Small religion…big impact
How many people have heard of Christian Science? Honestly, not many. It has always been an obscure religious sect with few members. At its height of popularity in the early 20th century, the Christian Science Church is estimated to have had around 270,000 members worldwide. It has been in a steep decline since, with membership estimated to be less than 50,000 worldwide now. No exact figures are publicly available, as the Church does not publish them. So, throughout its 155 year history, there probably hasn’t been over 1 million Christian Scientists ever, in total. However, this little-known sect has had an outsized impact on the lives of virtually anybody who has lived in the United States in the last 50 years, and you probably didn’t know that.
A few well-placed Christian Scientists
Christian Scientists have had an influential footprint in United States politics and lawmaking that far exceeds their numbers. Historically, there have been several United States Senators, and Representatives who were Christian Scientists. Christian Scientists can also count among their numbers a former Treasury Secretary (Henry Paulson), two CIA Directors (William H. Webster and Admiral Stansfield Turner), and an FBI Director (Webster). All are or were members of the Republican Party.
There are some other highly-placed Christian Scientists within the past power structures of the United States federal government that are worthy of note. In the administration of President Richard Nixon, there were three highly-placed Christian Scientists: H.R. Haldeman – White House Chief of Staff, John Erlichmann – Counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, and Egil Krogh – Undersecretary of Transportation. Henry Paulson, who would later become the Treasury Secretary in the George W. Bush administration, was an assistant to Erlichmann in the Nixon White House. With the exception of Paulson, they were most famous for their involvement in the Watergate scandal.
A key piece of legislation for Christian Scientists
Criminal law in the United States is largely a state matter, so criminal laws vary from state to state. The federal government can only enact laws that are related to the powers granted to it in the US Constitution, so any federal criminal law is limited in scope. However, the federal government can get around this constitutional barrier with the strategic use of federal funding. If federal government wants to get states to enshrine certain things in law, just tie a few strings to some key federal funding, in other words, make states enshrine certain things in their laws and regulations in order to obtain needed federal funding. They do this frequently, and an example of this is P.L. 93-247, otherwise known as the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), enacted on January 31, 1974. It remains in effect today, having been renewed and amended several times over the years. It was most recently amended in 2019.
If you go to the text of the law itself, as enacted in 1974, you will not find any wording about a religious exemption being required of states in order to get funding. That actually came during the regulatory process with what was then known as the U.S. Department of Health (now known as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). The requirement was removed from the regulations nearly ten years later in 1983. A further religious exemption was actually placed into the law itself in 1996 as P.L. 104-235 (see 42 USC 5106 Sec. 115 (a)), but later removed in 2003.1
Who did it?
Did Erlichmann, Haldeman, and Krogh get the exemption placed in the CAPTA regulations? There has always been a lot of speculation that they did, but there is no direct evidence to say that they had anything to do with it. The exemption was not in the text of the law as signed by Nixon.The regulations, where the exemption was placed, were promulgated by a cabinet-level department of the federal Executive Branch: the Department of Health. These departments operate under the purview of a cabinet secretary who reports to, and serves at the pleasure of, the President. Our Christian Scientist friends were part the upper echelons of the Executive Branch. If they did not have direct involvement in the regulatory process, they certainly would not have done anything to hinder the insertion of an exemption. My research was limited to on-line resources, including the Federal Register. However, the Federal Register is only available on-line back to about 1994, twenty years too late. In any media or other historical accounts, there is no record of their influence in the crafting of regulations.
The truth is likely far more mundane. The Christian Science Church has a long history of lobbying at the federal and state levels in the United States for exemptions (Christian Scientists prefer to call them accommodations) in law to ease the practice of Christian Science. It is more likely that erstwhile people at the Church’s Committee on Publication office in Washington, D.C. did a lot of lobbying at the Department of Health and got results. Possibly, they had connections within that department, and used them. That is how the Church has largely succeeded in the past.
The result of all of this, is that 34 U.S. states have religious exemptions in their civil child abuse statutes, and some have exemptions in their criminal child abuse and neglect laws, including six that have exemptions in their manslaughter laws.2 A couple of states specifically mention Christian Science in their statues. Parents in these states are able to withhold medical care from their children in the name of their religion and get away with it. Their children can (and do) die horrible deaths, and the parents are never held accountable. Ironically, Massachusetts, the state where the Christian Science Church has its headquarters, is not among the states that have an exemption, despite efforts by the Church to get one enacted there.
It is not just Christian Scientists who get away with criminal acts of neglect, there are other groups that happily ride on the coattails of the Christian Science Church’s early lobbying successes. One of the more egregious examples is the Followers of Christ, an extreme Christian group based in Oregon City, which holds an extremely strict belief that those who are sick can be healed by being anointed by church elders. This includes children. There is a well-documented history of children in that church dying from easily treatable conditions, and the parents never facing prosecution. In 2011, Oregon passed legislation that repealed a provision in law that exempted parents who were practising “spiritual healing” from prosecution as a direct result of the carnage that was being committed in this church.
According to an account published in OregonLive | The Oregonian,3 of 78 children buried in the church’s cemetery between 1955 and 1998, at least 21 could have been saved by medical intervention, according to an analysis conducted by The Oregonian in 1998. The followers of this church still do not face prosecution in Idaho, a state that still permits parents to withhold medical care from their children for religious reasons. Despite efforts to repeal the exemption in Idaho law, it remains on the books, and children in Idaho continue to die.
While the Christian Science Church no longer advocates for these kinds of exemptions in law, nor do they actively defend these laws when legislative efforts are made to repeal them, the Church still has blood on its hands, and not just for the deaths of children in Christian Science households–they are morally responsible for all children who are denied proper care due to these exemptions in law. The Followers of Christ are not the only group of religious extremists who withhold medical care from their children, and it is not just those in religious groups. In many U.S. states, the exemptions just mention “spiritual care”. This can mean almost anything you want it to. The common denominator is the horrible deaths of innocent children.
1 Aleksandra Sandstrom. “Most states allow religious exemptions from child abuse and neglect laws.” Pew Research Center. 12 August 2016. Web. 04 November 2023. <https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2016/08/12/most-states-allow-religious-exemptions-from-child-abuse-and-neglect-laws/>
3 Noelle Crombie. “Followers of Christ criminal investigations: A history.” Oregon LIve | The Oregonian. Advance Local Media, LLC. 10 March 2017. Web. 11 November 2023. <https://www.oregonlive.com/oregon-city/2017/03/followers_of_christ_investigat.html>
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