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 blackfemlens.org and a commentator for KPFK 90.7 FM.