Several years ago a Boise woman described what her religious faith meant to her when her husband died in an accident: "It was my anchor of hope during a time of despair."
I'm sure people of different faiths will understand what she meant. The woman, a Christian Scientist, was writing of her experience in a church publication, The Christian Science Sentinel, in 1994. The accident had taken place four decades earlier and left her with two young children to raise. "I don't know how I could have made it if I hadn't had Christian Science," her account states. Her faith and church "gave stability to my life and a firm foundation on which to build."
As a Christian Scientist, I've thought a lot about what this religious faith and church has meant in my own life and family and in quite a few other families I know. For many years Christian Scientists have been known for their practice of prayer and spiritual healing. It's been part of our way of life and a practice that we've tried to approach responsibly and conscientiously. (My own healing of malaria, while I was in the Peace Corps in my 20s—a healing confirmed by physicians—was a landmark in my experience.)
Naturally, then, I've followed with great interest the current discussion of a longstanding provision in Idaho law relating to the practice of religious healing. Some have called for the repeal of this provision because they feel it leaves children insufficiently protected from neglect in parental decision making. While others may demur on this position, the Christian Science Church does not oppose repeal. We share the deep concern of all people of goodwill for the care and well being of children—society's "most precious asset," as one of our church members in Boise recently put it. We recognize that laws such as this may need to be re-thought and re-balanced in response to changing circumstances and conditions.
We also feel it is important, in considering this change, to understand the true purpose and basis of the original provision, which was never to shield or permit neglect of children or to relieve parents of the responsibility for their care.
The Idaho provision was one in a long tradition of American laws that have recognized our country's religious and cultural diversity. At the time it passed in 1972, there were similar religious accommodations in many other states. The purpose was not to enable irresponsible behavior, but to provide a measure of toleration for differing viewpoints and responsible religious practice in a highly pluralistic society. State legislatures and courts generally made clear that when evidence of neglect or maltreatment appeared, government intervention was permissible.
This kind of religious accommodation did not come about because of undue influence of the federal government. One tale making the rounds is that two former Nixon administration officials —H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, who happened to be Christian Scientists—were responsible for putting a provision relating to religious healing in the federal law through the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) of 1974, and that Idaho and other states were then forced to adopt this language.
By the time the legislation came under consideration in 1973, both officials had already resigned under the dark clouds of Watergate. They had long been highly unpopular with the Democratic majority in Congress, so if anything, the religious accommodation in CAPTA came about in spite of them, not because of them. In most states, as in Idaho, accommodations for religious healing predated the CAPTA law.
The real background behind these accommodations isn't in political machinations, but in the lives of ordinary, law-abiding people in Idaho and elsewhere who have experienced healing in raising their families over many decades.
The mother from Sandpoint, for instance, who wrote in The Christian Science Journal in 1929 of her son's healing of tuberculosis and other troubles when doctors had given him only two days to live. Or the Idaho Falls mother who wrote in The Sentinel in 1954 of her son's healing after a motorcycle accident, and who had been healed herself as an 11-year-old of mastoiditis. The list could go on up to the present day.
As a parent and now a grandparent, I have had the privilege of witnessing several generations of spiritual healing in my family through the practice of Christian Science. We have always found it best to let God's love lead in this practice. When healing was not reasonably forthcoming for our children, we've followed the course that seemed most loving and reasonable at the time. One of our daughters was healed through prayer in Christian Science of a broken ankle from a soccer collision some years after an earlier break in one of her ankles had been set by a surgeon following a different sports injury.
At the heart of this practice is the Judeo-Christian ethic of the Golden Rule—treating others as we would want to be treated. When this is missing, Christian Science is not being practiced. Perhaps many physicians might feel similarly about their relations with their patients.
Whatever the Idaho Legislature decides in regard to the law, this ethic is worth remembering, and this perspective on the deepest spiritual sources of healing life deserves to be heard.