Faith Healing, and Failed Healing


There'll be whole lot of faith healing going on in this blog entry. Recently I was asked to review Heather D. Curtis, Faith in the Great Physician: Suffering and Divine Healing in American Culture, 1860-1900, one of the most thoughtful historical explorations of the topic I've seen. A little piece of my review follows:

“How believers should comprehend and cope with pain is a perpetual question in the history of Christianity” (3), Curtis writes in her thoughtfully rendered study of Christianity and divine (or faith) healing through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She argues that divine healers led a substantial body of American Christians away from an older ideal of “sanctified suffering” to a newer notion of “victory over affliction,” by which believers were prepared for “active service” in the world. In this way, “advocates of faith healing endeavored to articulate and embody an alternative devotional ethic that uncoupled the longstanding link between corporeal suffering and spiritual holiness” (5). Rather than endure Job-like suffering, they sought to remake the “meaning and practice of pain” (52). For believers in divine healing, “passivity and physical frailty were symptoms of a disease that needed to be cured, . . . not characteristics of Christian holiness that ought to be cultivated” (16). The obvious gendered conceptions of overcoming “passivity and physical frailty” meant that women were especially prominent in the divine healing movement. . . . .

. . . However unwittingly, divine healers of this era did prepare the way for the contemporary “Word of Faith” movement, the latest iteration of the irrepressible “health and wealth” theology that seems a constant of American evangelical history. Ultimately, showmanship trumped suffering, but also has overshadowed the more serious theology of the healing advocates whom Curtis so usefully documents.

Curtis remains deliberately agnostic on the "reality" of healings, focusing instead on the cultural meanings imparted to them. Shawn Francis Peters takes a different tack in When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law. Peters graciously sent me a copy of his work a few months ago; my apologies for being slow to get to it here. This paragraph from the book's web page covers the basic issues detailed in the work:

When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law is the first book to fully examine the complex web of legal and ethical questions that arise when criminal prosecutions are mounted against parents whose children die as a result of what experts term religion-based medical neglect. Do constitutional protections for religious liberty shield parents who fail to provide adequate medical treatment for their sick children? Are parents likewise shielded by state child-neglect laws that seem to include exemptions for faith healing practices? What purpose do prosecutions serve when it's clear that many deeply religious parents harbor no fear of temporal punishment? Peters devotes special attention to cases involving Christian Science, the source of many religion-based medical neglect deaths, and also considers cases arising from the refusal of Jehovah's Witnesses to allow blood transfusions or inoculations.

Peters documents in excruciating detail the consequences of parental religiously-based refusal of medical care for children, many of whom in this book suffered from curable maladies or relatively minor medical emergencies.

Here are some of Peters's conclusions, from p. 212: "secular political forces, whatever the noble intentions of the individuals who marshal them, still face an awkward task when they endeavor to police religious conduct. . . It is a testament to Americans' longstanding and fierce attachment to the principle of religious liberty that public officials have wielded this police power so infrequently and so reluctantly. Even when it apparently has cost children their lives, prosecutors have been skittish -- sometimes to a fault -- about zealously and consistently applying manslaughter and abuse laws to parents who have spurned medicine for prayer in their treatment of children."

Legislators and judges, too, "have been diffident as well, imposing remarkably lenient sentences on religious parents convicted for their roles in the neglect-related deaths of their children. Their tentativeness, grounded in a sincere desire not to infringe on individuals' First Amendment freedoms, has typfied the overcautiousness evidenced by all three branches of gvernment in dealing with crimes related to prayer-based healing rituals."

Peters concludes by pointing out the complementary aims of religious individuals and the state here: "Neither group wants to see children get hurt." Yet religious individuals face the dilemma of reconciling "their devotion to God with their duties as citizens"; in these cases, sacred and secular responsibilities conflict in dramatic ways, and in ways that the faith healers discussed in Curtis's text well understood. As John Alexander Dowie expressed it, faith healing believers "are Christians first, citizens afterward."


Kelly J. Baker said…

Thanks for the post on both books. Every time I teach Christian Science in a variety of courses, I inevitably face the question about children who die and the consequences for their parents. My students are fascinated by this relationship between religious liberty and the law, and they usually have very strong opinions about the punishments they believe these parents should face.

Long ago, I toyed with the idea of a dissertation of Christian Science, and I interviewed college students of the faith. The interviews were fascinating because the students were committed to the idea that Christian Scientists operate at different levels (of healing themselves). One student's mother was a CS practioner, and she asserted that her mom could go through surgery without the help of any drugs. However, she had recently had her wisdom teeth pulled, and of course, she bowed to medicine. "We are at different levels," she told me. I think there is still much to be done on the forefront of CS and healing, and hopefully, one day I can return to the topic.

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