San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

November 9th, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: Paying for prayer and other nonsense

Freethought San Marcos: A column

There may be many reasons that making laws has been compared to making sausage, but the one that comes to mind with respect to the health insurance bills wending their way through Congress is this: They include many bits and pieces of proposals of unknown origin and substance.

When you cut open the bills and try to figure out what a particular piece is, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to identify just what you are looking at and what that piece might do to you. Just as some parts of sausage may not be food (perhaps red flannel), some parts of the health insurance legislation may not involve health care.

The House health insurance bill, passed on November 7, is over 1900 pages long and the Senate bill is reported to be in excess of 2000 pages. The details of each are not yet apparent to most of us. As I write, all of the Senate bill’s provisions are not yet completely determined.

But for some provisions being considered, we do know the origin of the bits of red flannel. For instance, one of those bits Sen. Reid is considering for the Senate bill was put forward by the Christian Science Church–known officially as The Church of Christ, Scientist.

An amendment sponsored by Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) would require private and public health plans to cover all “spiritual care.” This provision is intended to apply to Christian Scientists and their 1100 practitioners who “treat” sick people through prayer. Similar provisions are in some of the health insurance reform bills passed in the House, but apparently not included in the final version.

The founder of the Christian Science Church, Mary Baker Eddy, directed certified practitioners–those who are certified to pray for others to get well–to charge members for praying for their wellness at the same rates doctors charge for providing science-based medicine.

I haven’t had any experience with Christian Science faith-healing practices, but I have had some experience with faith-healing. My maternal grandmother was Pentecostal and believed in faith-healing. I occasionally attended services with her. One Sunday, her pastor was in the middle of his sermon when he started having severe pains running down his left arm and across his chest. He stopped preaching, obviously in need of help. Some parishioners rushed to his side and helped him sit down, while the rest of the congregation began praying for him. After a few minutes, the preacher started feeling better and was able to complete his sermon. Three days later, he died of a massive heart attack.

Faith-healing is a fine religious practice for those who believe in its efficacy. I certainly support their right to seek prayer rather than medical help. My quarrel with them involves two points. They should not receive from the government any support for their religious practices, whether by regulations that require health insurance coverage for those religious practices or by direct payments to their practitioners for praying that their members’ health be restored. And they should not receive medical tax deductions for payments made for prayer, which are currently allowed by the IRS.

Second, they should not be permitted by law to deny medical care to their minor children, who are not old enough to make an informed decision about adhering to Christian Science beliefs about prayer in place of real medical care. There is a societal interest in keeping these children alive through the best medical care available until they are old enough to decide whether to risk their own lives by practicing faith-healing.

I understand why Sen. Kerry would support this amendment to the Senate’s health insurance reform bill–the headquarters of the Christian Science Church is located in Massachusetts, and the religion was founded in Boston. As a result, Christian Scientists have significant influence on Sen. Kerry. I’m not clear why he was joined in proposing the amendment by Sen. Hatch, who is from Mormon-dominated Utah. Mormons usually opt for medical care when they are sick.

But even Christian Science beliefs do not completely prohibit medical care. If you have a broken bone, for instance, it is permissible to seek medical intervention. It appears that Christian Scientists believe in faith-healing to a point. They seem to realize that prayer has never caused a severed limb to grow back or a broken bone to heal properly. Evidently, prayer is good medical practice, but not for all medical conditions.

The most egregious examples of the failure of Christian Science faith-healing concerns children who have died from diabetes, malignant lymphoma, spinal meningitis, peritonitis with twisted bowel, anaphylaxis, and other curable or treatable diseases. If our health insurance laws require that Christian Science Practitioners be paid for praying for children to get well from such illnesses, our government will be encouraging the parents of these children to opt for unproven, unscientific religious quackery to the detriment of those children. As a general proposition, health insurance should not pay for any health care treatments that are not scientifically valid and medically efficacious.

I don’t believe that anyone should be required to buy health insurance, even if there are subsidies for low-income families and a public option that is affordable. We do not need government compulsion to assure that affordable health insurance is available for all who want it. While there may be some young people who feel that they are invincible, at least for the time being, most Americans want health insurance so that they have access to health care when they need it. If we do get a health reform law that requires all people to purchase health insurance, I have no quarrel with exempting from mandates people who don’t want health insurance on grounds of religion or conscience.

Finally, the government should not be encouraging religious practices of any group by paying them to exercise those religious practices. Government neutrality toward religion does not exist when the government encourages religion. When the government pays for or requires payment for religious practices, the wall of separation between government and religion that Thomas Jefferson believed was in the Constitution has been breached. Christian Scientists’ prayers are not medicine. They are religion.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

Email Email | Print Print


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *