When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law

March 6, 2008

This book will do much to confirm the beliefs of those of a convinced antireligious persuasion. Every chapter is full of gruesome stories of children dying, often in great pain, as a result of parents putting their faith in prayer (as prescribed in James 5:13-15) rather than seeking medical attention. It is difficult to know how many children die this way, but it is far more than the number harmed as a result of alleged "satanic" abuse. This leads one children's rights campaigner quoted here to observe that "God kills more children than the Devil".

The book takes a historical perspective and consequently traces how faith in prayer, once the norm, becomes viewed as increasingly eccentric faced with the advancement of medical knowledge and the significant reduction in child mortality. There is, of course, a tension here for a society in which religion is accorded respect.

For example, as recounted by Shawn Francis Peters, according to the English secular "freethinkers" of the late 19th century, it was hypocritical, and described mockingly as "blasphemous", for the courts of a "Christian country" to conclude that prayer was "not to be trusted absolutely". Nevertheless, the successful prosecutions of adherents of the Peculiar People in the early 20th century (the only non-US cases referred to) effectively resolved the issue in Britain. This is, perhaps, more indicative of the dominance of "pragmatic" Anglicanism than a higher commitment to the independent rights of the child. But the fact that these cases continue to prove problematic and controversial in the US says much about the distinct role and forms of religious belief there.

According to research quoted by Peters, 40 per cent of people in the US practise some form of faith healing, making it "the most popular alternative health remedy in the country". Peters explores the histories of the different religious sects in detail, but there is no mention of non-Christian or new-age beliefs, nor any attempt to trace possible links between the "fundamentalist" religious beliefs and the much broader cultural understandings of "illness as metaphor".

The central focus of the book is not so much the conflict between science and religion but the role of law in resolving that conflict and, in particular, attempts across various state jurisdictions to prosecute parents for manslaughter. In the Supreme Court case of Prince v Massachusetts (1944) Justice Rutledge delivered the famous maxim: "Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children."

However, numerous states have circumvented the implication of this ruling by the enactment of "religious exemption" defences. These enable parents to argue that putting their faith in prayer is not a form of neglect but simply an alternative form of treatment. This approach adds an interesting dimension to longstanding debates among criminal law academics about the validity of the distinction between "omissions" and "acts" as well as contributing more obviously to family law concerns about the nature of parental responsibility.

While the focus of the book is exclusively on the US, the federal nature of the constitution provides a rich "comparative" perspective, and Peters' accounts of the legal battles in numerous states present an incisive analysis of the extent to which the "universal" rights of parents and children are contingent on local politics and the power of lobbying. In this way, he provides a vivid, almost anthropological account of the juridification of US society.

At the same time, however, Peters' account is not neutral. His clear commitment and faith in the possibility of law as a "child-saving" project is framed by the limitations of a liberal legal paradigm within which children can be represented only as brutalised silent victims of individual parents and within which there is no mention of healthcare and poverty. Adopting a more critical perspective might have led him to question whether law kills more children than God.

When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law

By Shawn Francis Peters
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780195306354
Published 8 November 2007

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