By Religion Dispatches

There’s a connection between hitting children and cultural identity. Growing up in Austin, Texas, I remember going to summer camp and being shocked to meet kids who had been hit with paddles by their teachers. They were from small Texas towns and saw corporal punishment as just one more indignity to be suffered at school, like bullying or gym class. Some kids liked to trade war stories about the worst bruises they’d received. On the issue of corporal punishment, Austin and rural Texas were two different worlds.

Last week worlds collided when The Satanic Temple’s “Protect Children Project” erected a billboard in Springtown, Texas, featuring the organization’s goat-skull logo and the caption, “Never be hit in school again.” The billboard was reportedly torn down after just a single day.

The website listed led to a form students could present to school officials explaining that hitting them violates their religious rights. The argument, which has yet to be tested in court, is that students can claim a deeply held religious belief that their body is inviolable (without necessarily identifying as a Satanist) and that they must therefore be granted a religious exemption from corporal punishment.

The Satanic Temple has discussed this idea since 2014, but this is the first billboard of the Protect Children Project. During the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, Satanists were falsely accused of abusing children. Now The Satanic Temple is able to claim the moral high ground over their conservative Christian opponents, some of whom have responded by alluding to Proverbs 13:24, “He that spareth his rod, hateth his son.”

Springtown was chosen because of a 2012 incident in which a male assistant principal paddled two girls, aged 15 and 16, leaving serious bruises. One girl’s mother had given consent for the use of corporal punishment, and the girl elected to be spanked rather than serve an in-school suspension. But school policy was that students could only be spanked by employees of the same sex.  So superintendent Michael Kelley had the school board revise the policy so that male teachers can paddle female students. (Other reforms included requiring a same-sex staff member to be present during punishment and a maximum of one parent-requested paddling per semester).

Satanic Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves explained that the billboard was meant both to shame the school board and to help students imagine an alternative to accepting corporal punishment:

Hopefully, our billboard will serve as a daily reminder to the citizens there that they live in a barbaric backwater town where dysfunctional and possibly sexually disturbed middle-aged men may titillate their depraved impulses by violently spanking teenaged girls. . . And hopefully the billboard can also serve as a beacon of hope to the youth of Springtown, showing them that they do have recourse to protect themselves against this shameful savagery.

Since the billboard went up, one adult graduate of Springtown ISD has come forward to denounce the culture of paddling he experienced as a student.

But many in Springtown are resentful of the billboard and Greaves’ description of their town as a “barbaric backwater.” Superintendent Kelley called the billboard’s timing “very odd.” The current student handbook requires signed parental permission for each incident of corporal punishment and Kelley claimed there had not been an incident in several years.

A petition protesting the billboard reveals why some residents support the institution of paddling. One woman wrote:

Spare the rod, spoil the child! So many children are growing up with no parental guidance. If kids were being spanked more often, there wouldn’t be sassy mouthed brats!!

Another opined:

Our kids are bad enough feeling empowered by this will make them monsters.

But most opponents of the billboard expressed resentment that a group of Satanic interlopers, headquartered in Massachusetts, was disparaging their town and their way of doing things.

It seems unlikely that The Satanic Temple’s religious exemption will be tested in Springtown. For that to happen, a parent would have to request a once-per-semester paddling of their child, and the child would have to sue in defiance of both the school and their parents. But the fight over corporal punishment appears to be a stand-in for larger battles about cultural identity as America shifts from its white, Christian past to a more pluralistic future.

A map prepared by the Department of Education shows that corporal punishment is endemic to the Bible Belt. PRRI’s Robert P. Jones suggested that the election of Donald Trump represented “the rage of white, Christian America” rebelling against demographic and cultural changes. Defending corporal punishment may be as much about nostalgia for white, Christian America as a genuine belief that paddling is good for children.

If Jones is right that Trump’s election represents a backlash by white, Christian America, then The Satanic Temple has become a backlash to this backlash. In the first 36 hours after Trump’s election, The Satanic Temple experienced an unprecedented surge in new membership and donations.  Texas alone is now home to four separate chapters. The Temple is using these new resources to bring their battle to places like Springtown that have generally been unconcerned with what people in other parts of the country might think. The long-term consequences of these campaigns remain to be seen. But in the short run, we can expect the continued escalation of tensions.