Brethren, our topic for this week’s column is the flu, because I have it.
I followed the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and got a vaccination, which may or may not have lessened my symptoms. But then I discovered I had neglected the most important prophylaxis of all: prayer.
This advice came from the evangelist Gloria Copeland, who with her husband, Kenneth, runs a religious empire based largely on faith healing. Copeland posted a video last week that argued, passionately if incoherently, either that the flu doesn’t actually exist (“We got a duck season, a deer season, but we don’t have a flu season”) or that faith can protect you from it (“inoculate yourself with the word of God”).
At a time when the CDC was warning that this year’s flu outbreak appears to be the worst in almost a decade, Copeland’s remarks went, uhh, viral. They also attracted unwanted attention to her connection to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, on whose “evangelical advisory board” she and her husband served, alongside prominent Christian and Republican figures including Jerry Falwell Jr., Michele Bachmann and James Dobson. Apparently in response, a clarification went up on the Copeland Ministries website, insisting that “Gloria did not say or imply that you shouldn’t get a flu shot or see a doctor. Gloria and Kenneth Copeland Ministries value medicine and doctors and would never counsel someone not to seek medical care.”
That disclaimer would be more convincing if there weren’t copious evidence that Copeland actually does not value medicine, at least in comparison with the kind of healing that goes on in her church and at revivals. Her statement on the website was followed by pages of testimonials like this one, from “Terri”: “Tests showed I had a growth on my gallbladder and the doctor recommended surgery. We prayed and received healing by faith. Hands were laid on me and I never had another symptom.” As Copeland once preached: “We know what’s wrong with you. You’ve got cancer. The bad news is we don’t know what to do about it — except give you some poison that will make you sicker. Now, which do you want to do? Do you want to do that, or do you want to sit in here on a Saturday morning, hear the word of God and let faith come into your heart and be healed?”
At least since the time of Jesus, Christians have prayed for health. But Kurt Andersen, in his indispensable guide to American irrationality, Fantasyland, traces contemporary faith healing to the advent of the charismatic, ecstatic form of Christian worship known as Pentecostalism. After its heyday in the early decades of the 20th century, it was banished to the fringes of society for decades, only to reemerge in recent years under the guise of “prosperity gospel.” As preached by the Copelands, Oral Roberts, Joel Osteen and many others, one can think of prosperity gospel as a form of “applied religion,” by analogy to, say, “applied science,” that involves trying to obtain concrete rewards in the here and now, including financial success, personal happiness and overcoming adversity.
Such as the flu.
Andersen notes that this is not a practice confined to right-wing Christians. Seeking to cure cancer by praying is not more or less implausible than using crystals for the purpose. Oprah, that great font of national gullibility, was an early exponent of “The Secret,” a best-selling book by Rhonda Byrnes that repackaged prosperity gospel in secular form as “the law of attraction,” the idea that “the universe” would provide whatever you sought if you just thought about it long and hard enough.
Morally, this is deplorable. Byrne’s book never so much as raised the possibility that the awesome power she had discovered could be used for the benefit of anyone else — a hungry child, say — rather than grabbing jewelry, toys, lovers or a good parking spot. It’s also common knowledge that the “prosperity” in prosperity gospel mostly accrues to the people who preach it.
Metaphysically, it’s a muddle. Prayer doesn’t work all the time, obviously, so why does God heal some people and not others? How does he do it? The Bible verses that Copeland cites in support of her practice were written at a time when the human body was a black box, and there was no inherent reason to doubt that Jesus could raise someone from the dead. By 1987, though, when Oral Roberts made the same claim for himself, it was understood that restoring a corpse to life requires reversing a whole cascade of cellular processes for which there is no known, or even conceivable, mechanism. Does God go through each of the trillions of cells in a human body and jump-start the mitochondria?
Still, between coughing fits last week, I wondered: Could Copeland be on to something? I had relied on medical science to ward off the flu, and I got sick anyway. (Full disclosure: this is a self-diagnosis, based on my feeling the way Trump reportedly described the nations of Africa). What does science have to say about prayer as a form of medical prophylaxis?
It is part of the greatness of the scientific method that this question can be asked, and, within the limits of our present-day knowledge, answered. The first statistical study of so-called intercessory prayer was published in 1872 by the eminent Victorian scientist Sir Francis Galton, who noted that, notwithstanding the millions of prayers regularly offered in European countries for the health of their respective royal families, on average royals actually died younger — 64 years — than clergymen, lawyers, military officers, or members of all other genteel professions, excluding deaths by accident or violence.
I rest my case.
No, actually, I don’t, because scientists have continued to study the question — not by calculating the lifespan of kings, but with controlled experiments enlisting hundreds of subjects and modern statistical analysis. You can read an analysis by David R. Hodge of Arizona State University here, and another here. What seemed to Galton like a straightforward question of statistics turns out to pose all kinds of research conundrums. What kinds of prayer should be studied, and by whom? For what kinds of disease? Should the people prayed for be told in advance, and is their informed consent required? What measures should be used to determine if the prayers worked?
Each researcher answered those questions differently. A few studies, less than half, indicated a beneficial effect of intercessory prayer, but the effects were small. Often the outcomes involved obscure markers of recovery such as the incidence of certain specific surgical complications. God works in mysterious ways, but that’s a long way from being raised from the dead.
At least one researcher treated the whole question as a joke, and did an experiment to show that praying for patients years after they were sick — and in some cases, after they were already dead — was correlated with shorter hospital stays. (The paper was published in a peer-reviewed journal — the data was real, if nonsensical — and it has been cited by other researchers, leading to some professional angst about the ethics of scientific satire.)
The bottom line is that while we can’t prove that prayer works or doesn’t work, if it were a drug up for approval by the FDA, it likely wouldn’t qualify. Hodge says it would be classified as an “experimental” intervention.
Still, there’s no harm in it, is there? When people are sick, their families and friends want to feel they’re doing something, and praying for them, if nothing else, keeps them in mind. Last month White House press secretary Sarah Sanders asked people to pray for 9-year-old Sophia Marie Campa-Peters, who was about to undergo life-saving brain surgery. Those who responded undoubtedly felt good about themselves, Sophia and her parents took courage from the response, and Trump himself, at the National Prayer Breakfast last week, cited her recovery after “millions of people lifted Sophia up in their prayers.” Who could be against that — given, of course, that the prayers were viewed, properly, as supplemental to the surgery, rather than a substitute for it?
But that’s the catch: Some people do substitute faith for medical treatment. The Copelands’ own church was at the center of a measles outbreak in 2013, spread by children whose parents had failed to vaccinate them. The church denied that it discourages vaccination, but as one former member explained, “To get a vaccine would have been viewed by me and my friends and my peers as an act of fear — that you doubted God would keep you safe. … We simply didn’t do it.”
As public health officials have said repeatedly, an unvaccinated child isn’t just a risk to herself, but even to those who did receive a shot; the operative concept is “community [aka ‘herd’] immunity.” More broadly, the belief that we can turn our problems over to Jesus — or the “law of attraction” — can distract us from other urgent problems that require human solutions. And environmental problems in particular require those human solutions. This is a mindset that is compounded by the fact that many of the same people who turn to God to keep them from getting the flu also believe in the imminence of the End Times, which would render the melting of the polar ice caps an irrelevant inconvenience.
James Inhofe, the chair of the Senate Environmental Committee, has been especially forceful in this regard. His view is to let God handle global warming, since it’s out of humanity’s hands anyway. “God’s still up there,” he has said. “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”
All I can say about that is, for Inhofe’s sake I hope he doesn’t take the same attitude toward his own health as he does toward the health of the Earth.
And as for me, I need a nap.
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