A new study has found that those who believe in the tenets of Calvinism are more likely to also believe myths that justify domestic violence against women. The research appears in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
“Previous research on religion and domestic violence has yielded discrepant findings and has generated fierce debates. We investigated domestic violence myth acceptance (DVMA) rather than reports of actual violent behavior to try to understand the broader worldview orientations that serve to enable domestic violence through beliefs that basically blame victims,” explained study author Steven Sandage, a professor of Psychology of Religion and Theology at Boston University.
“We have recently seen some public political debates related to the perceived minimization of domestic violence, for example the White House initially defending an employee who was known to be accused of abusing two former wives or the attorney general’s decision to remove domestic violence as a basis for requests for asylum because he viewed it as a ‘private’ rather than a ‘public crime.'”
“These political debates have crucial systemic implications and have led many to ask, ‘How can some people take positions that seem to minimize the problem of domestic violence?’ Research on DVMA helps answer that question,” Sandage said.
The researchers surveyed 238 students from Bethel Seminary, an evangelical Protestant seminary in Minnesota. “Religious leaders are a particularly important group for this research because they are the most frequently accessed helping professionals in the U.S. for mental health and marriage and family problems despite the fact they often get limited formal training in these areas and often have high degrees of autonomy in how they handle problems related to domestic violence,” Sandage explained.
The researchers found that Calvinist beliefs were positively associated with domestic violence myth acceptance. In other words, seminary students who agreed with statements like “Christ’s redeeming work was intended to save the elect only” and “God eternally perseveres in His faithfulness with those whom He has chosen” were more likely to also agree with statements like “A lot of domestic violence occurs because women keep on arguing about things with their partners” and “Many women have an unconscious wish to be dominated by their partners.”
Calvinist beliefs were also positively associated with endorsements of social hierarchy, and negatively related to social justice advocacy — such as speaking out for equality for women. In addition, Calvinist beliefs were linked to higher levels of existential defensiveness, or a belief that God would protect them more than other people.
“We picked Calvinistic theological beliefs, in part, because John Calvin (a key Protestant pastor and theologian during the Reformation) taught that God determined and ordained all suffering, loved some people more than others (i.e. predestined people to heaven and hell), and wanted society arranged in strict hierarchical fashion. Calvin also wrote that wives were not allowed to leave their husbands when beaten but must ‘bear with patience the cross which God has seen fit to place upon her,’” Sandage told PsyPost.
The findings dovetail with a previous study, in which Sandage and his colleagues “used a statistical method called cluster analysis to look at on how measures of theological beliefs, social attitudes, and spirituality clustered together in a sample of seminary students.”
That study, which was published in the Journal of Psychology and Theology, found that “students scoring high on both Calvinism and gender complementarianism tended to prefer social hierarchy and showed higher levels of existential defensiveness compared to a group of students scoring lower in both Calvinism and gender complementarianism.”
“We would invite people to be aware that certain theological and religious beliefs can lead some people to minimize forms of suffering such as domestic violence and scapegoat those who have been victimized. This is probably not the conscious intent, but it can impact levels of concern about suffering and commitments to alleviating suffering,” Sandage told PsyPost.
“For those who are committed to their spiritual and religious traditions, it would be good to examine resources within those traditions that promote compassion, concern for social justice, and active responses to care for those who might be vulnerable to violence.”
Of course, not everyone who adheres to Calvinist beliefs endorses domestic violence myths. “We recognize that some Calvinists are very concerned about social and gender equality and other social justice issues. We need more research across various religious traditions to understand individual differences within those traditions in relation to social justice attitudes,” Sandage explained.
“It would also be helpful to have in-depth interviews with individuals who previously held myths about domestic violence and somehow came to greater awareness and social concern. I also think we need greater cultural sensitivity around preferences for social hierarchy. Our research with predominantly white evangelicals in the U.S. found a preference for social hierarchy was related to higher DVMA and lower social justice commitment but this might be different in other cultural or religious traditions.”
The findings also have some practical implications for marriage counselors and therapists. “Some of my concern about these issues also arose from my clinical work as a couple therapist working with many Christian couples from New Calvinist churches. I would encourage therapists to become conversant with theology, not to try to change their clients’ perspectives but to be able to dialogue about issues that are central to their views of suffering and holiness,” Sandage told PsyPost.
“I found that, in many cases, a willingness to thoughtfully and respectfully engage clients’ theological perspectives served to deepen the therapy relationship and provided a pathway into deep core dilemmas about life and relationships. This requires those of us who are therapists to work on managing our countertransference and to humbly examine our own beliefs to prevent imposing them on others.”
The study, “Religious beliefs and domestic violence myths“, was authored by Peter J. Jankowski, Steven J. Sandage, Miriam Whitney Cornell, Cheryl Bissonette, Andy J. Johnson, Sarah A. Crabtree, and Mary L. Jensen.