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Book Review - In the Name of God

International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 5, 2014, 70-74.

In the Name of God: The True Story of the Fight to Save Children From Faith-Healing Homicide

By Cameron Stauth

Reviewed by Elmer J. Thiessen

New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press. 2012. ISBN-10: 1250005795; ISBN-13: 978-1-250-00579-3 (hardcover). $20.96 ( e-ISBN: 978-1-250-03760-2 (ebook). $14.99 (e-Book Agency); $12.74 (Kindle). 480 pages.

The story told by Cameron Stauth is sadly an unfinished story. But Stauth has captured what is perhaps the climax of the story, some important legal victories in the state of Oregon, which will hopefully play a part in ending the tragedy of hundreds of children dying at the hands of their own parents because the parents don’t believe in modern medicine, but in the power of prayer to heal. Stauth is the author or coauthor of 25 books, including several national and international best sellers. I have no doubt that this book too will become a best seller.

Stauth begins by tracing the origins of two churches that he highlights in the book, the Christian Science Church and the Followers of Christ Church; the two churches practice faith-healing, which in many cases leads to children dying unnecessarily. This historical overview is unfortunately too brief, and it tends to overgeneralize with regard to fundamentalist Christian churches. For instance, the Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening did much more than spawn bizarre and “ultra-secretive radical-fundamentalist” churches (p. 2). The Awakenings also involved a revival of healthy religion.

The first and shorter part of the book deals with faith healing as practiced in the Christian Science Church. The Christian Science Church believes that disease is “a figment of the imagination, made real only by the belief” that it is real (p. 28). After all, it was Shakespeare who gave us this postmodern ditty: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” as Mary Baker Eddy quotes him in one of her books (p. 63). Part One of the book centers on Matthew Swan, who was born on March 3, 1976, to academic parents who were members of the Christian Science Church. Sadly, Matthew died 16 months later, from bacterial meningitis, a condition that was in fact treatable. Matthew’s death affected his parents deeply, leading his mother, Rita Swan, to lose interest in life as depression overwhelmed her (p. 40). But eventually she recovered, in part because she became aware that she was not alone in her grief. 1979 was the International Year of the Child, and Rita discovered that children all over the world were suffering from any number of causes, including faith-healing abuse. So she dedicated her life to bringing the issues posed by Matthew’s death to public attention, writing The Last Strawberry, an eloquent reminiscence of Matthew’s life. The Matthew Project was transformed into a foundation called Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD) (p. 66). Rita is one of the heroes of this book—a testament to what one person with a strong commitment can do to bring about significant change in a democracy (p. 83).

How does one bring about change? Early on in her crusade, Rita knew what solving faith-healing abuse would require:

First, she needed to find a state with a weak shield law—or to successfully weaken one herself. Second, she needed a district attorney in that state who was willing to aggressively prosecute a prominent church, such as the Faith Tabernacle or the Followers of Christ. Third, that prosecutor needed to have a police force that had developed an inside source within the church: somebody who was trusted by the churchgoers, and willing to betray that trust. (p. 84)

All three conditions were eventually met in Clackamas County in Oregon, which was “the epicenter of faith-healing abuse in America,” and which also became the center for legal battles to overcome child abuse (p. 246). The third of Rita’s conditions for success was met in Patrick Robbins, the other hero of the book. Patrick was a member of The Followers Church, a church with a long history, having its origins in London England in the late 1600s. The Followers Church “had arrived in America almost three hundred years ago, had thrived throughout four Great Awakenings, and had nurtured the spirits of fifty generations” (p. 430). The Followers, together with the Church of the First Born, appeared to Rita Swan to be “the two most lethal churches in America … sharing harsh doctrines of medical avoidance, literal interpretation of the Bible, lifelong shunning of presumed sinners, and extreme fear of a brutally tortuous hell” (p. 249). The bulk of the book tells the story of four cases of faith-healing abuse in Patrick’s church, and the legal battles surrounding these four cases. Patrick himself gradually loses faith in the church’s position on faith healing. He is very much aware of what becoming an inside informant might cost him: “I’ll lose everything. My wife. My family. My job. My friends. I may even go to hell,” he says to the author during an initial interview with which the book begins (p. 1). In the end, however, Patrick is partially successful in changing the beliefs of his church, although the greater victory is no doubt the inroads he made in ending the tragedy of faith-healing abuse in America.

Of course, these aren’t the only churches that believe in faith healing. In a groundbreaking study coauthored by Rita Swan and Rhode Island pediatrician Seth Asser, and published in the journal Pediatrics, the authors document 172 faith-healing deaths of children in America between 1975 and 1995. These children included babies who in some cases were literally tortured to death. These deaths were associated with 23 different sects in 34 states. The study was designed conservatively to ensure its credibility, and Rita was sure it represented only the tip of the iceberg (p. 83). Some of the stories are difficult to read. How can parents be so cruel, so irrational, so subject to groupthink, to sacrifice their own children in the name of church doctrine that is plainly silly?

One answer that comes up repeatedly in the book is that these people had been brainwashed. “There are so many deeply entrenched thought patterns that the ex-Christian Scientist has to unlearn,” says Rita Swan, when describing the difficulty she faced in extricating herself from the church (p. 64).

For 150 years, those patterns had been programmed into the brains of Christian Scientists with virtually no allowance for freedom of thought. Mary Baker Eddy had refused to allow preaching or teaching by anyone but herself, insisting that her adherents read forty-five minutes of specific passages from her book and the Bible each day, with a repetition of the same material by Readers at church every Sunday. (p. 64)

Here we see some of the essential ingredients of brainwashing—a charismatic and controlling leader who does not allow subordinates to think for themselves. What is also significant here is that it is adults who are being brainwashed, not just children. Hence, the telling worry of Patrick about the Followers’ children, “who were almost as brainwashed as the adults” (p. 144). Of course, the parents in the Followers church kept insisting that their children were not brainwashed (pp. 224, 227). But then, if the parents are themselves brainwashed, they are not in a very good position to assess whether their children are being brainwashed.

A few other dimensions of brainwashing come to the fore in Patrick’s exchanges with his wife, Theresa, after the birth of their son. Patrick tries to engage in a rational conversation with Theresa about the possibility of taking their baby to a doctor if he should get sick, “but she just rattled off slogans” (p. 219).

Like all of the Followers, she’d been brainwashed since childhood, and even now it was reinforced almost every day—not in a cruel way, which he could discredit—but through limitless acts of kindness from people in the church. The crazy thing was, the Followers were good people, all of them victims of brainwashing themselves. (p. 219)

Indeed, most of the Followers really didn’t know much about their religion, as Rita Swan observed later (p. 260). Their religiosity consisted of mindless repetition and had little room for understanding and creative thought.

Patrick’s reflections highlight one other important feature of brainwashing in the Followers church. It wasn’t done in a cruel way, but through acts of kindness. We see here also that brainwashing doesn’t involve only manipulation of the brain, as is sometimes assumed. Nor does indoctrination have to do primarily with the beliefs a person holds, as is so often maintained in the literature on indoctrination.[1] Brainwashing and indoctrination involve the whole person. And even acts of kindness can be a means of indoctrination and brainwashing.

A final dimension of brainwashing is highlighted in this book, and that is the demand for certainty. In a moving husband-wife conversation just after Theresa has announced for the first time that a breakup of their marriage is possible, Patrick tries to help Theresa think rationally and critically about their faith; but she simply cannot. Instead, she accuses Patrick of betrayal—“You didn’t hold fast” (p. 267). Patrick’s sister, who had left the Followers church much earlier, but returned after retirement to support Patrick, sums up a healthy intellectual and religious life: “As you get wiser … you see how mysterious life really is. Only the young and dumb … indulged in certainty” (p. 370). There is some truth to this assessment. The quest for certainty is dangerous.

Reading this book made me ask a few other questions about brainwashing and indoctrination that I had not really thought about before, despite my having written quite extensively on the subject. Is there perhaps a deeper problem underlying the phenomenon of brainwashing? Is brainwashing practiced and made possible because of a moral flaw within human nature? I do not want to pursue these questions here, but I do want to juxtapose the phenomenon of brainwashing with a review of what this book says about human nature.

In reading this book, I found myself overwhelmed with the perversity of human nature. And this despite the fact that the author does not highlight that theme. Indeed, to his credit, Stauth goes out of his way to be as generous as possible in describing the parents who sacrifice their children in the interests of their religious beliefs. Again and again he reminds us that these people were essentially good people. And as already noted, Patrick describes the Followers as “good people” (p. 219). That is why it was so hard to get them convicted in court. One defense attorney would describe the Followers as “the most honest and endearing people I’ve met in a long time” (p. 261). But while reading this book, I had increasing difficulty in seeing the actors in this drama as good, honest, and endearing.

Are parents who refuse to give their children necessary and easily obtainable medical treatment good people? Are parents who beat their children, to the point of killing them in order to drive the devil out of them (p. 173), good people? Are church members who use “bodily force to push people to hold fast” (p. 381) good people? I have difficulty characterizing as good people who openly tell lies in court under oath (pp. 93, 223).

Stauth does underscore the hypocrisy of the Followers of Christ. For example, parents would go to see a doctor when they themselves needed medical help, but they refused to do the same for their children (pp. 257, 329). Some of the Followers did take their children to doctors secretly, all the while espousing faithfulness to church doctrine and practice (p. 218). Again, I have to ask whether hypocritical people are good people.

Lest we think that moral perversity is only a characteristic of people belonging to churches such as the Followers, let me go on to highlight some moral defects of so-called “normal people,” people of the establishment, people who supposedly have not been brainwashed. Consider for example the medical doctor,
Dr. Janice Ophoven, called in as a witness by the defense in two of the important court cases described in this book (pp. 274–77, 343–46). Dr. Ophoven is America’s premier expert witness for the defense of child abuse, testifying at about seventy trials each year (p. 274). Ophoven’s fee is $400 per hour, plus expenses, which often include travel time (p. 276). The questions I am forced to ask are “How can an intelligent doctor specialize in defending parents who needlessly allow their children to suffer and die? Is this not also morally perverse? Has she too been brainwashed?”

Then there are the politicians who facilitated faith-healing child abuse. Richard Nixon engineered passage of the state and federal religious-shield laws that gave faith healing the same essential legal status as medical treatment, and that allowed Christian Science hospitals to bill Medicare at the same rate as that of medical hospitals (p. 35). Nixon’s mandates were endorsed by Ted Kennedy, chairman of the US House Subcommittee on Health, who needed the money and votes of the Christian Science church members in his home state of Massachusetts, where Mrs. Eddy had founded and headquartered the church (p. 36). George W. Bush took Nixon’s “Southern Strategy to new lows, pandering to religious fundamentalism because it was politically expedient” (p. 194). Again, I ask, “Are these politicians, and the many other governors who were guilty of the same kind of political expediency good people? And have these public representatives also been brainwashed?”

Finally, what about the broader Christian church? Should they not be exercising some form of discipline on churches that are obviously doing what is terribly wrong and quite contrary to orthodox Christian doctrine? Stauth, in his conclusion, hints at this problem when describing Rita Swan, who, in her crusade against the crime of faith-healing abuse, experienced much personal abuse herself “from fundamentalists, lobbyists, legislators, decade after decade, with barely a penny of help from a vast American religious community that should have revered her” (pp. 435–436). Is the broader Christian church, too, morally perverse and brainwashed?

The story overall is a very sad story. But surprisingly, it ends on a positive note and offers a message of hope. There is of course the final victory, in October of 2011, in a series of court cases in Clackamas County. This victory will hopefully begin to change the trajectory of laws in America in a direction that will end the religious-shield laws that protect children from parents who blindly believe in faith healing. There are scenes of Rita Swan, and Patrick Robbins, and the detectives and attorneys in Clackamas County celebrating their modest victories. But perhaps the most positive and hope-inducing part of this story has to do with individuals who were transformed. There is of course Patrick and his sister Ella, who grew up within the narrow and distorted influence of the Follower’s church, yet somehow managed to free themselves from this background, despite the pressures to conform. Brainwashing doesn’t always succeed! Then there is the miracle of Patrick and his sister learning to forgive their family and their church (see especially p. 317). And finally there is the Followers’ church in Clackamas County, where a growing number of members begin to doubt the Church and study the Bible for themselves (p. 371). Toward the end of the book, Patrick and Ella put on a picnic for their like-minded friends in the church, and Patrick gives an inspiring reinterpretation of the Christian story that includes grace and compassion and freedom (pp. 385–387). Healing and healthy religion is possible![2]

This book deserves to be widely read. It provides an in-depth look at a phenomenon that should be of special interest to church leaders and cult specialists. Researchers should be forewarned that there are no footnotes. Indeed, at times I could not help but ask whether the author was indulging in too much editorial license, especially when describing the feelings and motivations of some of the key actors in this drama. Stauth also has a tendency to sensationalize. For example, he has this to say about the courtroom scene: “The single most horrifying element of a criminal courtroom is that most of the people in it are having fun, making money, feeling important, and thinking about their plans” (p. 423). This is a huge generalization, but is it grounded in fact? Having said that, I believe this book is based on extensive research and is in the main factual. It is a sad story, but one that needs to be told; and I commend Stauth for telling the story so well.

[1] See my Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination, and Christian Nurture. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993 (see especially pp. 234).

[2] Elsewhere I have argued for “committed openness” as characterizing healthy religion. See for example my "Religious Education and Committed Openness," in Inspiring Faith: Studies in Religious Education, edited by Marius Felderhof, Penny Thompson, and David Torevell. Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2007, pp. 35–46.