Prayer Cult Nation: Faith Healing Scams & Healthcare Reform

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Recently on a popular Black Entertainment Network talk show, R&B singer Monica pitched her new reality show and extolled the virtues of prayer. Suited up in hip-high boots like an emissary from God’s army, she credited God with guiding her through life and imbuing her with purpose. His word was her marching order, she proclaimed, as the rapt studio audience nodded in approval, giving credence to surveys that indicate African Americans are more religious, more likely to subscribe to Creationism and more apt to break out the Bible for guidance and counsel than any other group in the U.S.

Yet not since the Great Awakening of the 18th Century has “God” spoken through so many American public figures so unequivocally. The medievalist Sarah Palin has risen to cult status touting her personal speed dial to the Lord. The Old Testament God has become the kamikaze co-pilot of the Republican Party. And President Barack Obama frequently invokes both God as an adjudicating figure and prayer as an antidote to tragedy.

Prayer has become the national bromide for generalized suffering. If it can’t be sanitized, domesticated and defanged by prayer then it isn’t worth experiencing. Now, in the midst of the healthcare reform morass, prayer healing “therapy” may become a legitimate form of government subsidized medical treatment. According to the Los Angeles Times, a “little known” provision in the healthcare overhaul bill would authorize coverage for Christian Science prayer as a medical expense. The provision is sponsored by the ultra-conservative Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and the liberal Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. This strange bedfellow pairing is part ideology and part political expedience. Hatch is a notorious Mormon ideologue and Kerry’s state is the Christian Science Church’s base. Despite several high profile cases in which religious fanatic parents have been convicted for using prayer healing to “treat” their terminally ill children rather than seek medical treatment, the Senate healthcare provision would sanction this practice.

In a nation in which millions go bankrupt and/or die from not having health care insurance the decision to include prayer healing into the insidiously partisan healthcare deliberations is an outrage. Increasingly, prayer has wormed its way into the most mundane of American moments. Moments of prayer or “silence” have become more commonplace during local government meetings, schools, social functions and games. A recent AOL poll surveying site users about a Southern school’s decision to post a message to God received overwhelming support. A majority of users agreed that reverence for God is part of “our” nation’s heritage. As more and more Americans shrug in apathy at the leaky wall separating church and state, those who abstain from or question these mass spiritual entreaties are viewed as curmudgeon naysayers at best and un-American public enemies at worst. The explosion of public prayer—exemplified by the near manic drive to enshrine the most simple of pursuits with Godly sanction—seems to bespeak some deep-seated crisis of American selfhood which afflicts all classes and ethnicities.

According to the Christian Science Church, a faith healing internship takes the form of an “‘intensive’ two-week class instruction in Christian Science healing” after which practitioners “may take patients.” Treatment “may rely on passages of the Bible…or may simply be a period of silent communion. There is no formula and ‘treatment’ can be given in absentia by telephone or email.” Since Christian Science practitioners can hang up their virtual shingles after a two-week crash course why can’t apostles of Frodo or oracles of Pan be similarly credentialed? Ethnocentric bias has apparently banished Pentecostal snakes, Santeria chants, Wiccan spells and animist rituals from consideration as insurable faith treatments. However, the Senate provision would ultimately provide protection for so-called religious and spiritual healthcare, opening the gate to all manner of medically dangerous, clinically unproven treatments.

Few on the Left have raised concerns about the contradiction between conservatives’ draconian attempts to eliminate coverage for abortion (a medically established and lifesaving practice) in the healthcare overhaul and this obscure provision for government subsidized Christian Science hocus pocus. The House of Representatives’ deliberations on its version of the healthcare bill are being stalled by endless wrangling over toughening restrictions on abortion coverage from private healthcare companies that participate in a government public option insurance “exchange.” Under the current language these private plans could be purchased by poor subscribers with the aid of government subsidies. Yet anti-abortion legislators are jockeying to prevent private insurers that offer abortion coverage from even being included in the public option.

Perhaps poor women seeking reproductive healthcare would be advised to submit an email request for God’s intervention to their nearest Christian Science provider, courtesy of the federal government. In the only democratic nation in the postindustrial world that doesn’t have equitable government healthcare the watchwords will be “let them have prayer.”

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a commentator for KPFK 90.7 FM.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • CybrgnX

    Strange – I thought praying is something they do all the time?? for free!!!
    So why do they need money??? Could it be a scam??? No! of course not. These very moral jepus lovers would never do anything immoral!!! So why? could it be a small way to get religion into the government??? The govmint already subsidizes there delusional BS in other areas, why not this too. After all like all the other religious programs this one not only wont work but it may get some of them killed off. But only the kids as the adults will go for the real medicine if it looks serious. I can’t wait till the 1st prayer freak enters the hospital states his need of prayer and all the real doctors walk away until its time to sign the death certificate but are not able to because at the last minute the prayer freak went all hypocritical and asked for a real doctor.
    Naa! They must be right when others call me intolerant and nasty minded toward religion.

  • craig

    There must be some real opportunity here – why not charge a premium for sacrificing a goat?

  • Wednesday

    Man, it’s getting pretty crowded under this bus*.

    First women get tossed under there, because we can’t be having with taxpayer money coming within 1000 feet of money that pays for an abortion! (Pretty sure that’s not how the FACE act works.) Now children of criminally negligent parents get tossed under there, too, having their absence-of-medical-care covered by an insurance company.

    *Yes, I realize that it’s always crowded under the bus. POC, PWD, women, LGBT folk, poor people, immigrants… when political compromise has to happen, usually one of these groups of Undesirables takes a hit.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Ironically, the Republican proposal would pay for abortions.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Does anyone still think the faith based initiative is a good idea? Now the Catholic Church is threatening to toss DC’s homeless on the streets to starve and die unless the City Council rescinds their efforts to recognize gay marriage.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Why are they still tax-exempt? Why?

  • jemand

    I really appreciate this article… Most atheist blogs I’ve read only deal with the prayer part, and ignore the barriers being erected against access to abortion… And all the feminist blogs I read ignore the prayer part and only talk about the abortion amendment.

    I’m glad this blog sees both sides. I’m *really* glad for this piece.

    I wish I could say to some of the other atheist blogs that this blindness to issues of reproductive rights that disproportionately affect women may be one reason women can feel uncomfortable in the atheist movement.

  • Archimedez

    Great article, Sikivu.

  • Sikivu

    I appreciate all the comments and insights. Jemand: I agree, a great deal of atheist discourse is too narrowly focused on theology, epistemology, science, etc. without cross-pollination vis-a-vis sociological/gender/racial politics themes that hit us where we live. I think this does account on some level for the unwillingness of feminist agnostic/atheist/skeptic voices to join the fray.

  • OMGF

    His word was her marching order, she proclaimed, as the rapt studio audience nodded in approval, giving credence to surveys that indicate African Americans are more religious, more likely to subscribe to Creationism and more apt to break out the Bible for guidance and counsel than any other group in the U.S.

    I know it’s what was proclaimed, but are there any studies to back this up?

  • Sarah Braasch

    I really enjoy your work, Sikivu. Thoughtful and thought-provoking.

  • Eric

    Sikivu, Were you a guest on KPFT’s “Connect the Dots” last spring? They interviewed some openly athiest woman who was speaking at TSU that evening. Google does not tell me you were ever there. If that wasn’t you you’ve got a little clone out there

    BTW, Pacifica Radio is awesome. I’ve been listening to The Pacifica Archive fundraiser and truly wish I had the $200 to donate a copy of their archive to my old high school. It’s funny when KPFT runs programming from the California stations. Yall are too mellow. We got some hellraisers down here in Houston, which is exactly where they are needed. And all this is broadcast from a little mansion in The Montrose that was James Baker’s boyhood home.

    And remember the frustrated remnants of the local KKK who had been thwarted by the “Strange Demise of Jim Crow” campaign a decade earlier bombed KPFT shortly after its founding. These bombings resulted in the conviction of a few Klan leaders and spelled the end of the old Klan, though there are still a few neo-Klan groups out there.

  • Ebonmuse

    There’s some good news to report: the provision paying Christian Scientists for prayer has been removed from the Senate health-care bill, according to the FFRF.