The respectable cult

A new book asks why Christian Science has gotten away with the kind of paranoid, secretive practices that usually push religions into the kook bin.

Topics: Books,

Picture a relatively new American religious sect founded by a charismatic, paranoid, authoritarian leader. The church has a set of secret doctrines, and it threatens legal action against those who would reveal them. It vigorously pressures journalists, publishers and booksellers who attempt to disseminate anything but the officially sanctioned accounts of its deceased founder or its current autocratic leadership. It has a handful of celebrity followers and some really weird beliefs. It’s also a potential threat to the well-being of many of its members.

Chances are you weren’t imagining the Church of Christ, Scientist. Yet, at various points in its approximately 130-year history, all of the above have been true of the religious movement founded by Mary Baker Eddy. While the Church of Scientology is burdened by a sinister public image resembling a cross between the KGB and a UFO-contactee cult, Christian Science has emerged from a bruising bout of legal suits and financial crises with its respectability essentially intact. That’s astonishing when you consider that the sect is primarily known for its prohibitions against conventional medical care, strictures that have led to the avoidable deaths of children raised in Christian Science households.

In fact, Americans are so given to orgies of sentimental outrage over the subject of child welfare, you’d think that by now Christian Science would be regarded as the embodiment of evil. (After all, the ATF supposedly stormed David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound because they thought he was molesting 13-year-olds, not killing them.) Instead, the Christian Science Church’s defense of its members’ actions on grounds of religious freedom has been taken seriously as a constitutional issue.



Despite the occasional scandal, Christian Scientists have held onto their reputation for wholesomeness. “Perhaps the most common word used to describe Scientists,” writes Caroline Fraser in “God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church,” her scathing new history of the religion, “is ‘nice.’” And, in fact, “most Scientists are nice, courteous, and thoughtful … sincerely concerned for the common good.” Fraser, a former Scientist who abandoned the faith in her teens, blames the church’s leaders for most of the misdeeds committed in the name of Christian Science. And the tale she offers is a real eyebrow-raiser — from Mary Baker Eddy’s delusions of people zapping her with the long-distance equivalent of the evil eye to the church’s multiple attempts to squelch books criticizing Eddy or her successors, and to the influence the organization continues to wield among elected officials and the special treatment it’s accorded. Maybe you already knew that Ginger Rogers was a Christian Scientist, as are Val Kilmer and Cindy Adams, but did you also know that former FBI and CIA director William Webster was one, too? Or that your tax dollars, in the form of Medicare benefits, pay for stays in Christian Science nursing homes where very little actual nursing occurs?

Fraser declares her disillusionment with the Church from the outset. Christian Science holds that the material world is an illusion and that its misfortunes are the result of “incorrect” thinking and spiritual “error”; as a result, Fraser’s father father “was offended by seatbelts — we never wore them — because they implied that accidents could happen.” She felt her last shred of respect for the faith snap when the 12-year-old son of a Scientist woman in her affluent suburban neighborhood died of a ruptured appendix.

Hers is not an impartial book (that is, it doesn’t present a facade of impartiality), but neither is it an “intemperate” one, as it was called by Philip Zaleski in the August 22 New York Times Book Review. Richly and thoroughly researched, “God’s Perfect Child” is the work of a writer whose passionate commitment fuels her reasoning instead of hijacking it. Fraser, a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, is careful to give Christian Scientists their due, and more than careful in praising their finest moments (supporting the war effort in World War II, producing the Christian Science Monitor, trying to get their leaders to behave decently).

Still, the church has never quite shaken off the pathology of its founder, whom Fraser describes as “a deeply fearful person.” By the end of her life, Eddy, whose much-revised, difficult and often equivocal book “Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures” is the cornerstone of the faith, believed herself the victim of “malicious animal magnetism,” the malevolent thoughts and wishes of her enemies, which she blamed for everything from the “belief of disease” to an ill-fitting dress. Wary of potential usurpers, Eddy went through protégés like Kleenex and designed the church’s training programs and local chapters to prevent talented members from acquiring their own followings. When she died in 1910, she left the church with no clear successor or leadership structure — with, in fact, no clear mandate for its continued existence.

After Eddy’s death, various factions grappled for power, but church officials were united in their efforts to squelch independent accounts of Eddy’s life or the religion’s history. They launched a campaign against the 1929 book “Mrs. Eddy: The Biography of a Virginal Mind,” by showing up at the publisher’s office and demanding to vet the manuscript; when that failed, they threatened booksellers with boycotts if they carried the title and demanded that librarians exclude it from their collections. The church used similar tactics to limit the sales and distribution of books that presented Eddy adoringly but were nevertheless unacceptable because they weren’t preapproved by church officials.

In 1945, a devout but dissident Scientist published a book relating the secret teachings of Christian Science class instruction (pupils in these classes were forbidden even from taking notes), but he did so only after the church had scared off his first publisher and menaced his second with “everything from threats of legal action by church authorities to boycotts to implied death threats.” The church repeatedly pursued this strategy for dealing with books it deemed “false” or “unworthy” until as late as 1993, when it pressured the University of Nebraska Press into including a vaguely worded disclaimer in its reprint of “The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science” (a 1908 book written by Willa Cather under a pen name).

This kind of interference tends to alienate the press; it’s earned Scientologists a reputation for behaving like jack-booted thugs waving subpoenas instead of truncheons. But the Church of Christ, Scientist, which had the advantage of having been founded by a genteel Victorian lady rather than a writer of pulp science fiction, was able to finesse it. And Eddy had had the sense to appoint a Scientist named Alfred Farlow to act as a sort of ur-press agent for the church. “I sit and chat with them,” Farlow said of the newspaper editors and reporters whose acquaintance he cultivated, “even listen to their yarns and laugh and joke with them. I accommodate them by reporting certain matters … I make them see that I am their friend and this serves as a barrier against the publication of things which they know are offensive to me.”

It turns out there is one weapon more effective than a really scary lawyer: peer pressure. “We do not feel that it would pay us to antagonize this class of people,” wrote one bookseller to the publisher of “Mrs. Eddy.” “We are not in business to offend classes, and this group of people are good book buyers and are very close friends of our establishment,” complained another. The committees of concerned church members who showed up in publishers’ offices to protest the most recent “attack” on Eddy or her movement were well-off, well-behaved, prominent burghers. Christian Scientists — “overwhelmingly white and largely middle-class or wealthy,” according to Fraser — belonged to the same social class as journalists (or perhaps the class to which they aspired). And the booksellers certainly didn’t want to offend people like that. The fact that the Christian Science Monitor, the church’s daily (and generally secular) newspaper, became a haven for quality journalism made the sect seem yet more innocuous, even laudable, to the press.

The church was also helped by the intellectual quality of some of the faith’s practices and the unimpeachable decorum of its services. The latter are the very opposite of the frenzied revival meetings of other popular American Christian sects like the Pentacostals; no snake-handling or speaking in tongues for Mrs. Eddy’s flock. The church appears to be non-hierarchical (it has no ordained clergy) and it has had no charismatic leaders other than Eddy. Even the controversial Christian Science response to illness and misfortune — a process resembling reasoning, in which the Scientist reviews the faith’s principles in an effort to remind herself that afflictions are not in fact real and will vanish as she brings herself into closer harmony with God — seems too refined to qualify as a form of faith healing. (The church argues that the treatment dispensed by Christian Science practitioners — prayer from a distance — isn’t faith healing either because it does not rely on “blind” faith.)

So, in the 1970s, when the church faced dire challenges in the form of “the child cases” (a series of civil suits seeking to hold it responsible for the deaths of children from whom medical care had been withheld), it found itself well protected. The Nixon administration contained a remarkable number of Christian Scientists, including H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, who helped push through legislation designed to prevent the copyright for Eddy’s “Science and Health” from entering the public domain. (The bill was later declared unconstitutional.) And this was only one of what Fraser calls “an extraordinary array of special rights and privileges” bestowed upon the church by local, state and federal governments. Since the mid-century peak of its membership and influence, the church had collected several trophies that testified to its legitimacy, all tied, according to Fraser, to the decision by insurance companies to cover the fees of Christian Science practitioners. Since Christian Science treatment is cheap (because medically negligible), the insurance companies loved it. And, Fraser writes, “The Church parlayed the insurance coverage into a semblance of the scientific evidence — which it has never had — of the efficacy of its healing method.”

Apart from the gruesome and heartbreaking accounts of the deaths of Christian Science children from treatable diseases, perhaps the most alarming revelation in “God’s Perfect Child” is that many elected officials support both the right to withhold medical treatment from children for religious reasons and Medicare reimbursements for the services of Christian Science nurses — nurses whose training is entirely religious, not medical. As Fraser points out, the effectiveness of spiritual healing methods resists proof or disproof by any conventional scientific means, but the notion of federal funds going to any form of care that actually forbids the use of treatments of proven effectiveness is shocking. It’s one thing to waste federal moneys on speculative “alternative” therapies; it’s another to spend them on nursing homes that endanger people’s lives.

Yet the politicians who support continued Medicare/Medicaid coverage for Christian Science nursing and the preservation of legal protections designed expressly for the church include Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah (a Mormon who believes in faith healing) and Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who as recently as 1998 was “lavishly supportive of the church’s position” on the Medicare issue. Fraser speculates that Kennedy “may believe that Scientists constitute a significant voting block in Massachusetts, home to the Mother Church.” Perhaps he ought to goose his research staff — estimates of the worldwide population of Scientists are as low as 60,000.

Although the ranks of the Christian Science Church have dwindled, its example ought to still loom large for aspiring young sects with more fanaticism than credibility. The church, although hotly controversial in its early days, managed to lull the public and the press into seeing it as the very model of a polite, middle-class American religion. Joan Crawford was a Christian Scientist, but so, more importantly, was Lady Nancy Astor, who as a convert doesn’t quite have a contemporary counterpart — although if the Scientologists or the Unification Church could convert Caroline Kennedy, that would come close. Instead of suing journalists, give them good jobs at your award-winning newspaper (the Washington Times doesn’t cut it). Make sure that the people you mobilize to protest “unworthy” books and articles, or to lobby for legislation, come from the very best families. If the kids in some of those families wind up dying excruciating and unnecessary deaths, that, after all, is an unfortunate side effect of the freedom that makes America great. “Cults” are what we call the lowlifes attracted to the likes of David Koresh and Jim Jones. They’ve got nothing to do with people like us.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

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