Where is the line between religious conformity and religious abuse?

This question haunts me since reading Tara Westover’s haunting memoir Educated. The author, who says her book is not about Mormonism, grew up in a survivalist, isolationist Mormon home in Idaho. She and her six siblings did not attend school, nor were they homeschooled. They worked for their father’s junkyard, using dangerous power equipment with no safety precautions, and shunning all medical or government institutions, even when seriously hurt. In the name of religion, they were abused and neglected. 

Tara, along with two siblings, limps her way through college – with no high school diploma – and eventually earns her PhD. The other four siblings remain completely uneducated. 

There’s more, but I couldn’t help contrasting this religious system to the one I’m familiar with – Orthodox Judaism. Some features are the same, of course. Strong father figure; strong church or synagogue influence; limits on societal influence and exposure; prayer; faith; community. Some are wildly different. Contrary to news reports, the vast majority of Orthodox Jews vaccinate and seek the highest standards of medical care. They participate and advocate in government. They send their kids to school.

But abuse and neglect can happen in any family – in every societal stratum. Tara is right. Her story is not about Mormonism. It’s about being victimized by religion. It’s about religious abuse. It’s about using religion as a tool or excuse to hurt your children. And where one crosses that line is the part that both fascinates and repels me. I want to think about it. I also don’t want to think about it.

I too raised my kids in a very structured system. I sent them to school, but to schools that were primarily about religion and secondarily about secular subjects. We raised them with the genders separated and stressed prayer, faith, modesty. We also stressed joy and fun and family. So aside from us being emotionally healthy, what religiously separates us from the Westovers? 

I think a big part of the answer is this: what happens when your children chafe against the religion with which you raised them? There’s nothing wrong with raising your children in any religious system you choose, even if that system limits their education somewhat; even if they are not allowed to wear the clothing everyone else wears; even if you minimize their exposure to books, movies, and music that you deem inappropriate. As long as there is love, joy, opportunity, security and safety – you’re good.

But what if they begin to struggle? What if they push the boundaries? What if they divert from the path you so carefully laid out for them?

And this, I think, is the dividing line: if a religious system can give its youth space to feel their way, to tiptoe into the great unknown and find their own path, to discover for themselves what God means to them, what belonging feels like, what it might be like to step outside, then it is not guilty of religious abuse.

But if it uses faith to condemn, to confine, to divide, to hate – to exclude, to excoriate, even to excommunicate, as in Tara’s story, it is guilty of religious abuse. Abuse doesn’t always look like a black eye or a creep in a dark alley. Abuse takes many forms.

It’s not about Mormonism, or Islam, or Judaism. It never is. It’s about power and control. Religion is just the cloak of disguise.

Whenever I read a book about a different religious system – I’m halfway through Fatima Farheen Mirza’s luminous novel A Place For Us, about an Indian Muslim family dealing with the same stuff – it’s so easy to spot the religious abuse a mile away. Although I’m clearly neither Mormon nor Muslim (what was your first clue?) I can respect and appreciate the strictures of other religions. But it’s so obvious to me when a parental figure crosses the line.

In our own faith, in our own families, it’s much harder to spot. And this is exactly why I think it’s so important to read these perspectives . Because it is on the outside that we can come to understand what is going on on the inside – and it is this clarity, this harsh fluorescent light on our faith and every faith, that will help guide our path to being not just a light unto the nations, but a light within our very own homes.