My thoughts for this post have been rattling around in my brain for quite a while, and a discussion thread on Facebook with a couple of ex-Christian Scientist friends re-ignited my interest in this idea not too long ago.
I think Christian Science can, and sometimes does, make at least some people fundamentally dishonest. Now, before you run screaming, “my mom is the nicest, most honest person around, she’d never tell a lie!” hear me out. I’m talking about deeper honesty here, deeper than whether or not someone is telling you a lie. I’m talking about actions, and what one perceives to be right and true or not. Christian Science theology can have a way of blurring the lines between right and wrong for some people.
Think about this: Christian Science is a theology that demands the complete suspension of any acceptance of reality as we know it. Everything you touch, see, hear, smell, or taste is not real–it is a lie. This whole wide world around us is a complete lie–sort of like the Matrix. We all know better, but the die-hard Christian Scientist lives day in and day out with this contradiction: dealing with the so-called “material world” that we all live in, all the while [supposedly] knowing that there was some other more real “spiritual” world. Essentially, according to Christian Science theology, we’re living a lie–despite strong and irrefutable evidence to the contrary.
Growing up, I suffered many a childhood malady, ranging from the mundane (such as colds and flu) to the more serious (like measles). In between, there were many head-splittingly painful earaches, and respiratory infections that raked me for weeks on end with gut-wrenching coughing. All the while, I was assured by my well-meaning parents that these conditions, and their accompanying painful (sometimes in the extreme) symptoms, were a lie; an illusion. While my parents were very compassionate, understanding, and caring, on a fundamental level, they never validated the suffering I was experiencing. Saying that something you are undeniably experiencing and suffering from is a lie, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, can create massive confusion and potentially a growing moral ambiguity in a person. If suffering is an illusion, than that person who seems to be suffering really isn’t (in the Christian Science view). You end up not really knowing what is truth and what is a lie, and the boundaries between truth and lie become blurred. Sometimes, you end up reasoning out morally ambiguous positions and actions. By suppressing and constantly denying the reality of anything “bad”, I wonder if it’s possible to reason out morally ambiguous positions or actions by denying that anything “bad” is happening.
A case in point that comes to mind for me, is a well-known one involving some Christian Scientists who were caught up in one of the most famous political scandals of modern United States history: the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, which ultimately resulted in the resignation of President Nixon. A number of prominent members of the Nixon administration, who were found to have had pivotal roles in orchestrating the Watergate break-in were Christian Scientists: H.R. Haldemann, John Erlichmann, and Egil Krogh. Henry Paulson (also a Christian Scientist), who would later become US Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush, was an assistant to Erlichmann at the time of the break-in, although whether or not he was directly involved or had any prior knowledge of the break-in is unknown. He was mostly just in the neighbourhood at the time.
Moral ambiguities and the Christian Scientist…
When I was a Christian Scientist, I often wondered how the men involved with Watergate squared their actions with what I saw as the clear ethical and moral strictures of Christian Science. I couldn’t see how Christian Scientists could act in such a dishonest, not to mention illegal manner. Sometimes, I heard people say, “well, they were only human,” to which I usually took an absolutist stance of “perfection is perfection,” and if, as in Christian Science teachings, all is perfect–ethical lapses should not have any place with the Christian Scientist. In other words, I felt strongly that a Christian Scientist should know better.
As I look on this issue now as a former Christian Scientist, my somewhat “outsider looking in, but with insider knowledge” perspective, I see things differently. I think that the constant denial of what’s called ‘error’ (in Christian Science), or any other “bad” thing creates a certain moral ambiguity within people. If evil or error, is unreal or illusory, then nothing bad really ever happens in the worldview of Christian Science; and consequently, it’s possible that they do not see the wrong or evil in their actions. I can see where someone with perhaps an already ambiguous sense of morality could twist or spin something that is clearly (to most) wrong into something they see as good and/or justified. If “bad things” don’t really exist (as Christian Science teaches), this thing/event that does exist (like the Watergate break-in) cannnot therefore, be bad–it just doesn’t exist/didn’t happen. Take a few minutes to let that sink in, take all the time you need.
From my days working at The Mother Church, I vividly recall when a co-worker recounted a conversation at a meeting he had attended. An idea was put forth, and the person who originated the idea pushed for it by saying something to the effect of, “we’ll just pray for the rightness of this idea…” It didn’t matter if the idea really was right/good or not, this person determined that prayer would make it right. If that isn’t a solid example of moral ambiguity, I don’t know what is. I can’t help but wonder if the architects of the Watergate break-in perhaps reasoned out the “rightness” of their actions in a similar way.
What is truth? What is right?
Truth is sometimes in the eye of the beholder in many cases, but there undeniably are certain things in this world that are clearly right or wrong. Spying illegally on your political opponents and breaking-in to their offices, as the Nixon administration operatives did, is clearly wrong and highly unethical. You may think your idea at work is good, but is it the right thing to do? Is it really a good idea? It either is or it isn’t. Prayer does not make it so. If prayer did “make it so”, then the thief or murderer could just pray for their actions to be right and be exonerated. Fortunately, that’s not how it works.
Does Christian Science create moral ambiguities in all adherents? Of course not. But, I think in many cases across the board, it creates a shifting sense of what is perceived to be right/wrong and/or true with many people. However, even the most well-meaning Christian Scientists, such as my own parents, will commit terrible acts of child-neglect by denying their children even the most basic medical care all the while fully believing that they are acting 100% in their child’s best interests. That’s been a tough pill for me to swallow–to acknowledge that my parents neglected me; that they did something morally wrong; but they did. There are instances in my past where my life was potentially in jeopardy, and they elected to just pray about it, rather than sensibly seek medical attention. Fortunately, I survived. Do I feel anger or ill will towards them? No. They were ignorant; so I don’t blame them–I fully blame Christian Science and its influence on them. They thought they were doing the right thing, but the fact is, they weren’t, and they probably should have suffered legal consequences. It’s just one of many moral ambiguities that Christian Science sets up with people, and makes it an extremely pernicious theology.
- Wikipedia: “Watergate scandal” – the Wikipedia article on the Watergate scandal.
- Washington Post: “The Watergate Story” – a retrospective collection of articles recalling the Watergate scandal.
- Wikipedia: “List of Christian Scientists (religious denomination)” – a list of famous (and infamous) Christian Scientists.
- Adherents.com: “The Religious Affiliation of Nixon Administration Insider John Ehrlichman“.
- The Guardian: “How a dead dog came back to bite Richard Nixon’s Watergate conspirators” – an excellent article that illustrates some of the glaring moral ambiguities of key players in the Watergate scandal.
- New York Magazine: “Ehrlichman’s In Prison. But First, This Word…” – Google Books re-print of a 1977 New York Magazine article.
I really appreciate this. Just this week I had an email from my nephew that his sister is at the BA with congestive heart failure and on 24 hour support. She refuses to see visitors who do not support her spiritual choice, which means her two brothers and sister. They are in their late fifties, early sixties. Her sister did visit, but it caused great discomfort. I don’t know if my niece was diagnosed by a doctor (I know nothing of the details), except she’s been living alone in a rented room. I’m the only family member she calls about every three or four months. She knows I left the church years ago, but I’ve been able to lend a sympathetic ear. My mother(who worked for years at the CS Monitor) had congestive heart failure, but lived to age 96 with intelligent care under a doctor. This is so frustrating for everyone.
I’m reminded of a quote from George E. Valliant in his book, Adaptation to Life, “No whim of fate, no Freudian trauma, no loss of a loved one will be as devastating to the human spirit as some prolonged ambivalent relationship that leaves us forever unable to say goodbye.”
I was going through Class during Watergate. Rented room had a TV and it was difficult for this news Junky to keep away. Several of the students knew some of the guilty, names you mentioned. Wrote longer note, but don’t see it!
Thank you so much for sharing this!!! Well written.