Originally published in The Daily Toreador.
Earlier this week I read a column by Tom Krattenmaker on USAToday.com about the limits of religious freedom. It discussed the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City and their tradition of refusing medical treatment, opting instead for “faith healing.”
It became a big issue because this practice included the church members’ children, many of whom died from treatable diseases such as pneumonia.
The comments on the column were mostly the typical Internet nonsense. “Religion just brainwashes people anyway,” “Believing in eternal salvation is no different than believing in winning the lottery,” stuff like that. Trolling religious-centric columns with atheistic comments is the “hip” thing to do in some circles.
But in the midst of all that is an entirely valid point: These children didn’t make that choice themselves. Or if they did, can we really say they’re capable of making an informed decision?
We don’t trust minors with a lot of things because we don’t feel they have the knowledge and mental capacity to handle certain aspects of adult life. Sex is, of course, a big one, as it’s generally accepted that young people can’t handle the responsibilities associated with it.
In a lot of ways, religion should be the same way. I don’t say that to discourage things like Sunday school or Bible studies for children — it’s not too early for children to learn and experience religion in general.
However, I believe it’s too early to make huge religious choices for them, such as whether or not they want to forgo medical treatment.
If adults want to make that choice, it’s theirs to make. I don’t think it’s a wise choice (I fail to see any Biblical evidence whatsoever for God disapproving of medicine), but it’s their call.
Now, I understand the Followers of Christ believe such procedures can affect their salvation (again, something I don’t agree with, but whatever), but if they’re like most Christian churches across the world, they also believe a person can be saved no matter their history or past transgressions. If their children decide to officially join their church when they get older, then God will welcome them with open arms.
Along the same sort of lines, many churches have the idea that God shows mercy on children who die before they’re really old enough to make a religious decision of their own. It makes sense from a logistical point of view, though I couldn’t give you scriptural evidence for it one way or the other.
I’ve grown up with an as-of-yet unidentified autoimmune disease. If I hadn’t received medical help as a child, there’s a very good chance I wouldn’t still be here today. Medical science is one of the greatest blessings we as humans have today, and I believe we should see it as such.
That’s not to say I think things like prayer are worthless. I’ve had enough weird recoveries and other phenomena that I’m not ready to write faith off completely as something that can benefit the sick.
However, as Krattenmaker’s column points out, you can’t ignore potential medical cures in favor of prayer when you’re at death’s doorstep. I don’t think God would like that. It’s like waiting for your father to come fix your flat tire when there’s a AAA employee five minutes away who can also help you.
But the bigger issue is this: How far is too far when it comes to religious freedom? Mormons no longer practice polygamy in part because humanity decided the practice “went too far.” And we obviously wouldn’t be too forgiving of a religion for which worship involved the sacrifice (read: murder) of fellow humans.
But where, exactly, do we draw the line?
I honestly don’t know. Anyone who has taken a class in ethics or philosophy of law could tell you such questions are never black and white. The balance between rights and general wellbeing is always tricky at best.
But I do think the Oregon legislature is making the right choice by starting to put a stop to the deaths of innocent children. In this case, I think the children’s rights trump the parents’.