Christian Science-based faith healing communities in U.S. today are failures of their own self-destructive ideas. At least that’s the conclusion you can’t help but make when a group sacrifices their own children to be “pious” and respected. I found this disturbing tale laid out in In the Name of God:The True Story of the Fight to Save Children from Faith-Healing Homicide by Cameron Stauth. I recommend this book for anyone even remotely curious about faith healing in the U.S. and about the practices of Christian science churches. It’s important to recognize the stories behind the news of children who die from medical neglect.
I don’t recall how the author or publisher decided to send me a review copy of this book. I suspect it was because on Doubtful News I cover the charges, trials and sentencing of parents who practice withholding health care. I didn’t understand. I could not wrap my head around it. How can you be in the 21st century and eschew the standard of care for sick kids? This book helped me understand that these are people who think that religious freedom trumps all else, even their child’s right to live.
While examining stories for Doubtful News, I noticed a wave of faith healing deaths or near deaths coming out of Oregon City, OR from a religious community known as The Followers. The Followers of Christ had their roots in the teachings of the Christian Science church founded by Mary Baker Eddy. Mary grew rich and famous by teaching others how to heal without officially practicing medicine. This method had no overhead. But it had consequences. Many people recovered normally or had illnesses that make life difficult but not end it. If they died, it was “God’s Will”. And, it is their choice, thanks to religious freedom, to allow their child or themselves to die. God takes all of the credit, none of the blame. The Followers of Christ turned out to be one of the most lethal churches in America basing their teachings on literal interpretation of the Bible, medical avoidance, shunning, and fear of Hell. There is also the Faith Tabernacle church who has seen a pattern of dead children. Even repeat offenders. (Schaible case)
The Followers settled in Oregon City and expected the world would end in 1969. Surprise! They took over the town. The book details some of the social aspects at play in a modern world where local officials clash with an extremely secretive and closed society who see themselves as chosen and superior. Everyone else is called “worldly” (because that’s a bad thing) and considered ignorant. It was a clear example of group think. The Followers look like a cult, its members brainwashed, its woman second-class citizens. The women die in childbirth or the babies may die soon after birth. Their need to stay closed results in genetic similarities that exacerbate the problems with their offspring.
The author luckily had access to a few Followers who had left or were willing to talk about what was really going on. Rita Swan was one. She is a long-time advocate for changing the religious shield laws across the country that protect parents, providing them with with exemptions for mistreatment and even death based on belief. When her child died, her eyes were finally opened. The main informant of the story, Patrick, watched the children of his friends suffer and die. Then he cringed in secret as their grieving parents managed to lie and scheme to protect themselves. He didn’t want that for his child and at times he feared the retribution and shunning that would accompany the revelation that he was a mole. But change needed to come to this sect. One way to do it was prosecute the parents to the fullest extent of the law.
The book details heartbreaking stories of children ill from treatable conditions like intestinal blockages, kidney disease, growths that impaired breathing and sight. In the more horrible part of the book, the medical examiner of Clackamas County, Oregon recounts the autopsies of children who died from preventable conditions. Many parents of dead children dug deeper into their faith since it was God’s Will, then praised by their community for their strength in God. They could not accept that they had been irresponsible and had betrayed their child’s trust by their own selfish interests.
Possibly the most hypocritical is the fact that several of the Follower adults will sneak medical care for themselves. It was OK to see a dentist of eye doctor. But they withheld basic care from their children. Horrible. It does make you loathe them. Then, on trial, you see them face the agony of being without a child. They are caught in a culture without another option. Their deliberate ignorance, they believe, will protect them.
Ignorance is no excuse. It’s despicable and a sign of neglect in itself. Oregon City was ground zero for this display of arrogant ignorance. Eventually, convictions were gained thanks to inside information about the child illnesses and deaths and the will of the officials to finally press on with prosecution. The church is now finally, perhaps, changing. Taking care of your kids includes basic health care which means children will be removed from parents custody if they fail in this responsibility. Officials have had success in communicating this reality to parents of these fundamentalist congregations.
There were a few zingers in this book I did not know. Exorcisms took place as illnesses were seen to be from the Devil and to cure them, you must cast Satan out. Medieval stuff. Another surprise was the ubiquity of religious exemption laws; the Oregon law was particularly awful. That law is now gone thanks mainly through the work of Rita Swan. Scientology even stuck their nose in to protest the changing of the laws. I wonder what they have hiding in their group-think brainwashing congregation.
I was hopeful by the end of this book that this hideous cult of dead children was waning. When you kill off your future members, that is going to be inevitable.
Times change and we must change with it or die. We no longer condone corporal punishment, inhumane treatment of animals, child marriage or lynchings. Society evolves. It’s time for such ignorance religious practices to die too.