The idea of caning or physical discipline of children in schools is one of those ideas that’s dropped out of fashion quite quickly. The dates will change depending on what data you’re referring to (the Norwegians banned corporal punishment in schools in the 1930s), but broadly speaking it became increasingly unacceptable during the 80s and 90s. I think today in 2021 we’d be outraged if we heard about teachers whacking kids. Even – here’s a little insight into New Zealand for you – teachers hitting kids has been a criminal offense in New Zealand since 1990, right. It’s not just an abolished practice, it’s a legitimate criminal offense, carrying a maximum five year jail sentence. However, in 2007 it came out that a cheeky little Christian school – maybe thirty kids, tiny little place – was circumventing the rules by having the parents whack their kids on the teacher’s behalf. It was obviously taking advantage of a loophole – one which was swiftly closed off by the New Zealand government – although as one Jonny Scaramanga notes, the Wayback Machine shows evidence that this school continued with its parent punishment loophole – or at least advertised it on their website – for another decade. The relevant text disappears from the website between November 2016 and May 2017, although as Scaramanga points out, that’s not to say that the practice necessarily stopped. “How likely is it that Drury Christian School’s administrators woke up one day in 2017 and had a sudden change of conscience about violence against children?”
And that’s outrageous, right. It’s obviously offensive to good sense and decency. Twenty-six years after corporal punishment in schools is made a criminal offense, and this shitty little place is still advertising it on their website. Via the Wayback Machine, we can see the school blaming the “strong feeling against corporal correction” on its misuse by angry parents, while also getting in a dig at secularization: “Humanism is also strongly opposed to Biblical standards, and has made no effort to see how well a disobedient child responds to a smack administered fairly and in love.” The other week we talked about the role of metaphor in Christianity, how the content of a metaphor comes to be normative, and how it’s reinforced by the spiritual idea that it exemplifies. This corporal punishment thing is really an extension of that principle – when a set group of Christians carry out a specific practice, an attack on that practice can be seen as an assault on the faith itself. Thus a legal ban against teachers hitting students becomes emblematic of a war between Christian and secular society, between the faithful and the devil. Cultural conflict is reimagined as spiritual conflict, and the material question of violence against children is emptied of its substance and reduced to – or maybe rather inflated into – a cartoonish cosmic battle between good and evil. Anyway, let’s go dunk on Romano Guardini for a bit.
In the final chapter of his book The End of the Modern World, the German Catholic priest Romano Guardini claims that an increasingly secular world will increasingly experience the loss of good and proper values. “Since Revelation is not a subjective experience but a simple Truth promulgated by Him Who also made the world, every moment of history which excludes that Revelation is threatened in its most hidden recesses. Yet it is good that modern dishonesty was unmasked. As the benefits of Revelation disappear even more from the coming world, man will truly learn what it means to be cut off from Revelation.” In other words, as God is the source of goodness, any rejection of God is also a rejection of goodness. Without God, Guardini argues, philosophical ideas of goodness and morality will find no purchase on the human psyche. The rejection of divine revelation is a rejection of the foundations of reality. It is humanity cut adrift. Really Guardini’s key point is that the secular world will just become this increasingly depraved awful place – that by cutting itself off from God, the world also cuts itself off from all of the benefits and advantages that we are supposed to possess.
We’ve seen this type of argument before, in the introduction to that Maritain book on democracy. The short version of that argument is that contemporary democracy is rooted in Christianity, and that any deviation from Christianity (for example gay marriage) is therefore in essence anti-democratic. The irony of course is that the most jarring assault on the democratic process in recent years, the Jan 6 Capitol attack, was driven in no small part by American evangelicals. Who could forget the QAnon shaman leading rioters in prayers in the Senate? In the wake of the attack, evangelical leaders felt compelled to speak out against Christian nationalism, writing in a public letter that they “recognize and condemn the role Christian Nationalism played in the violent, racist, anti-American insurrection”. From the Capitol riots all the way down to Drury Christian School – you know, Guardini wrote his book in the 50s, so the secular world has had seventy years to degrade beyond all recognition. And yet here we are in the 21st century, and it’s Christians finding loopholes so they can continue administering corporal punishment in schools. It’s Christians trying to pull down democracy. The alleged gap between Christianity and the rest of the world is simply not in evidence.
And there are really two trains of thought to pursue here: what the fuck is wrong with Christians, and where’s Guardini’s gap? These aren’t idle questions – in the first instance, it’s important to understand why Christians seem to keep acting in this awful way. How is it, for example, that in February 2021, the American Enterprise Institute found that 74% of white evangelicals believe that the election was stolen from Trump? How are they so far gone? And how is it that Drury Christian School was so committed to having teachers hit kids that they exploited a legal loophole for seventeen years and kept the practice listed on their website for another ten beyond that? I don’t think we can write these things off as disconnected random events, as instances of individualistic human failing. They seem to have a throughline – the same sense of entitled self-righteousness demonstrated by Guardini.
As for the alleged gap between Christians and non-Christians – the moral gap created by seventy years of the secular world rejecting revelation – I mean, this is actually an interesting question. If God is the source of all good, then in order for non-religious people to do good things, they must have some form of connection with the divine. If, for instance, it’s good to stop teachers from hitting kids, then that principle ultimately stems from God – and somehow our increasingly secular society got its hands on that principle without reference to the divine. Christians are obliged to come up with an explanation as to how that shit keeps happening. In direct opposition to Guardini’s theory of secular decline, Christians really need to develop a theory of secular fruitfulness. We’ve seen enormous leaps forward in social justice since Guardini published his book. The women’s rights movements, the movements for racial justice and reconciliation – not devoid of Christians, but not exclusively populated by them either. Why is our world today breaking down taboos around men’s mental health, breaking down stereotypes of masculinity? Where did that come from? I don’t think it started in the church. Are atheists really cut off from revelation and its benefits? The evidence would seem to suggest that they’re not. The theological task, then, is to sketch out the contours of the relationship between sacred and secular in a way that accounts for the actual facts.