Faith and Government – Where’s the Line?
I wasn’t going to post again until my month-end review – we are moving this week, and packing got sidetracked by a household visit of the stomach flu. Which is worse – having the stomach flu or nursing your kids through it? Both together definitely sucks (I’m not asking for pity, just stating a fact.) But this article about a father on trial for his daughter’s death because he prayed instead of taking her to the doctor caught my attention. Although I haven’t wandered into issues like this much on this blog, it is a big interest of mine, so I thought I’d give it a try.
The U.S. has become pretty divided on a lot of religious/spiritual issues, with the two extremes on the spectrum usually categorized something along the lines of ‘conservative Evangelical Christians’ and ‘liberal holistic New Agers’. Whether these categories are really all that valid is a good question – I suspect most people don’t fall cleanly into either stereotype, but if you write for the media – or are a marketer – I suppose they are useful categorizations to a point. I’d probably be put in the 2nd camp by most people, although I personally would never categorize myself that way.
I definitely know a lot of people that would say in the case of this article that society has a moral obligation to protect children from any harmful beliefs held by their parents – and in this case, the parents’ belief in faith healing through prayer did prove harmful. That would be the standard liberal/progressive position. But it’s honestly not that simple for me. It is deeply disturbing to me that this girl could have been saved – and quite easily apparently, since the issue was undiagnosed diabetes – but I am also deeply disturbed by any outside attempt to dictate what we can believe or do in the name of those beliefs.
I value science and Western medicine. I am very interested in areas where science and spirituality come together (and have a couple of book reviews along those lines coming up in August), and conventional medicine is my primary method of medical care. My children are vaccinated, although I did select a modified, less aggressive vaccination schedule, that is available to me because this is, after all, California. But I consider science just one mode of knowing, dealing with one level of reality, and the physical aspects of illness just one component. I augment my own healthcare, and that of my children, with holistic methods, including herbs, essential oils, and at times, energy healing sessions. My three-year old twins have never been on antibiotics, and my eldest only once. Of course, I have been fortunate that we have never been faced with any very serious health issues. But the point is, my care choices do flow from my own spiritual beliefs about the nature of reality.
So where is the line on our freedom of choice in these matters? Could a parent be prosecuted for taking his/her child to an energy healer instead of a doctor for an illness that could be healed with antibiotics? Remove the issue of death in the matter, and it gets murky. If antiobiotics would ‘cure’ an illness in a couple of days, and other herbal methods take longer but are easier on the body, could a prosecutor make a case that the latter ‘prolongs’ the suffering of the child and constitutes abuse? Questions like these make me hesitate to judge the parents in a case like this.
I am also sensitive to these issues because over the course of my own eclectic spiritual journey of the last twenty-odd years, teachers and groups I have found valuable – including a Buddhist group, a chakra meditation group, and a martial arts studio – were occasionally accused by others of being ‘cults’. The accusations were patently absurb to me, especially considering the loose structure of these organizations. This label of ‘cult’ is very easy to throw around, I have found, and is usually applied whenever someone is uncomfortable with the beliefs or teachings of a particular tradition. When people feel uncomfortable, it’s much easier to just slap a distancing label on the source than to engage in real discourse (this has become something of a national past-time actually – in politics, especially.) So I’m very hesitant to use that label myself, no matter how uncomfortable I am with someone else’s beliefs.
Faith is a complicated thing, and translating faith into decisions on the practical, social level is even tougher. Raising science to the level of a new God, and using it to legislate and prosecute, is also problematic. I am not sure I know yet where the line is for me, but I think these are interesting questions to ask.
So I am interested in your views – where’s the line for you?