What do different churches teach about mental illness?

ERIN ASKS: What are the attitudes toward mental illnesses in different Christian congregations?

THE GUY ANSWERS: There may be trivial exceptions but The Guy sees hardly any difference on this among Christianity’s various branches.

The Catholic Church’s approach was well defined in a 1996 speech by Pope John Paul II that encouraged professionals who treat mental illnesses. His major theme was that “whoever suffers from mental illness always bears God’s image and likeness in himself, as does every human being,” with a dignity “unique among all creatures,” and is always “to be treated as such.” He said this belief applies not only to Christian attitudes and to care for the afflicted but to the duty of government to ensure necessary treatment.

The pope also taught that “Christ took all human suffering on himself, even mental illness,” which “perhaps seems the most absurd and incomprehensible” of maladies. Pope Benedict XVI made similar points in a 2005 address and noted that mental disturbance “now afflicts one-fifth of humanity and is a real social-healthcare emergency.”

A very typical Protestant viewpoint is expressed by the United Methodist Church policy as amended in 2012. It states that throughout history till today the field has been “hampered by lack of knowledge, fear, and misunderstanding.” Patients who are so challenged, as well as their families, caregivers, and communities, “are to be embraced by the church in its ministry of compassion and love.”

Healing is “one of the spiritual gifts received from God” and it encompasses “the whole person: physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental,” aspects that were all “of equal concern to Jesus Christ.” The Methodists also advocate “universal global access to health care” through public and private funding and cooperation.

The Methodists add the important caution that “sometimes Christian concepts of sin and forgiveness are inappropriately applied in ways that heighten paranoia or clinical depression,” so that “great care must be exercised in ministering to those whose mental illness results in exaggerated self-negation.” Occasionally a person who is by nature deeply religious and with serious mental problems will express the pathology in a religious fashion, which does not mean the faith itself caused the problems.

Unfortunately, there’s been needless difficulty in treating these puzzling problems, caused not by church wariness toward mental illness or therapists but rather due to some therapists’ hostility toward religious faith.

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Scientology comes to The Atlantic

The internet freaked out this week when an advertisement done in the “Sponsored Content” style was discovered on The Atlantic‘s web site. I have to be completely honest that this made little sense to me.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve read cheesy ads in my favorite magazines that say “sponsored content” at the top but are otherwise made to appear as part of the magazine. I fancy myself a discerning reader who is able to figure out that the sponsored content is making claims that are, shall we say, less than journalistic. Why should it matter whether the miracle being pitched is for face cream or a secretive religious group?

But I was in the minority. The most common sentiment Americans can muster — outrage, obviously — was mustered and the ad was pulled down within 12 hours (you can see the cached version here). The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple had a good explanation of what happened, along with some key points, including:

  • Native ads are critical to The Atlantic’s livelihood. They are one element of digital advertising revenue, which in 2012 accounted for a striking 59 percent of the brand’s overall advertising revenue haul. Unclear just how much of the digital advertising revenue stems from sponsor content. We’re working on that.
  • Though the Atlantic has done many such advertorial packages in the past, Raabe says that it hasn’t received complaints — at least that she’s aware of.
  • This is the first such package that The Atlantic has done with Scientology.

The Atlantic issued a statement about the matter, which began:

We screwed up. It shouldn’t have taken a wave of constructive criticism — but it has — to alert us that we’ve made a mistake, possibly several mistakes. We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way.

The New York Times noted that other digital media outlets ran sponsor content, adding:

But no instance of sponsored content has come under as much criticism as this one. Gawker called the sponsored Web page “bizarre, blatant propaganda for Scientology.” Others raised questions about why all the comments on the page were supportive of the church, indicating that critical comments were being deleted. A spokeswoman for The Atlantic said that the comments were moderated by its marketing team, not by the editorial team that moderates comments on normal articles.

At the same time, others defended the arrangement as a smart business move. The church’s ad buy comes at a time when it is trying to blunt the impact of a new book about the secretive religion by Lawrence Wright, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.” The book will be published on Thursday.

The Onion, the satirical newspaper, decided to run content from its partner, “The Taliban.” Headline:

SPONSORED: The Taliban Is A Vibrant And Thriving Political Movement

What I didn’t see much of, however, was an explanation of why it was so awful that The Atlantic takes money from groups such as The Church of Scientology. I’m more than willing to hear that argument, I just noticed that there was a lot of outrage, and not much argument. What would a policy look like that bans such content, I wonder?

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When Worlds Collide II: Scientology and the Nation of Islam

The 25 October 2012 issue of The New Republic carries a story entitled “Thetans and Bowties” that I can’t quite get my head round. By this I do not mean I do not understand what the article says – but I am having a hard time classifying its species.

Is this story about the convergence of the Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology news, news analysis, a feature or a newsy magazine feature?

The article has a magazine opening. It is strong on adjectives, impressions and has a nice hook. While it has solid quotes, it also strikes me as being under-sourced for a 1600 words piece. While it does not display the narcissism that runs rampant in much magazine journalism,  it is a tad too self-referential for my taste. It begins:

ON A COOL, clear evening in mid-September, the Church of Scientology held a grand opening for its new national affairs office in Washington, D.C. Located in a handsome, 122-year-old mansion in Dupont Circle—a genteel neighborhood populated with embassies and well-appointed homes—the office had been established to lobby on various Scientology pet causes, such as religious freedom, prisoner rehabilitation, and the evils of psychiatric drugs. Three members of Congress showed up to deliver words of welcome, as did a FEMA official, who praised the Church’s volunteer efforts after national disasters like September 11. Finally, Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige, addressed the several hundred people in the crowd. Miscavige is 52 but looks at least a decade younger. Dressed in an expertly tailored suit, his slicked hair parted to one side, he spoke excitedly of Scientology’s goal to have a presence in every city in America.

The message of the event couldn’t have been clearer: The Church of Scientology was directing the full force of its persuasive powers at the Washington establishment. But who the Church courts and who the Church converts is a very different matter. And when Mike Rinder, Scientology’s former chief spokesman, visited the Washington church last year, he noticed something strange. “Half the damn people there were Nation of Islam,” he told me. “[It’s] the weirdest, weirdest thing.”

The article then recounts the growing affinity of the two groups, but with the framing round Scientology – the theme being the Nation of Islam moving into (and propping up) Scientology.

I applaud TNR for exploring the issue and this story is worth a read. However, I was struck by the repeated use of the phrase “he told me” in the story. Perhaps I am too hard boiled but I am turned off by first person pronouns in news stories – and the five told me’s here are a bit much.

The research on this issue is also somewhat thin. The Tampa Bay Times has done some very fine stories on the general topic of Scientology – and has also explored the intersection of the Nation of Islam and Scientology — as has the Chicago Tribune and the Village Voice. I’ve written about this work also for Get Religion. Citing the work that others have done is not always necessary, but this is not virgin soil The New Republic is plowing.

One of the anecdotes offered in this story also struck me as being not quite right.

…But the story of how Farrakhan came to embrace it concerns a Nation minister in Los Angeles named Tony Muhammad. In 2005, Muhammad was beaten by the LAPD at a prayer vigil he’d helped organize for a young man killed in a drive-by shooting. The incident plunged him into an agitated, depressed state. A concerned friend introduced him to Scientology, which he credits with saving his life. When Farrakhan later met with Muhammad, he was amazed by the transformation and, as Muhammad tells it in an audio clip posted on YouTube, exclaimed: “Whatever you’re on—I want some of it.”

The TNR writes as if there was no doubt that Muhammad was “beaten by the LAPD at a prayer vigil”. That is not the story reported in the LA Times – and the National Review’s Jack Dunphy offers a scathing critique, calling Muhammad a “charlatan”. Is this account of how Louis Farrakhan began his move towards the Church of Scientology a good story, or is it a true story? And — what does Islam say about Scientology? Does this effectively remove the Nation of Islam from the ummah — the community of Muslim Believers?

Which takes me back to my opening — what sort of story is this? As a straight news story the article falls short. If it is a feature story, it does the job. What is it?