A closer look at the Adrian Peterson case: Do culture and religion matter?


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While the media seems largely focused on the fact that the Minnesota Vikings finally decided to bench its star running back, a more important—and politically incorrect—question needs to be asked:

To what extent, if any, did Adrian Peterson’s religious beliefs and cultural background as an African American contribute to him beating and injuring his son?

Many details about the case have been well publicized and have not been denied by Peterson: Last spring, he “disciplined” his four-year-old son at his Houston home by stuffing leaves in his mouth and hitting him repeatedly with the branch of a tree or “switch.” The boy was also reportedly beaten with a belt. The “whoopings,” as Peterson called them, resulted in the boy sustaining lacerations, bruises, and welts on his legs, arms, buttocks, and genitals. The injuries were reported by a doctor after the boy’s mother took him for a previously scheduled appointment.

The 29-year-old Peterson is a deeply religious Christian. His Twitter feed is peppered with religious proclamations and snapshots of Bible verses. The conservative Christian 700 Club has featured Peterson on its website. And Peterson seems to wholeheartedly believe that children should be disciplined using physical punishment.

Upon questioning, his son told his mother that Peterson “likes belts and switches and has a whooping room.” On September 15, Peterson tweeted: “Deep in my heart I have always believed I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and others relatives.” Peterson’s adherence to such an ideology is particularly remarkable, given the fact that another of his sons was allegedly beaten to death when the boy was two years old. 

After intense public pressure, the cancellation of a major NFL sponsor, apparent threats by other companies to cancel sponsorship, and the news that Peterson had been accused of abusing another son in 2013 (Peterson was not charged in that case), the Vikings dramatically changed course. Initially, after Peterson was indicted on child abuse charges, the Vikings had him sit out one game and then allowed him to rejoin the team. After the public outcry, officials barred him from all team activities. Some predict he will never again wear a Vikings jersey.

It probably wasn’t helpful to Peterson’s case that after the initial slap on the wrist, he sent out this tweet, indicating that God was on his side.

Many people Doubted YOU! Now look at you! You didnt Overcome Major Obstacles in your Life! You Identified who u were in Christ! . . . If you could only see how God views you! Just understand that you are a Mighty Vessel that God Chose to do Great things!

Now, statistics on the use of corporal punishment in conservative Christian households and those in the African American community are raising questions as to whether Peterson’s religious beliefs and cultural background fueled his ideology about the need to control his son’s behavior in this way and, ultimately, to injure him.

I’m not aware of any studies that show that children in one faith or racial group are more at risk for abuse than others, but there is reason to believe that children who are physically punished are more at risk for being physically abused than those who are not physically punished. Studies show that a vast majority of child abuse is delivered in the midst of adults using corporal punishment. Furthermore, children are more likely to be injured when parents use corporal punishment frequently or use implements to spank children.[1]

Corporal punishment among conservative Christians

Americans overall have been spanking less and less. The percentage of parents who favor corporal punishment has dropped from 84 percent in 1986 to about 70 percent in 2012. Many Christians choose not to spank their kids, pointing out that, according to the Bible, Jesus never advocated that children should be taught respect through hitting. Some Christian leaders have changed their views and now oppose spanking.

On the other hand, conservative Christians tend to believe that their religion requires them to spank. Many justify this choice by referencing numerous passages in the Book of Proverbs that condone using “the rod” to discipline children. For example, Proverbs 23:13—14 states: “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die. Punish them with the rod and save them from death.”

Some Christians also see the need to use corporal punishment to correct children’s inherent “sinfulness.” Days after Peterson’s indictment, a psychologist and minister with the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family wrote an op-ed in Time magazine expressing this sentiment:

Unfortunately, each of us enters this world with desires that are selfish, unkind, and harmful to others and ourselves. Spanking, then, can be one effective discipline option among several in a parents’ tool chest as they seek to steer their children away from negative behaviors and guide them toward ultimately becoming responsible, healthy, happy adults.

Corporal punishment among African Americans

Similarly, African Americans also rely heavily on the use of corporal punishment. One study that looked at the childrearing of kindergartners shows that 89 percent of black parents spanked compared to 79 percent of white parents. According to a New York Times op-ed written by Georgetown University Sociology Professor and author Michael E. Dyson, the belief among African Americans that they must discipline their children using physical punishment is inherited from the days of slavery.

The lash of the plantation overseer fell heavily on children to whip them into fear of white authority. Terror in the field often gave way to parents beating black children in the shack, or at times in the presence of the slave owner in forced cooperation to break a rebellious child’s spirit. Black parents beat their children to keep them from misbehaving in the eyes of whites who had the power to send black youth to their deaths for the slightest offense.slave child

Dyson goes on to say, “If beating children began, paradoxically, as a violent preventive of even greater violence, it was enthusiastically embraced in black culture, especially when God was recruited. As an ordained Baptist minister with a doctorate in religion, I have heard all sorts of religious excuses for whippings.”

Defending Peterson

This association might explain why a number of black athletes have come to Peterson’s defense, often stating that the kind of beating Peterson gave his son is not all that uncommon among blacks. On a New York radio broadcast, Lions running back Reggie Bush said he and many of his friends were punished in the same way as Peterson chose to do with his son and that he would “harshly” punish his one-year-old daughter if need be. “I definitely will try to—will obviously not leave bruises or anything like that on her,” Bush said. “But I definitely will discipline her harshly depending on what the situation is.” Initially Bush said he’d consider using a switch but then said he misspoke. “I said spanking,” he said. “Spanking is different than a branch or a stick.”

In an interview on NFL Today, NBA Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley said corporal punishment is a way of life among the black, southern culture. “Whipping, we do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under [Peterson’s] circumstances,” Barkley said. Peterson has shown remorse for injuring his child, yet he has continued to defend his decision to “discipline” (what others call “beat”) his child. On the day of his indictment, he told investigators, “I feel very confident with my actions because I know my intent.”

One African American blogger noted:

Corporal punishment is a cultural norm in the black community based on their Christian beliefs. They take to heart biblical passages like Proverbs 13:24. …People may find this abhorrent, but Peterson can use freedom of religion as a defense. His lawyer will put the Bible on the stand.

Meanwhile, some celebrated football stars, both black and white, such as Cris Carter and Boomer Esiason, have deplored Peterson’s actions and his justification that he was simply disciplining his child the same way that he was disciplined in his youth. “The five most destructive words to our village are “That’s how I was raised,” wrote NBA champion Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Time.

It’s safe to say the conversation about the morality of corporal punishment is not over. Sadly, it took a high-profile case of severe child abuse to begin a meaningful public discussion on this topic. But in addition to debating the pros and cons of physical punishment, we must also examine the religious and cultural roots of spanking among conservative Christians and in the African American community, as well as Americans of all faiths and races. If we don’t, we have little chance to protect children such as the son of Adrian Peterson.

Janet Heimlich is the author of “Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment” (Prometheus Books) and Executive Director of the Child-Friendly Faith Project.

[1] Janet Heimlich, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment (Prometheus Books, 2011) p. 76, 78.


  1. Dear Janet,

    What an important and fascinating article. I will share it with my friend, Jeremiah Camara, producer of “Contradiction,” which is a movie about the problems and dangers of Christianity in the black community (highly recommended: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T30Ekq6bND4). The idea of beating a child as a way of “saving” them from a slavemaster is incredible. Who is the imagined slavemaster now?

    Keep up the good work.


    • The imagined slavemaster is now the untrustworthy cops. Who shot black children before they even ask questions. And I know not all cops are bad. But having just one corrupt cop anywhere is enough to be worried about.

  2. The main reason spanking has declined is due to The Child Safety Act created in April 1974. The Act was created to
    help avoid serious physical child abuse. However, it has been taken way, way too far. Any child who says they were beaten by their parents is automatically believed, while the parents have no resource. An angry child can cry abuse and easily ruin a parent’s life. The same goes with teachers and coaches. Because this Act has been taken too far, children now have the power and adults do not. This Is Wrong ! Children are not mentally equipped to rule the household. That is why they have parents. It’s time for the pendulum to start swinging the other way. Those of us who grew up in the 60’s were punished when we did something wrong. We learned that Actions Have Consequences. Today’s children have no concept of this idea. Also, today’s parents think their children can run free doing
    whatever they want, and get mad if somebody says something. When I was a child, we learned the correct way to behave, especially in public. Tantrums were met with “you want something to cry about ?”. Misbehavior got one or. More whacks on the butt ( open handed ) depending upon the severity of what was done. We had good manners,
    we’re polite, and respected our elders. Today’s children do not. It’s time to put power back in the hands of adults.

    • Richard Russell says:

      Donna, Your perspective seems to be that of a person who believes deeply in the propriety and effectiveness of corporeal punishment of children. There are many reasons for a person to feel loyalty to a violent institution that many others reject. One is that a person received beatings as a child and wants the “right” to pass it on as a form of balancing the books. If one cannot legally avenge his or her own beatings (there’s new awareness about elder abuse out there too), it can seem passing it on to the next generation is the perfect solution. That’s crude hazing at its worst. Not saying this is you, but it does apply to many. Please consider peaceful alternatives. I lived several years in a culture where family bed, attachment parenting, and gentle discipline clearly work better than our own obsession with beating children. Children are polite, well-mannered, respectful of adults and seniors, gentle in all human interactions, and meticulously law-abiding.

      As a survivor of abusive beatings by a religious fanatic mother (and now an advocate for better treatment of children), AND as a retired criminal defense lawyer, I am keenly interested in the problems you discuss about false accusations by children angry at their parents. I would like very much to get from you some references to literature about this problem. Surely some case studies of examples of parents wrongfully convicted, have been compiled by now. If it’s a problem, we need to work on correcting it. And I’m down for the effort.

    • Donna, if your claims about the way the Child Safety Act is enforced are true, they provide a good reason to re-evaluate that way we handle child-abuse accusations in the USA. However, you have provided no evidence (and, indeed, I strongly doubt there is such evidence) supporting the claim that this happens often, much less that it is the norm. In most places, CPS has to demonstrate evidence of abuse (e.g., welts, bruises, lacerations) and cannot simply take a child’s word for it that the child is being abused. Personally, I know of no cases where a child was taken from parents on false charges (though, I’m sure there have been instances when this has happened), but I know of many, many cases where abuse was taking place but CPS was unable to prove it, and therefore had to leave the children in their parents’ care. In one instance with which I have personal knowledge, four adult siblings testified to the horrendous abuse (beatings consisting of dozens of lashes with a belt, prolonged food deprivation, exposer, sleep deprivation etc) that they had experienced as children and their knowledge of the ongoing abuse of their younger siblings living at home, but because there were no marks being left at the time, and the younger children were too scared to say anything, nothing could be done.

      Additionally, your claims that children were better behaved in your generation and that this was the direct result of corporal punishment need substantiation. If this is indeed true, why does the overwhelming weight of scientific research point to negative long-term effects associated with corporal punishment?

      • I know of some cases. I know women who were victims of domestic violence have a better chance of having their children taken. I also know a woman right now who is fighting to get her kids back because they lied in order to be foster kids. The woman in question is a survivor of domestic violence, has a degree in psychology, and had been up until the lie was a foster parent and assistant with other foster families. She always tried to choose the choicest assignments where she assisted foster families who had a lot of money. Her kids were always wowed by the homes of other foster parents. When her kids were placed in foster care they were not placed with a super rich family and recanted but it was too late. She has worked hard and has debunked the claims but the fight to get them back is still far from over. This is one case that is not representative exactly but I know of two other cases as well. I also have two friends who I grew up with who had lied because they were mad and their parents never laid a hand on them except in love. So there are more cases than one might think is out there. I only know of these due to being a survivor of domestic violence myself. The stigma associated with being a survivor of such is horrible and not empowering as the media would like the masses to believe. I am now a single mother with sole custody and I am in college. I fight every day to stay, The state I live in makes it far from easy and tends to punish women through the system for being single parents. The domestic violence center I lived in for 3 months with my son had a transitional program where they helped you get an apartment and would help with rent but you had to have a job. Any job, as long as it was a job. I have a 3.9 GPA at a major university but had to have a job in order to be part of the program my grades and potential of obtaining a bachelors degree and further was not considered. I remember getting in a fight with my advocate about being in school since I could not find a job that was only daytime and no weekends. I was going to be denied entry into the program. I eventually, after 3 months found a part time job at a florist. It got me into the program. I was later let go from said job for having custody/finalization of a protective order on February 14, 2013. The courts do not care if it is valentines day most obviously from my case. Anyway, what I have learned from all of this is that in everything it is about power who has it, who wants it, and those who don’t have it. I used to think being a woman in todays culture was a wondrous thing until I had a child and went through what I have. We still have a long way to go from that of child abuse to domestic abuse before anything can really sit right and be the rosy picture of freedom and equality I once thought I was a part of. I do thank my lucky stars though since I am much luckier than many other women I know and those around the world too for that matter. I will jump off my soap box, sorry it just all spilled out due to one connection after another. Just a chain of consciousness.

        • My point as diluted as it became, is such that the cases of children lying for one reason or another are real I have real life experience with the parents and children of such cases. CPS does not need to see welts or bruises to take a child once a mother has a “history of domestic violence” that is actually the diluted point I was trying to make till I went off on a tangent.

  3. I stand by the belief that religion or whatever other excuse is used to justify hitting children, never, ever overrides the physical and mental well being of a child.

    Anyone can create a fear so deep in a child through threats of hell or hitting them. A parent who allows a child to have such a great love for self that the thought of doing any kind of harm to anyone/anything never even crosses the child’s mind, well, THAT is a great parent. When an adult parents with love and positivity, they don’t have behavioral issues coming from their child.

    When they’re beaten or as some like to call it “spanked”, dysfunction is created. The damage is done and irreversible.

    Then there is the scientific medical harm of delivering blows to the tail end of the spine and body in general.
    It’s time to just stop hurting children. No excuses. No “it’s gone to far”. Just stop abusing children and calling it “spanking” and “rules”. It’s a generational mental sickness that has been passed down. If he looks at his child’s legs, I hope he remembers slavery because that’s what he is passing down, the same methods used to beat the slaves into submission.

  4. Fear of being beaten by your elders if you put a foot wrong is not respect for your elders, nor should it be. Nobody should respect those who abuse their power to beat up those unable to stand up to them, let alone their own children, they are not worthy of respect.

    Obeying all the laws, rules and conventions in your social group because you learned to fear being beaten from an early age is not being a good person, it’s being a person crushed into meek obedience by violence and abuse.

    If a stranger beats up a child they will be rightly condemned, so how can it be that a parent, the person who should be caring for and protecting a child, is not even more culpable?

    Teaching a child right from wrong, and how to behave is first of all a matter of teaching by example. What a fine example: if someone weaker than you doesn’t obey you, beat them up.

  5. I know some Black people who feel very ashamed about this ongoing problem in the Black community, and they feel bad about how others see Blacks because of this issue making them look bad. I found a great website that I try to promote in the Black communities called ” dontbeatblackkids.com ! A woman created this site to encourage gentle attachment parenting styles in her community, and she is Black. Another one, sparethechild.com, is very good. Please check out these sites, and print the stories, blogs, etc. and share with any Black people you know, or make up flyers from the sites to leave for others to read. A lot can, and needs to be done. I witnessed quit a lot of casual cruelty and abuse of the cute Black kids myself, by the parents, usually a mother, but some times the fathers. I wish I knew of those sites back when I was growing up in L.A. Expect some pushback.

  6. MP: Much of the discussion that’s arisen around the Adrian Peterson case suggests that corporal punishment may be a generational thing. If so, it seems time — past time — for that cycle to be broken.

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