Chinese Whispers: More on Julia Baird on Christianity and Domestic Abuse

Chinese Whispers: More on Julia Baird on Christianity and Domestic Abuse

As a follow-on to my previous post on Julia Baird’s article on Christianity and Domestic Abuse, I note a vigorous response by Dr Steven Tracy, whose work Baird cited.

I agree with many things Steven Tracy says about Baird’s work, but I don’t agree that she cited his research appropriately, nor that his own work appropriately cited the work of others.

There are two problems here. One is the way Tracy cited his own work and the work of others The second is the way Baird’s article relied on Tracy’s work, without checking his references.

Baird quoted from an article by Tracy published in 2008 which stated that:

“It is widely accepted by abuse experts (and validated by numerous studies) that …  evangelical men who sporadically attend church are more likely than men of any other religious group (and more likely than secular men) to assault their wives”.

To support this claim, Tracy referred readers to an article of his published in 2007 in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. The key reference is found in footnote 44.  Tracy cites five published sources in his footnote, which is attached to the end of a statement that “Conservative Protestant men who attend church regularly are found to be the least likely group to engage in domestic violence, though conservative Protestant men who are irregular church attendees are the most likely to batter their wives.”  Note that there are two parts to his statement, but only the second part was picked up in Tracy’s 2008 paper.

Tracy’s sloppiness was twofold.  First, his 2007 article did not actually report that evangelical men are more likely than secular men to beat their wives.  Second, in relation to his assertion regarding ‘numerous studies’, while the five sources he cites in the 2007 article did support the first part of his statement, that the more men attend church, the less likely they are to beat their wives, only one of these five, an article by W. Bradford Wilcox, supported the claim that “conservative Protestant men who are irregular church attendees are the most likely to batter their wives.”

One might say this is splitting hairs, because if there is a negative correlation between church attendance and domestic violence, then of course irregular church attenders should be more likely to be violent than the regulars.  However one of the sources cited by Tracy in 2007 was a New Zealand study which found that men who never attend church are the worst abusers, at almost double the rate of sporadic church attenders, and five times the rate of regular church attenders.   This appears to contradict Tracy’s 2008 claim that secular men are less likely to abuse than sporadic attenders.

Which leads us to the second problem, that  Baird’s article cited Tracy’s research in a way which implied a positive connection between church teaching and violence. For example the section in Baird’s article which discussed this issue was headed “The Christian men more likely to assault their wives,” and her article follows up the reference to Tracy by reporting that “Some attribute these findings to the conservative denominations and churches that preach and model male control, with male-only priesthoods and inviolate teachings on male authority.”

In reality, the  reason Tracy cited Wilcox’s research in 2007 was, in his words, to disprove the “feminist hypothesis that patriarchy is the single underlying cause of all abuse against women,” and the other sources Baird cites concluded that men’s involvement in church is protective for women. Christopher Ellison, whom Tracy cited, summarised his findings as “Religious involvement, specifically church attendance, protects against domestic violence,”  and the New Zealand research  reported by Tracy showed that the men who are the most likely to assault their wives are the ones who never go to church.

In summary, a chain of errors in citation has taken place here.  First Tracy makes a sloppy citation in his 2007 paper. Then he distorts this with a further sloppy citation in his 2008 paper.  Then Baird picks up this distorted report and runs with it. In this way multiple research findings which indicated that church attendance is preventative of domestic violence became a suggestion that “denominations and churches that preach and model male control” are a cause of domestic violence.

It is significant that the research which Tracy cited to support his claim that a certain kind of evangelical men are the worst abusers was by Wilcox, who has severely criticized the way Baird relied on his research (in The Australian).  In essence Wilcox’s objection was that Baird’s article promoted a misleading negative stereotype, implying that there is a causal connection between church involvement and domestic violence, when in fact his research pointed in the opposite direction.

Although I believe it is true that preaching and modeling male control sometimes does make domestic violence worse, what seems clear is that the research Baird referred to does not show this.  Most of the fault lies with Tracy’s sloppy referencing.  Baird should have checked Tracy’s  evidence more carefully. Instead she joined a chain of Chinese whispers which transformed research findings that men’s involvement in Christianity was protective of women, to imply a positive link between church teaching and domestic violence.

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