreation.
Children are included under the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) framework as individual right holders, not just through their parents. The UDHR recognizes “the inherent dignity and …the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. “ Dr. Bielefeldt notes how important this is, because in many cultures, parents, families, and communities, consider children as their property and do not acknowledge their status as individual right’s holders.
Children have the right to freedom of thought, religion, or belief (FoRB) under Article 18 of the UDHR, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and article 14 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The ICCPR specifies the right within FoRB to have theistic, non-theistic, atheistic beliefs, as well as to not profess any religious belief.
Special mention of “persons of indigenous origin,” in article 30 of the Convention on the Rights of the child and article 27 of the ICCPR were included to ensure the ability to practice his or her faith and also in community with members of their faith. This is particularly important in places like Xinjiang Province in China where Uyghur Muslim children are prevented from learning their own language, accessing religious education, and intentional displacement to eradicate the continuation of the Uyghurs as an ethnic community.
Dr. Beliefeldt cogently explains how the rights of parents and children must work in conjunction. According to Article 14, Paragraph 2A child is an individual rights holder and his/her parents will make decisions for their child when young. But “must not lead to the wrong conclusion that parents or other family members can simply override ignore or marginalize the rights of the child. The status of the child as rights holder must always be respected and should, inter alia, be reflected in the manner in which parents provide guidance and direction to the child. The decisive term employed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child is “the evolving capacities of the child,” which is found in Article 5.
Article 12, Paragraph 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child directs that children’s beliefs should be “given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” In other words, as children mature, they should have increasing input and control over their beliefs and participation in religious activities.
Article 13 of the Convention notes a child’s right to freedom of expression which includes, “freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice." E.g. Many religious groups teach children that any literature or information that contradicts their teaching is “anti” religious and highly discourage or prevent children from accessing it.
Article 24 recognizes “the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health. States Parties shall strive to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right of access to such health care services. E.g. Some religious groups prohibit lifesaving medical interventions such as blood transfusions, teach belief in prayer for healing and foregoing medical treatment for diseases such as cancer, and in this way subject children to disease and preventable death.
Paragraph 3 of this article also mentions the importance of “abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.” E.g. The obvious example here is female genital mutilation which is imposed on girls worldwide for religious and cultural reasons but causes numerous health and psychological problems for the child.
Article 28, Paragraph 2 says that states, “shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity and in conformity with the present Convention. E.g. Numerous Protestant missionary agencies and religious schools worldwide have records of rampant child abuse with regard to corporal discipline. In my childhood, spanking was the typical punishment, and many of my friends were left black and blue and often bloody from these acts of “discipline.”
Article 29, Paragraph D, guarantees, “The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin.”
The obvious issue with many religious educational institutions is that they do little to prepare young people for life outside of their insular community. This was certainly the case for me and countless others I have learned about, coming from a variety of religious and educational backgrounds. Often, religious believers go to such extremes to prevent their children from learning any secular ideas, even the most basics such as equality of sexes and races, that graduates from these institutions are completely unprepared for life in a free society and are more likely to retain and spread teachings antithetical to these ideals.
On the surface, I think most people would agree that these rights of parents and children in regard to religious freedom are reasonable, if not advisable. Yet my experience and those of so many others I have encountered tell a different story. It is a worldview that teaches submission and unquestioning obedience to parents. It is one that treats children as if they should behave like perfect mini adults, and who are often severely punished for expressing or acting in any way contrary to their parent’s beliefs. My experience and that of many more children with whom I was raised, were deprived of these listed rights as well as many basic ones that I did not document in interest of space and time.
Why was I and so many of my counterparts subjected to deceitful, cruel, and controlling religious abuse? I think the answer is fear.
What do Religious Believers Fear? I have a few ideas.
Fear that children will leave the faith
Fear that their authority and resources will be diminished by an increasingly smaller community of believers
Fear of losing political power and influence regarding laws…particularly those dealing with moral issues such as marriage, abortion, churches, marijuana, LGBTQ issues, and children’s rights
Fear of women attaining equal status with men and challenging their patriarchal society
Fear of societal change that no longer matches their narrative of how things should be
Fear of discovering that some long-held beliefs may not be valid, requiring a change in thinking
If your belief is true, why is fear needed to gain adherents and conformity? If it is true, why not allow your children to learn about other beliefs systems and trust that they will be able to discern the same truth as you?
Yet, it appears a large portion of religious believers are terrified of allowing their children and communities the most basic freedom to investigate beliefs and make decisions without exercising compulsion. I’m sure there are many more fears, but ultimately, I’m convinced the reason that so many religious believers refuse to recognize children’s rights in regard to religious freedom is based in their fear.
The irony of course is that those who have been excessively controlled, such as me, seem to be the most likely to abandon those beliefs and chart a new path. Those who are afforded the freedom to learn and make decisions for themselves often become committed believers. And those who walk away, have done so of their own accord and often have great respect for their parent's support and trust in their cognitive abilities.
This is where the “all or nothing” approach of so many religious groups most obviously rears its ugly head. I believe these phrases from the Convention on the Rights of the Child are critical…ensure that children’s beliefs are “given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” And treating children as individual right’s holders according to “the evolving capacities of the child.” Children develop at different speeds, but the intent is clear here. Parents should give their children greater and greater autonomy regarding their religious beliefs as they develop. In this way, children will eventually become vested believers, or they will choose a different way. But most importantly, they get to choose, rather than have those beliefs dictated to them.
Unfortunately, many religious communities do the exact opposite. They limit the information young people can access. They limit their socialization and education. They discipline and punish young adults as if they were toddlers. This of course is a generalization of Evangelical and conservative religious parenting that clearly does not apply to all. Yet, it applies to a large enough group of Evangelicals and religious believers as evidenced by the attrition rate amongst churches across the US.
If Evangelicals could muster the humility to listen to many of those who have left the church or their parent’s version of the “truth,” they’d find this is one of the main issues behind their departure. The dissonance and overwhelming sense of betrayal that young Evangelicals and other conservative believers experience in the world outside their controlling parents and communities is nearly impossible to reverse. Many of these individuals feel robbed, and there is little parents can do at this point to recover trust or convince their adult children of the validity of a faith and faith practices that prevented them from developing and experiencing life as it should be.
Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum of belief/unbelief, I think we should all consider what compulsion in religion means. I hope these ideas will challenge all to consider if and how we are utilizing compulsion or experiencing compulsion in our religious lives. And where we find compulsion, I hope we will have the courage to find more loving ways to communicate and practice our beliefs. If you have children like me, let’s work together to bring up a new generation of children who are raised in the family environment with their parent’s values, but who also are trusted to make decisions according to their evolving capacities.