I Lost My Job Because I Wouldn’t Let My Employer Hit My Toddler

The author (right), with her husband, Grant, and their son at Bob Jones University's commencement on May 8, 2004.The author (right), with her husband, Grant, and their son at Bob Jones University's commencement on May 8, 2004.

Halfway through the second episode of Amazon Prime Video’s Shiny Happy People, a recent docuseries about the Duggar family and the fundamentalist Christian world they came from and helped shape, Pastor Bill Ligon demonstrates a ritual that almost every person who has grown up in conservative evangelicalism has seen at least once from the pulpit. Most of us have seen it multiple times. I couldn’t watch it the first time through.

A grown adult man demonstrates how to spank a child a tenth of his age.

The man is tall and grandfatherly, wearing a grey suit and tie. He smiles and asks someone in the audience at this particular Bill Gothard conference to “loan [him] a little boy” so that he can demonstrate “how to spank a boy and bless him at the same time”.

A slight child, about six years old, walks up wearing the uniform of fundamentalist boys: a too-large striped polo shirt tucked into belted navy pants, along with a buzz cut. 

It’s clear that these two have never met because Ligon says to the boy: “Hi, Son. What’s your name?”

The little one meekly answers: “Jason.”

As the scene continues, Ligon moves the little boy face down across his lap, holding the child’s right upper arm with his left hand. The boy is limp.

Ligon proceeds to lightly tap the child’s buttocks with his open palm 13 times. While he’s doing this, he states: “Jason, you’re a fine boy, and you’re going to grow up to be an outstanding man. God’s hand is on your life, Son.” His hand pauses longer on that last line. Ligon mugs to the audience here, satisfied with his pun that God’s hand is his hand. The audience laughs uproariously.

Ligon then orders the child to “give Daddy a hug”. Limply, the boy hugs this complete stranger, but it wasn’t good enough for the pastor, who responds: “I don’t think you put yourself into that hug, Son, so let’s spank a little more.”

Three more taps.

“Let’s see if we can get a good hug out of this,” Ligon tells Jason. “Give Daddy a hug.”

Clearly the boy realises there’s one way to escape this, so he throws himself at the stranger, and the audience firmly approves.

The boy learns to be limp until he must prove that he has a “happy heart”.

Ligon isn’t an aberration. He is a graduate of the flagship seminary of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention.

For too many people, the grace that they claim for their own salvation never applies to the children in their care. Certain adults get grace; all children get hit. 

When I saw that little boy with Ligon, I saw my own child, who would have faced his own stranger with no choice but to go limp while an entire system looked on.

When my oldest was born – I called him my “screamer,” since my daughter’s stillbirth two years prior had filled the delivery room with only an ominous silence – I wanted to care for him like God cared for me.

I was working at the infamous Bob Jones University in South Carolina. I was in middle management, if you will – the head of the rhetoric and public address department. My husband and I had graduated with two degrees each from BJU, and we had both earned our terminal degrees at Indiana University. Mine was a Ph.D. in rhetorical studies with a minor in American studies.

The author (right), with her husband, Grant, and their son at Bob Jones University's commencement on May 8, 2004.The author (right), with her husband, Grant, and their son at Bob Jones University's commencement on May 8, 2004.

When I sat in that first BJU graduation ceremony after my son was born, I read Isaiah 49 to myself while the event droned on: “Can a woman forget her nursing child? ... Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.” That had been the first time I was away from my son for over three hours. My body could not “forget” my nursing child. But God says here that just like I couldn’t forget my child, He “will not forget you.”

A thought startled me: So, God loves his people like I love my son!? And wait – God loves my students like I love my son?!

That changed everything. I realised that God wasn’t transactional. I loved my son because he’s my son, not because he obeys.

Choosing to parent my son like God parented me – foregrounding love and care over transactions – brought me to the decision that I would never hit my son, no matter what the church instructed. I told myself that I would just keep this choice quiet until he was grown up and a wonderful young man, and no one from the community needed to know.

Things were fine in those early months of his life. The campus medical clinic (which our insurance benefits required we use) had instructed all of us mothers to look to fundamentalist parenting guru Gary Ezzo for our child-rearing.

I knew his books well, but I chose differently. Ezzo said to “feed-wake-sleep” and to only feed every three hours for a minimum of 30 minutes. I used to joke that my son hadn’t read the books, so he would eat for an hour every two hours. His contrary “plan” was eat-wake-eat-wake-eat-eat-eat-sleep-eat-eat-wake. If Ezzo was wrong about feeding, I wondered, what else was he wrong about? 

In defiance of Ezzo, I made a 67-cent ring sling to carry my son around the house while I vacuumed, cooked and folded laundry. That child was never happier. But I could not use this sling in public. That would get me labelled as Ezzo’s dreaded “marsupial mom.”

Then, one day, I had to. It was raining. A stroller didn’t make sense. If I wore my son, I could keep him close under my umbrella with me.

I left the house with him nestled close to me, and I sang a song my mother-in-law taught me as we walked: “Raindrops, raindrops, tiny little raindrops, in each drop is God’s great love.”

The author and her son with a (slipped) ring sling. The author and her son with a (slipped) ring sling. "This is outside my office at the Gustafson Fine Arts Center at Bob Jones University in the summer or 2004," she writes.

Maybe I was singing the song to myself.

That innocent walk left me marked. I became the talk of the campus, especially among its day care staff. Still, I wasn’t too worried – I was used to campus gossip and didn’t think it was a big deal.

Like with the university medical clinic, I was required to enrol my children in BJU’s cradle-to-baccalaureate educational programs, including its day care. The employee handbook stated that it would “expect” this of the faculty and staff.

Additionally, I couldn’t afford to choose anything else. My completed Ph.D., 3-3 teaching load – or three courses per semester, a full load under most academic standards – and role as department head earned me a gross salary of less than $20,000 in 2006.

One day while while I was waiting for my son outside of his classroom, I heard the Big Room teacher marching all the way down from the last classroom on my left. Clip-clop, clip-clop. When she appeared, a little boy around three or four was reluctantly but dreamily walking beside her. As she got closer, I could see that her jaw was clenched in frustration.

No more than 10 minutes later, the same teacher walked past me again, headed back to her classroom. The child was sobbing. I understood whole story now. The teacher had taken him down to “Miss P,” the day care supervisor, for a spanking.

As she marched back with a whimpering child, I heard her repeat that ominous fundamentalist phrase: “Happy heart, Joshua! Happy heart!”

She just had taken a child to get hit by a complete stranger, and he wasn’t even allowed to own his own feelings.

It was the same thing that Ligon did in front of thousands of people at that conference. I saw my son’s future in front of me.

I didn’t want him to experience that. Not ever. I vowed to protect him from that pain-driven ideology.

The author with her sons on the second floor of the Gustafson Fine Arts Center at Bob Jones University in August 2006. The author with her sons on the second floor of the Gustafson Fine Arts Center at Bob Jones University in August 2006. "This was a few weeks before receiving the memo from the campus day care," she writes.

When my oldest was two years and eight months old, I could no longer shield him or keep my commitment silent. The campus day care sent me a memo giving them legal permission to hit my son, which they instructed me to sign and return. Just like Ligon and Jason, a virtual stranger would be causing my child pain outside of my purview, and then he would inevitably be told to repeat, “Happy heart!” 

The memo was innocently tucked into a packet with innocuous forms and info like campus directories and calendars, all of which we received during our opening in-service meeting. I laid it on my knee and stared at it throughout the entire event.

I didn’t sign it. In fact, a social worker friend told me to write a letter that stated the opposite — that no one was allowed to hit my son.

That was the beginning of the end for me in fundamentalism. Within weeks, my academic dean called me in with my division chairman to inform my 38-year-old self that I was merely a “young mom” who didn’t have enough life experience to know biblical parenting. I thought that burying a baby, completing a Ph.D. and spending over 20 years under BJU preaching would count for something. It didn’t. 

After countless meetings with many men higher on the org chart than I, the ultimatum came from the university president himself: “If you cannot hold your position without openly promoting it in spoken or written communication to colleagues, students, or others at a distance from the University, we would have to come to a parting of ways.”

Openly promoting.

The phrase is vague enough to include any statement I made at all. It could be me wearing a child on my chest on campus in defiance of university medical advice. It could be me refusing corporal punishment for my son in defiance of the required campus day care. I couldn’t communicate in any way to anyone that God loved my two sons and my students unconditionally, and that Jesus was enough. They wanted me limp and happy.

Within 10 days, my husband and I both resigned. 

Hitting a child a tenth of your age and a fifth of your size was so important to this bastion of fundamentalism that it could not tolerate my refusal.

I have no regrets about resisting the pain-driven ideology at Bob Jones University. This practice is exactly why evangelicals vote for authoritarian political candidates like Donald Trump. They are all that little boy who has to be a limp noodle in front of thousands of approving limp noodles.

Shiny Happy People is not only about a small group you’ve never heard of. It’s a part of a larger ideology infecting American Protestants. That ideology has seeped into generations of homes. And it’s hard to resist. When I did, I lost my job, my church and all of my friends.

But I didn’t lose my sons or my husband ― and I didn’t lose God.

And I didn’t lose myself either. Because of this experience, my scholarly agenda is now to try to understand how this pain-driven political ideology gets cloaked in religious language, and how it gets repeated and reinforced.

I’ve seen it in conservatives’ reactions to the 2015 Charleston massacre. I’ve seen it in their Covid-19 pandemic response. I’ve seen it in an old segregationist sermon from 1960. And I’m currently researching it in evangelical revivals from the 1920s. I have found people who resisted this ideology a century ago, and I want to identify their strategy for us to use in our own time.

We can’t be limp in the face of authoritarianism, no matter how shiny and happy. We have to resist.

Camille Kaminski Lewis is an assistant professor of communication studies at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She is working on an original manuscript titled “Klandamentalism: The Puzzling Intersection of Race, Religion, Revivalism in America” and an edited volume called “One Hundred Years of Women Debating the Equal Rights Amendment: An Anthology, 1923-2023.”

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