Those Suspicious Medical Missionaries

Those Suspicious Medical Missionaries October 7, 2014

“It’s great that these people are doing God’s work, but do they have to talk about Him so much?” So muses Brian Palmer at Slate about the work of medical missionaries like Dr. Kent Brantly, who contracted Ebola in Liberia. I’m almost embarrassed to write about this piece, because it is such an easy target. But the Brantly case has put new focus on the work of medical missionaries, who are generating surprisingly negative comments from certain observers. These critiques have fallen into several categories: those who say that the missionaries are stupid for putting themselves in harm’s way, those who say that the missionaries should get no special treatment when they contract a disease that has affected so many others in Africa, and those like Palmer who insist that medical missionaries are wrong to speak about their faith to patients. Here’s three observations about this debate:

1) Palmer and other critics have a deluded sense of “neutral” medicine. Doctors who deal with suffering and dying patients will inevitably send messages, explicit or implicit, to their patients and patients’ families, about the meaning of dying and death. Doctors who think that death is a purely natural event, and that there is no afterlife, or who are agnostic on such questions, will tend to communicate that sentiment to clients. This partly explains why so many Christian doctors do volunteer for the mission field – they believe that there is transcendent meaning in both life and death, and that every person has an eternal destiny. They are uniquely positioned to help people who are struggling with such questions. All doctors can and should be sensitive to issues of politeness and propriety, and the religious convictions (or lack thereof) of patients. But no doctor – no person – is “neutral” on topics like suffering, death, and the afterlife.

2) Making volunteer medical service contingent upon silence about one’s faith would be devastating to impoverished regions internationally. As Palmer himself notes, disproportionate numbers of doctors and nurses serving in under-serviced areas of the world (like Liberia) are people of faith. Devout Protestant and Catholic Christians are among the most common volunteers. They serve to honor God, and they do not believe that they can honor God fully if they do not speak about Jesus Christ to clients, when appropriate. Palmer seems unable to identify with the vast majority of people in the world who do not believe that death is the end of life, nor does he fathom that serious believers cannot be silent about their faith in their vocations.

Domestically and abroad, people of faith are far more likely to give time and money to charitable causes than are secular people. (Just this week another survey appeared demonstrating that the most charitable states are those with the highest rates of churchgoing.) You can accuse these believing folks of having ulterior motives, but where are the legions of atheist volunteers to take their place? Palmer’s innuendos about how the missionaries might be doing more medical harm than good are vicious and slanderous.

3) Christians must not object to other medical volunteers who speak of their own faith (or lack thereof) to clients. Of course, there are secular medical agencies such as Doctors without Borders (though presumably many of their individual volunteers are people of faith as well), Muslim medical missionaries, and those of other faiths. While Christians will not agree with the implicit or explicit messages these doctors may share with clients, the principles of religious liberty and charity would affirm that all medical “missionaries” are free to serve and speak (or not) in the name of their faith, and that their healing work does great worldly and humanitarian good. If we expect others to honor Christians’ right to freely witness about Christ, then workers of other traditions, or no faith at all, should have that freedom as well. Of course, this point may be moot: I don’t recall hearing of many Christians echoing the kinds of complaints made by secularists like Brian Palmer…

See also Ross Douthat’s take on the piece, in which he concludes that he thinks Palmer’s real complaint is “not that the missionaries are necessarily doing something wrong (he won’t actually come out and say that), but that they’re doing something right in a way that makes his team, Team Secularism, look somewhat less impressive by comparison. Which isn’t really a reaction that Christians should be offended by. It’s one that should be welcomed, worn as a badge of honor, and joyfully provoked.” Agreed.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • JasonMankey

    “Domestically and abroad, people of faith are far more likely to give time and money to charitable causes than are secular people. (Just this week another survey appeared demonstrating that the most charitable states are those with the highest rates of churchgoing.)”

    That’s not necessarily true. The numbers are always skewed in these surveys because “charitable causes” generally include churches (and it certainly does in the link you provided). Are churches charitable causes? Depends on the church. When church money is removed from the equation things equal out a bit more.

  • kierkegaard71

    JasonMankey employs the same typical defense mechanism that secularists such as Brian Palmer in the Slate piece use. Obviously, lack of generosity is not a character trait that people generally esteem. However, when confronted with yet more evidence that religion encourages relatively greater generosity on the part of its people (whether through meeting physical needs or spiritual needs) than the population at large, his first reaction is not to encourage the non-religious to give more (after all, there are scores of charitable non-religious “church substitutes” to which the secular could give). Rather, he seeks to “even the playing field” by knocking down the religious a notch or two, suggesting that some churches are not worthy “charitable causes” and should not be considered objects of legitimate generosity. Granted, there are worthy and unworthy objects of charity. Nevertheless, it is telling to observe a common secularist emphasis illustrated in the Palmer article and in the reply above: seeking to improve how people view secularists, not by encouraging more virtuous behavior on the part of secularists, but by tearing down the example that the religious are setting.

  • JasonMankey

    It’s not a ploy it’s simply a truth. Sorry it offends you. To categorize me as a “secularist” is also hilariously funny. You don’t know me sir or my religious and spiritual leanings. (Though you could find out rather easily.) I’m about as secular as the Vatican, even if I’m not a Christian.

  • Andrew C. Diprose


  • To these people anyone who is not (preferably their brand of) Christian is “secularist”. Their mentality tends to go “No Christ = No religion”.

  • Thomas Kidd

    People of faith (across the theological spectrum) are more generous even when you take out church giving (which, of course, counts as generosity too).

  • Abdiel

    “You can accuse these believing folks of having ulterior motives, but
    where are the legions of atheist volunteers to take their place?” -Thomas Kidd

    That’s a bit like saying “why aren’t there more Jews volunteering for charities” in America. Atheists make up less than 4% of the population in the U.S. Most of us don’t organize around atheism and we don’t necessarily identify as atheists when we do give to charities, some of which may even be religious.

    If you asked that question of atheists in a nation where they are a majority and openly identify and organize around their atheism in the same way Christians organize around Christianity (as far as I know there is no such country), it might be valid. Otherwise the comparison is invalid and unfair.

  • Mark

    As a medical doctor, I have to say that your article is
    wrong on many accounts, and does a huge disservice to both patients and Christian

    It is perfectly possible for a doctor to provide
    high-quality medical care throughout illness and including end-of-life care,
    without sending patients any messages as to what the doctor’s personal beliefs
    are. In fact that is the expected and ethical standard of practice, and doctors
    and health staff can and should be penalized if they fail to reach it. After
    all, doctors are there to do a job, and proselytizing (and given the uneven
    power balance between doctor and patient, any unsolicited personal information
    about the doctors religious beliefs is proselytizing)creates numerous hurdles
    to good care. It can create a judgemental atmosphere, which inhibits patients
    from providing complete histories. It could give the patient the impression
    that the doctor’s beliefs and have greater impact on patient care than the
    patient’s beliefs. It could cause heated words between doctors and patients of
    different religious views and damage the doctor-patient relationship. Also, it
    is generally a dickish thing to do, and can make a patients hospital stay an
    uncomfortable one.

    I also feel that your article could harm junior Christian
    doctors, who are at an early stage in their careers and have not yet determined
    the appropirate boundaries of doctor-patient relationships. This is not
    hypothetical: I know personally of about four junior doctors whose religious
    fervour led them to make boundary-violations, with adverse consequences for
    both the patient and themselves. I’ll give an example of one case I was
    directly involved in. I was a supervisor for a junior doctor, whose role was
    predominantly admitting patients and ward-care. One of the patients she
    admitted told me that she had offered to
    pray with her, an offer she found offensive. Discussion with nursing staff and
    other doctors revealed that she was known for frequently making
    religiously-motivated talks and attempts to determine her patient’s religious
    backgrounds. When I talked her about this, she didn’t deny it, but rather
    insisted that she wasn’t doing anything wrong. Despite hours of discussion, she
    couldn’t seem to understand the discomfort and potential harm she was causing.
    It was though she envisioned the role of a doctor as being a pastor with a
    stethoscope. With that in mind, I wrote a letter to the college responsible for
    her training, advising that she did not
    meet the professional and ethical standards for progressing, and that she would
    benefit for more time training at the junior level. To say she was unhappy with
    that would be an understatement, but it was the right thing to do for the

    My concern is that your article may motivate junior
    Christian doctors and health staff to undertake unprofessional behaviour at a
    stage when they are still coming to understand the ethical obligations of their

    Yours sincerely,

    Dr. M. Nolan


  • Thanks for sharing this story and clearly articulating the consequences of practicing medicine motivated by faith.

  • FireInSpace

    As a professional in an allied health profession in the USA who has done health service work in developing nations, I would like to second your response. In my profession, praying with a client, proselytizing, or otherwise involving our religion in patient care is actually directly AGAINST our professional code of ethics and a professional who does this can be stripped of their certification. If a patient brings up their religion and the way it impacts their treatment or health, then I am ethically allowed to support the patient where they are at. Basically, all I can do is listen and acknowledge the importance and role these beliefs play into the patient’s life and consider their concerns and beliefs when creating and following a treatment plan.

    Making THEIR care about MY beliefs means I am serving in order to meet my own needs, and I am allowing my needs to take precedence over the needs and best interests of my patient, who I am there to serve. Otherwise, I could selfishly cause needless harm.

    Another consideration not elaborated on by Dr. Nolan’s comment: when you create and implement a treatment plan with your patient, you need to be clear with them about possible side effects and the possibility that there may not be desired progress. Often health professionals can show graphs or tables about possible concerns.

    When you pray with a patient or suggest they can trust in God or something, then you are making a claim you cannot back up using case histories of other people in their similar diagnostic/demographic/treatment categories. These days, health professionals are encouraged to create trust by only using evidence based practices to keep people safe. Prayer is not evidence based. So it’s not practicing medical or health science.

  • michael

    you are not a secularist? you want to impose your religious law?

  • michael

    don’t you think all religions are bad?

  • michael

    let the wackadoo christians go where every they want and say whatever they want. but i agree that we shouldn’t automatically scramble resources and bring infectiously diseased people back to the US. that is clearly irresponsible of a government who’s role should be to protect america.

  • Absolutely not.

  • mikehorn

    Religious more likely to give…

    Giving to a church shouldn’t count, making it a bad comparison. Donations supporting multi million dollar buildings with rock bands, light shows, coffee bars, manicured landscapes, and pastor salaries/mansions… That is not charity. Cut those billions away and people look remarkably similar.

    Or include secular dollars to similar things atheists spend on. Rock concerts. Yoga classes. Health equipment to foster mental fitness as much as physical. Weekend Starbucks runs with friends.

    Donating to a church doesn’t count.

  • FW Ken

    If you count out giving to churches (part off which goes to relief of the poor anyway), believers give 2.5 times the giving of atheists. I can dig out the source if you wish.

    EDIT: I lied. It’s times 2, not 2.5.

  • Tom

    Because, as we all know, all churches are like that, and no secularist has ever given to an organization that primarily benefits them…

  • mikehorn

    I don’t understand your comment. It could mean several things.

    -You agree that giving to churches is not charity, but a social club, kinda like dues. Since the $’s given is under discussion, you agree that no, religious folk are not more generous.
    -A “You too!” Fallacy, which makes your remark both irrelevant and meaningless.
    -You include advocacy groups that “benefit” those who give, which the point of advocacy. In this case you have a category error. When churches advocate positions, I have no charity quarrel up to a point (electioneering is not charity either). But the gross amounts of money spent on churches by no means goes to actual charity, but keeping the clubhouse nice.

  • Tom

    Nope. My point was that A. not all churches are dog-and-pony shows. Most–because most churches, by the way, are tiny–devote decent percentages of monies given to them to charity, often act to keep their members afloat in time of need (and off the government roles).
    B. If we’re going to shove churches out of the “charitable organizations” column, then we will have to shove out all donations made to art museums, philharmonics, etc.
    Essentially, the point was that if we are going to cancel red states generosity because churches are not charitable enough, then we should cancel out blue state giving to all organizations that are not directly giving money to the poor and downtrodden–like the arts.

  • mikehorn

    If you donate as a general emergency help fund, the church is an innefficient middle man. Donate straight to a charity.

    I can reject the comparison to art museums and other high art groups out of hand. What is the comparison? Unless the church building or its choir qualifies? Some cathedrals and music groups might, but they can be run separately. The building might have an architectural fund, and music groups generally need separate fundraising anyway. As an example, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is world class on the art side, but the musicians’ time is donated outside church avenues, millions of dollars the LDS Church has no part in.

    Church donations are at best second hand to other charities. Mostly they pay preacher salaries, preacher house, business jets, air conditioned dog houses in some cases. Those poor you mentioned? They would have been better off not giving, investing or saving instead. Churches receive way too much money from folks who can’t afford it, especially in the South.

  • Tom

    The comparison is that neither offers tangible benefits to the wider community, unless you are going to suggest that art museums are overwhelmed by vast hordes of people waiting to be cultured. Furthermore, most of their patrons are, in fact, upper-middle and upper class persons.
    Furthermore, the church most often acts to keep its members afloat via volunteer efforts, thereby allowing charities more time to focus on the indigent and such.
    And you still seem to be of the opinon that idiot megachurches and televangelists represent the majority of churches, when this is not the case.

  • mikehorn

    Art houses and museums and symphonies see more visitors than you might think. But they also house tangible examples of the best of human creations, preserving them and exhibiting them, encouraging new creations. Museums usually engage in new research. Chicago Field Museum? Lots of patrons, significant research, amazing preservation. Denver Natural History? Dinosaur research. Pick a place and it is amazing. Some churches might qualify, though the age of religious patronage of arts and science are generally pre-USA, with some notable exceptions. For dates, Mozart and Beethoven were pioneers of purely secular musicians. After them, great sacred works dropped of quite noticeably.

    The Vatican has a notable observatory and in the Twentieth Century produced some fine priest-scientists. And most European churches still house and preserve great art and architecture, much more rare in the USA. Christian pop music? Negative. Any modern christian artists of note? If churches support education that is not religious, I’ll applaud them, but I’d still only nod to some catholic institutions for that.

    What have american churches done that is remotely notable, on a large scale and important to the wider world? Chicago Field does something, people notice everywhere.