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Guest opinion: The link between domestic violence and religiosity

By Susan Madsen - | Jul 10, 2024

I have spent many years trying to understand why Utah has the high violence rates it does toward girls and women. Last week, yet another Utah woman emailed me about the intimate partner violence she has been enduring for more than 12 years. Because she has never had cuts and bruises, she didn’t realize she was experiencing domestic violence. Not all abuse leaves physical evidence. Abuse can be emotional, verbal, sexual, financial, digital and even what is termed religious or spiritual abuse.

While religious/spiritual abuse may not be as well known as other types of violence, it is traumatic and pervasive and may be less likely to be addressed in religious communities. Research tells us it is associated with negative emotional states and has trauma-related impacts. Importantly, it is not confined to people from any specific religion or faith and often appears with other types of abuse. Basically, this type of abuse is where an individual uses religion or religious teachings to justify controlling and coercive behaviors. Sometimes it may be subtle and hard to recognize, and sometimes it is not so subtle.

The irony is that while spirituality and religion can be powerful resources for victims of abuse and provide solace and hope, when the abuser inflicts pain, restricts freedoms and manipulates all in the name of God (or whatever higher power they believe in), the victim feels spiritually betrayed and may not find the support they need from their faith community. This type of domestic violence is linked to emotional and psychological distress, negative feelings about oneself and, for some, even social isolation, as detailed in a recently published report from the Australian government.

As a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints myself, it has always seemed to me that more religious cultures should have lower rates of violence, so this whole topic has been a conundrum to me. However, once I began digging into the reasons behind this connection, it does make sense.

Basically, the research tells us that intimate partner violence — a form of domestic violence — tends to be more pronounced when societies have more “patriarchal elements” that are found in many religious practices. The studies that have explored the connection between intimate partner violence and religion mention that when there are stronger patriarchal beliefs, and especially those that emphasize gender roles and norms, these “reinforce the subordinate status of women to men.” This dynamic tends to create a power imbalance between men and women, which makes women more susceptible to what research calls “religious abuse” and discourages women from even challenging it. As mentioned, this type of abuse is often coupled with other types of violence as well.

Now, let me be clear: I know thousands of incredibly kind and compassionate men in my own and other religions. And there are so many wonderful men in Utah overall! However, what the research is saying is that religious environments can and do create a breeding ground for men who seek to scare and control women by manipulating and misusing faith-based teachings and doctrines. Hence the warning in my own religious scriptural text: “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (Doctrine & Covenants 121: 39).

Most men are not abusive. Most religious people use their sacred texts to support families. But for some people, there is the temptation to misuse teachings in ways that can be destructive to others. And because this is an uncomfortable topic, most Utahns have stayed silent. And this silence through the decades is one thing that has led to our unacceptable rates of abuse – one in three women will experience intimate partner violence!

So, where do we go from here? The bottom line is that we must not only reduce our rates of domestic violence, but we also need to get serious about significantly reducing our high rates of sexual assault and child sexual abuse. We need to do this now. Utah’s faith communities can be powerful sources of influence to help turn the tide but only if we are willing to have hard conversations. There is serious, strategic and intentional work to be done in faith communities and beyond around this crisis. And I encourage them to do just that. It is time to make Utah a better place for all!

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