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Faith and Government – Where’s the Line?

July 25, 2009

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?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2009 10:11 pm

    These are great questions, and I really wish I had some good answers for them. Unfortunately, like you, I don’t know where the line should be drawn. I am both a man of science and a man of faith, and I am very interested in integrating these two (sometimes widely differing) viewpoints into a cohesive whole.

    I believe that the knowledge of medicine (especially modern medicine) is a gift from the Divine Source to us, and as such, God (however you want to call Him/Her/It) wants us to take advantage of it, and use it. From this point of view, the doctor becomes as much an agent of God as the priest, and should be respected as such.

    I also believe that most “new age” healing methods are valid. If nothing else, they at least don’t cause any harm, and they might have the added benefit of giving the patient a stronger reason to believe that the curer is working. The placebo effect (if that is all it is, which is not what I am saying) is very powerful, because the magic of belief is so powerful.

    I think that a good combination is best, but if I had to choose between a doctor and a “new age” cure, I’d choose the doctor 100% of the time. However, allowed to work in conjunction together, why would anyone *not* use every method available to heal the patient?

  2. Susan Phelps permalink
    July 26, 2009 1:02 am

    I’m an RN by background. And while I do truly believe that faith has its place in healing, I also believe, as Jay stated so eloquently, that modern science & medicine are gifts that we should make use of. They work the best, in my opinion, in conjunction with faith, prayer, etc., in whatever form an individual chooses. It’s sad when either parents (& personally I do feel that the state does need to step in in these instances, because the life of minor is involved) or an individual don’t make use of EVERY gift that we have at our disposal to heal ourselves.

  3. July 26, 2009 1:55 am

    As someone of “older” age, I recently watched someone go through excruciating pain and discomfort for over a year to provide a longer life. He died a horrible death with what he knew was incurable cancer.
    Recently when a mother in Minnesota ran away with her teenaged son to allow holistic treatment of his cancer rather than chemotherapy, a national alert went out to bring him back.
    I found I understood, in a way, why she did not want him to go through this awful treatment, even though doctors assured everyone it was a curable disease.
    She did bring him back, she was not arrested, and he did receive medical treatment, and, apparently, the cancerous lump he had in his chest has been reduced.
    A little known fact about this case is that the boy is labeled “slow” and doctors did not feel he could make any health decision on his own.
    There’s a strong will to live in most all of us, but we need to look at a variety of options and be treated by medical doctors who don’t discount alternatives.

  4. July 26, 2009 2:00 am

    Hi Lisa,
    I see people who can perform in hospitals and clinics as using their deeply embedded gifts – gifts connecting them to their own spiritual side (of course, this isn’t always the case…and to that point, it may not be possible to know if some certain doctor/nurse/etc is doing their works from a deeply connected place). Whew. Okay – so if I see the people in the medical field as having a gift to share – then I tend to favor the side of “these are gifts to be used by all”. And at that same time – I’m not saying that medicine is the answer to all of lifes ails. In fact – as much as I state this above…personally I am much less inclined to visit a doctor than most. I also have a deep belief in that faith (our own very deep faith, and those others who care as well) can have a profound effect on what’s going on with the body.

    I think I’m only muddying this up! In the end, I do believe in medicine – and most definitely when life is at stake. In other cases, I am much more okay with individuals using their own discretion to make decisions (because I want that same thing for myself). The real question, then, for me is – when does it cross the line to dangerous? And is it always easy to spot? I think the answer here is that no – it’s not always easy to spot. I recall my son being sick last winter. And we held out a long time before taking him to the doctor. And medicine helped him greatly to get better, and get better quickly. Did we do the right thing? I’m not sure we did…we should have taken him in sooner. Did he suffer more because we waited? Yes. Is he any worse off today? No. And that’s all part of that grey area…

  5. mommymystic permalink*
    July 26, 2009 2:57 am

    Jay/Susan/MJ/Lance – Thanks for your input, and personally I am with all of you in terms of utilizing modern/conventional medicine to is fullest advantage. But as some of your examples point out, some times when this is needed, and when it really increases quality of life, is murky, and my next question then is, when (if ever) should government step in? And then you bring in the spiritual component, and the reality is, different faiths have very different views about death, what should be done to stop it, and what happens after death, so should government be dictating that we must prolong life no matter what, even if our spiritual beliefs do not jibe with that? And then in some cases (vaccinations, antibiotics) there are real concerns in the holistic health community about how these impact the body, and a belief they are overused, but they are often legally mandated also, and is that right?

  6. July 26, 2009 8:46 am

    Life is messy. Doctors kill people in hospitals everyday. They also save people. Dont get me started on prescription drugs and the Standard Ameriacan Diet.
    The nature of the world we live in means we desperately seek to control everything, to lay blame and most of all to understand and make meaning out of it all.
    I can not judge someone who would pray for their child instead of taking them to a doctor any more than I can definitively say that medication will save everyone. I can have compassion for people who face such decisions and I do believe we will all face one, one day. I also count my blessings that when I faced the options of surgery and life long presciption drugs or trusting my chinese doctor it was really a choice and it was all mine.
    Land of the free?

  7. July 26, 2009 10:09 pm

    To me, an essential function of government is to provide for the physical safety of its citizens. I really can’t think of a more basic function.

    Children can’t make assessments of their situations independent of their parents. When a parent denies a child medical treatment known to be effective for a condition threatening a child’s health or life, it seems to me that the state has an obligation to the child to step in regardless of whether the parent views his or her belief about not getting treatment for the child as religious.

    As a school counselor, I once had a case of a seven year old girl who was being abused by her uncle. I reported it and the abuse stopped immediately – the man was incarcerated.

    I then received a letter from the girl’s mom threatening me with legal action if I ever met with her daughter again! Evidently the abuse was A-OK with both mom and her brother.

    If I’d learned that the basis of their belief was religious, I would have absolutely felt just as good about having been instrumental in ending that situation.

    Scenarios like these beg the question of what “religious” is. Because a parent thinks it’s religious to deny life-saving medical care to a child, does that truly make it a religious or spiritual act?

    Cyberia says “I can not judge someone who would pray for their child instead of taking them to a doctor any more than I can definitively say that medication will save everyone.”

    Clearly the idea that “medication will save everyone” is false. But it’s easy to judge that a parent who prays for a child instead of getting them an appendectomy is making a big mistake. Not every medical decision occurs in a gray area.

  8. mommymystic permalink*
    July 27, 2009 3:21 pm

    Cyberia/Paul – you definitely represent the two sides of this argument well for me. In the particular case of this article that I mentioned, my thought was initially (and still is I think – although this is what I am working through in this post) that the state needed to step in. The child could have been saved very easily apparently. But when I stepped back and thought about all the implications of that decision, I hesitated. And the prosecution of the parents is troublesome to me. I started thinking about the debates raging about the causes of autism, for example, and the various holistic treatments some parents feel very strongly work. Although these are not based on religious beliefs per se, they do contradict current scientific findings, and therefore are not considered valid by much of the medical community. In a court of law could scientific studies to that effect be used to prosecute the parents for neglect?
    Of course, this isn’t the same thing as death. But issues of health and death are tricky, because they play right into the major differences between the religions. Traditions that believe in reincarnation or rebirth for example, tend to have very different attitudes about what should (or should not) be done to prolong life/prevent death. But I guess a case could be made that a child doesn’t ‘choose’ their families’ religious beliefs, so until they are of age, the state should judge decisions based on the best current scientific information available. As adults, we can each choose for ourselves.
    With this post, I was also trying to get past the rigid conservative/liberal, Christian/New Age oppositional viewpoints that often dominate discussions of anything religious in the U.S. Thanks for contributing!

  9. July 27, 2009 6:03 pm

    I guess the larger issue would be church and state – re. the medical questions – and where we draw those lines in a pluralistic society.

    On the liberal/conservative dichotomy, it seems to me that both religiously and politically we live in divisive times – but that the media plays this for all its worth for the conflict and drama, and so it actually contributes to it.

    Personally I don’t know anyone who is as much a caricature of conservatism or liberalism as the characters that the media regularly presents us with…

  10. July 27, 2009 6:56 pm

    This is a great post and unanswerable question! Personally I think the government is interferring too much in our daily lives. I’d like to see us go back to states rights where each state determines a lot of what the feds do now. That way if we don’t like what our state is doing we can always move to a state that is more or less liberal. Trying to make us all the same is insane. And I agree with Paul, the media just fans the flames. This is madness. Here’s hoping common sense makes a comeback…..

  11. July 27, 2009 9:16 pm

    Paul is right…”an essential function of government is to provide for the physical safety of its citizens.” I think the remaining three children in that family should be put on a social services watch list and checked on monthly for a while. The parents should be told that they may lose those children if they persist in denying medical care. They should be given Medicaid if they cannot afford health insurance. After dealing with government bureaucracy for a while, they may change their views about the health industry. Third-world practices such as letting a sick child die should not be tolerated in this country. Religion shouldn’t have any role in protecting the physical safety of children.

  12. July 28, 2009 4:09 am

    I love this provocative post! Thank you for writing this.

    Some alternative medicines claim they are more effective than conventional medicines. So, if a child is diagnosed with cancer and the parent fails to utilize these alternative approaches, do they get blamed and prosecuted? Why not? Because alternative medicine is not “proven” to be effective?

    There is a discrimination there, I think.

    Another issue is the government’s involvement here. So the parent who “harmed” the child by not providing proper medical care got prosecuted. Then what about parents who fail to provide sufficient love and nurture? If the child grows up with psychological issues, does the parent get prosecuted? This may put large number of American parents and grandparent at the risk of prosecution … Most psychological counseling go back to childhood issues.

    Nay, parents are human, too, and we make mistakes. If parents are not allowed to make mistakes, no one can have kids.

    But I’m also against parents who treat their kids as if they are their personal belongings. This is more of a spiritual issue than political issue where government should step in, however.

    Hmm… I’ll think more. Very interesting.

  13. July 28, 2009 4:31 am

    I hesitate to give government too much power to be able to protect anyone. If their only ability is to think general, decisions are never doing indivudual circumstances justice. Especially when government officials are not getting the support they need when something goes wrong, when they made a decision outside the rules.
    Unfortunately nobody will ever hear the full story about why people decide to take a certain action, so we judge on incomplete information. I don’t think we will ever be able to protect anybody from harm via just legal measures.
    Until we all learn to take responsibility for our own lives, become more spiritually attuned and get support for that by a loving community, people will keep being mistreated in many ways, government rules or not. And we need to accept that as a consequence of how we living our lives right now.
    Hopefully it will egg us on to live differently so these issues become a thing of the past.

  14. Anonymous permalink
    July 28, 2009 6:50 am

    Wow, while modern medicine can occasionally help, the credit they get for helping is a little outrageous. So far they have not saved anyone and medications tend to prolong life, but also harm a person. I know a lot of cases where the doctors have killed the patient – indirectly. There could be a lot of value in spiritual and alternative healing processes, and if that doesn’t help modern medicine usually doesn’t help either. My mom died of diabetes – it was a slow, terrible death. I frequently think she’d be better off if she didn’t do everything the docs told her to do. People tend to have blind faith in modern medicine and that is so wrong.

  15. July 28, 2009 4:59 pm

    You choose your focus at a given moment. You decide if controversy exists or appeals or you transcend thoughts and opinions which do not resonate. NOthing is right or wrong but not everything resonates the same way with you at this moment. Awakening is a process of aligning how you think with who you are.

  16. mommymystic permalink*
    July 28, 2009 9:32 pm

    Loving all the opinions expressed here, thanks all for contributing, this is not an easy topic to sort through.

  17. July 29, 2009 10:55 pm

    in many of these cases, we assume that the medical community has a drug or procedure that can “cure” or treat the patient better than an alternative treatment.

    one question: “who SAYS????”

    iatrogenic disease (that’s where the patient gets sick BECAUSE OF the medical “treatment”) kills more people than AIDS, Cancer, and Vietnam, yet the government can force a parent to subject his/her child to the atrocities of chemotherapy and radiation before alternative therapies.

    unfortunately, there’s not a lot of data supporting alternative therapies, because patients don’t tell their doctors that they are using alternative methods. since many of the complimentary/alternative therapies are not covered by insurance, the patient’s family pays out-of-pocket, and the good news isn’t available to counteract the myth that our medical system can help more than a non-medical treatment.

    let’s face it, we’re good at the short-term intervention, just like we’re good at fast food and other immediate gratification methods. but usually, we are treating symptoms. drugging someone is akin to putting a piece of duct tape over your car’s fuel gauge when the low-gas light comes on. sure, the warning-light is covered up by the “treatment,” but the core issue (dude, you’re out of gas!) is ignored.

    i, for one, support the patient/parent, who is in a much better position to practice prevention than the physician who prescribes drugs based upon a drug-rep’s guidance.

    will patients/parents make mistakes? probably not as many as the 88,000 estimated deaths (NOT mistakes, DEATHS) that are CAUSED by iatrogenic “treatment” in the american medical system.

    uh, sorry for the long take.

  18. August 13, 2009 4:31 am

    “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.”

    I found this statement so fascinating and so personal. I was just reading a book by Walter Martin that chose to place these ideologies in a tight little niche, calling them all cults.

    What people choose to ignore about this fact is that many of these theosopies have intermingled throughout centuries, meaning Christianity was in the same category as they were. Proven on the Emblem of the Theosophical society(Occult)

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