Is healing possible (other than through Kerry)?

HealingAdvocates of improved religion-beat coverage often run into the following argument.

Newspapers are supposed to be skeptical (true) and that means we should only be covering stories based on facts. Religion is all about private beliefs, not verifiable public facts, so we shouldn’t be covering that emotional gobbledegook in the first place. Whenever you cover those stories people call in all upset and they don’t want to talk about the facts.

On one level, this makes sense.

On another, it’s totally bogus. Newspapers cover facts. OK, it is a fact that millions of people say that their beliefs affect how they live their lives, earn their living, raise their children and, heaven forbid, cast their ballots. The fact of these activities then affects issues of time and money. The last time I checked, sportswriters tried to cover the not-so-logical side of their beat and, increasingly, the same is true of political reporters. Are the arts based totally on “facts”?

It is also true that millions of people believe that prayer can change things and even heal. This is a belief that transcends denominational differences. These days, one might even run into a healing service at a Unitarian Universalist sanctuary.

Thus, it is interesting to read a very traditional journalistic report on the phenomenon of scientists doing research into the power of prayer. Reporter Benedict Carey of the New York Times sticks close to the basics, and pretty quickly runs into the “fact” wall:

Critics express outrage that the federal government, which has contributed $2.3 million in financing over the last four years for prayer research, would spend taxpayer money to study something they say has nothing to do with science.

“Intercessory prayer presupposes some supernatural intervention that is by definition beyond the reach of science,” said Dr. Richard J. McNally, a psychologist at Harvard. “It is just a nonstarter, in my opinion, a total waste of time and money.”

To understand the nature of the research, read the story. The scientists involved are trying to find ways to do neutral tests. They are trying to research the facts, even if they cannot provide explanations for why the facts exist.

And this is not a fringe activity. Clearly, this is news. Even if it causes sweaty palms.

Since 2000, at least 10 studies of intercessory prayer have been carried out by researchers at institutions including the Mind/Body Medical Institute, a nonprofit clinic near Boston run by a Harvard-trained cardiologist, as well as Duke University and the University of Washington. Government financing of intercessory prayer research began in the mid-1990′s and has continued under the Bush administration. …

Two large trials of the effects of prayer on coronary health are currently under review at prominent medical journals. Even those who defend prayer research concede that such studies are difficult. For one thing, no one knows what constitutes a “dose”: some studies have tested a few prayers a day by individual healers, while others have had entire congregations pray together. Some have involved evangelical Christians; others have engaged rabbis, Buddhist and New Age healers, or some combination.

Maybe the fact is that this is a mystery. Can newspapers cover this, quoting intelligent voices on both sides of the debate? This approach might even work in other controversial science issues. You think?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • thecosmopolitan

    Tmatt’s headline won’t stand fact-checking. An objective look at the actual words and context of remarks made by the Democratic candidates reveal that snarky references to the “healing” powers of Kerry-Edwards originate in Republican spin. And unlike most media outlets, the blogosphere is one place where writers can’t disavow the headlines as the work of other hands.

    So, Tmatt — care to assess the accuracy of your snark?

    And while you’re at it, how about an update on your August promise to reveal Get Religion’s sponsor and source of its financial support. The Revealer identifies its institutional and financial sponsor on its home page, for all to see. Shouldn’t Get Religion practice the same level of transparency and openness it calls for from journalists and media covering religion?

    Heed the words of Glinda:

    Come out of the woods,

    Come out of the dark,

    Come out of the night.

    Step into the sun, Step into the light.

    Yours, illuminatingly,


  • life is a pop song

    Thanks, Chris. I was wondering what the article had to do with Kerry.

    Another thing I have also wondered is has John Kerry actually referred to himself as “call me JFK”?

    I think I see a bias slip showing…



    The headline is a joke. Have a laugh, man. Blogs are supposed to have a funny edge. I don’t think Jeff Sharlet is the Hulk. Do you?

    And on the sponsorship issue, I have had one of three meetings that will address that. I’m in DC right now at another one — at headquarters. Your request has not been forgotten. Committees are committees, you know?

    The “call me JFK” reference? The man has had a JFK wannabe gene for a long time. Have you read any of the major media profiles of his Vietnam years? Spooky, man.

  • Kadence

    How come there are no pictures of George W. on this site?

  • RyanH


    Sure there are: just click on the “Creeping Fundamentalism” category to the left(!) of your screen. There are a number of GWB photos.

  • Harris

    As to the article, there is some interesting dialogue in the letters section of Wednesday’s NYT.

  • life is a pop song

    Help me out here. I did a Google on “call me JFK” and found a lot of stuff but nothing that was particularly helpful. Some hits came from this very blog and are echoed by right leaning websites. Most were satirical or sarcastic and not terribly helpful as a reliable, direct source.

    Could you point me in the right direction for finding Kerry’s actual quote? Looking forward to seeing for myself.

    As to a wannabe gene, who doesn’t have one? This is hardly an objective critique of a candidate’s qualifications for office.

  • thecosmopolitan

    C’mon Lifeisapopsong!! Tmatt is ‘just sayin’ as he passes along them Republican memes. Oh those multitasking cultural warriors, nursing their grudges to keep warm.



  • tmatt


    You are saying that you do not find Kerry’s lifelong Kennedy obsession even the slightest bit spooky? I consider it several notches higher than Clinton’s and that is saying something.

    Reading other blogs, I honestly thought that a sense of humor was allowed. If old-fashioned Democrats cannot chuckle at Kerry’s JFK act, then what will we be allowed to chuckle at (other than various W. Bush mannerisms, which, I must admit, are a hoot as well).

    Hey, are there any GetReligion readers who miss the likes of the late Penn. Gov. Bob Casey?

  • life is a pop song

    I would chuckle if I saw it. Unless you mean Kerry’s life long service to his country….?

    I guess that means we will never know if Kerry’s fascination with JFK is accurate or merely tmatt’s reading on it.


  • Faith

    Please, lest we forget, dems can dish snarky but they can’t take it :) God bless!

  • life is a pop song

    Truly, Faith, I can take a snark. It’s just that “call me JFK” seems to be in the popular, conservative lexicon thanks to this site and if there isn’t something specific to point to its justification, oughtn’t it be put away?

  • Faith

    If Kerry as a wannabe doesn’t want to be compared to past presidents, he shouldn’t bring them up. As far as all those years serving his country, I agree- those pictures posed for in Vietnam sure came in handy- not exploitative in the least.

  • thecosmopolitan

    Note to Tmatt:

    Any progress on coming up with the answer to Lifeisapopsong’s request that you point him in the right direction for finding Kerry’s actual quote?

    Just askin’


  • tmatt

    And I continue to ask pop song about his reactions to the mainstream media’s portraits of Kerry’s years in Vietnam. I guess we are going in circles. You don’t find the filming himself in mock combat for use decades later in his political career thing spooky? Try to imagine Bob Dole doing that. Try to imagine McCain doing that. I can kind of imagine a young, drunk George W. doing that….

  • Molly

    Since we are being asked for first names now, please point me to the film of mock combat. (?) I thought he was actually there.

    And what does Kerry’s service in Vietnam have to do with a Kennedy wannabe thing?

    I agree that we are going in circles although for the life of me, I thought I was attempting to straigten the curve. I still think you simply have a bias against Kennedy/Kerry and won’t admit it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that except for it coloring objective reporting which I had assumed was the point of this blog. Am I in error?

    Molly aka life is a pop song

    thanks for thinking I am a guy!

  • Faith

    When Bush began campaigning and included photos from 9/11, the dems yelled foul- he was exploiting a national tragedy and portraying himself as a hero. The next thing we see, is pic after pic of Kerry in Vietnam, like it was his own personal photo op. The democrats didn’t call this exploitation of a tragic war, it was FINE. Kerry has repeatedly brought up our past president, reassuring the masses that he, too, will not allow the fact that he’s a Catholic influence his decision making. On this point I believe him- he doesn’t even practice the teachings of the church in his private life- so the dems can rest assured- they have what they want- the definitive hypocrite.

  • Faith

    Thank you to the powers that be for allowing this PS… Kerry may sincerely believe that he is being noble in his declarations- but as Catholics we have chosen to follow the teachings of the Church- which include that no one can serve two masters. Also, there are pro-life democrats who struggle for a voice within their own party, as well as pro-life advocates who aren’t Catholic- who has been noble enough to step forward and represent them?