You know those pseudo-fruit drinks like Tang and Country Time -- you know, tasting vaguely like orangeade and lemonade without the actual fruit? Well, mainstream media come close to that "ideal" in coverage of a woman who gave religious reasons for beating her son.
The stories, like this one in USA Today, have Kin Park Thaing quote Scripture to defend her taking a coat hanger to her child's back, arm and thigh. Nothing on what her church or pastor might say about it:
INDIANAPOLIS (USA Today) An Indiana mother who beat her 7-year-old son with a coat hanger is citing the state’s religious freedom law as a defense against felony child abuse charges, saying her choice of discipline comes straight from her evangelical Christian beliefs.
The Indianapolis woman quoted biblical Scripture in court documents. She said that a parent who “spares the rod, spoils the child,” and: “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.”
We'll leave aside another fact, that "Spare the rod and spoil the child" is not in the Bible; it's actually a digest of several verses by 17th century poet Samuel Butler -- something a religion news specialist likely would have caught. Let's look instead at the gaping holes in the coverage.
There is no denying the brutality of the mother's attack:
The alleged abuse occurred Feb. 3, according to court documents, when 30-year-old Kin Park Thaing said she stopped her son from dangerous behavior that would have seriously harmed his 3-year-old sister. Thaing, documents say, hit both children with a plastic coat hanger before telling them to pray for forgiveness.
“I was worried for my son’s salvation with God after he dies,” said Thaing, who attends a southside church, according to court documents. “I decided to punish my son to prevent him from hurting my daughter and to help him learn how to behave as God would want him to.”
Two days later, a teacher patted the boy on the back and saw him flinch, according to court records. The teacher saw red welts on the boy and reported the observations to police and child welfare officials.
But right away, we need to ask: What's the church? What denomination? How is it evangelical? What does the pastor teach about corporal punishment? What's the common practice among other congregants?
Nothing of the kind is in the USA Today piece, despite its 1,000-word length. These are garden-variety religious ghosts -- in an article that presents a religious rationale for injuring a child.
Was it because of a tight deadline? Doubtful. USA Today takes the time to examine Thaing's secondary defense: "cultural differences" as a Burmese refugee. The newspaper bounces that off Elaisa Vahnie, executive director of the Burmese American Community Institute.
Vahnie says vaguely that "what might be seen as a crime in Indiana may be considered typical parenting in Burma, which is now known as Myanmar," the article says. May be? Is it or isn’t it? Having looked up an expert on the country, USA Today fails to nail down the answer it sought.
And what was the "dangerous behavior" for which the children was beaten? Again, USA Today is silent.
For that, we have to turn to the Washington Post:
Court records say Thaing became angry after she saw her son and her 3-year-old daughter showing each other their private parts in the upstairs bathroom. She saw a hanger and hit both children with it, according to the affidavit. Speaking with detectives through a translator, Thaing said she didn’t hit her daughter as hard as she did her son.
Thaing then took the children downstairs and told them to pray for forgiveness, the affidavit said.
She believed she needed to take “strong corrective action” to save her daughter from her son’s harmful behavior, according to the motion to dismiss. Otherwise, her son “would not earn his salvation with God after his death.”
Yet neither the Post nor USA Today takes the obvious line of inquiry: Where did Thaing get her idea that leaving welts was scriptural? Bible verses are one thing; how to apply them is another.
Again: What does Thaing's pastor say about disciplining children? What's the common practice among his congregants? Does the church belong to a denomination? If so, what does it say about the matter?
Closest the Post gets is quoting Mat Staver, chairman of the Liberty Counsel. He was picked apparently because his group represented Kim Davis, that Kentucky court clerk who wouldn't sign off on a same-sex marriage license in defiance of the Supreme Court decision last year.
Staver agrees that the bruising punishment seems to exceed a reasonable level. “You have to have some kind of limitations on the extent to which corporal punishment is administered,” he says.
But his inclusion should have suggested a clue for further questioning. Of whom? How about Thaing's own pastor or anyone from her church?
It would have been so easy. RTV6, the ABC outlet in Indianapolis, stood a reporter at the sign of Indiana Lautu, the church Thaing attends. RTV6 also interviews a Rev. Ray Mang (or Mong), but it doesn't say whether he's the pastor. He says that in Burma, "the government has no legal authority to intervene with the parents on how to discipline their children, unless it is life-threatening."
The station doesn't say if he's the pastor, though. A church directory says the pastor is Rev. Thang Mang, but doesn't indicate whether it's the same man. (The directory also identifies Indiana Lautu as an evangelical church, part of Chin Baptist Churches USA. So at least USA Today got that part right, though it didn’t say how.)
Nor does RTV6 ask the questions we've already posed: What Burmese pastors teach in America, how the congregants treat their children here, and whether the denomination has taken a stand on the issue.
Yet that brief TV report, less than two and a half minutes, goes further into the religious issues than nearly anyone else thus far. Many media look harder at Indiana's version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It's one of several states based on the 1993 federal law that tells the government to keep hands off a religion unless there is some compelling interest, and even then, to use the least burdensome means.
We've noodled over RFRA quite a lot over the years at GetReligion ourselves. As I noted in January, state RFRAs have been invoked for photographers and cake decorators who objected to catering gay weddings. And the lack of coverage much deeper than cake icing.
Granted, the U.S. is no theocracy. But the very prevalence of RFRA laws -- 21 thus far -- should be enough to drive reporters to learn the basic beliefs that give rise to such controversies. To ignore those beliefs is to marginalize them -- to assume that they're not worth mentioning.