In March of this year, 11-year-old Kara Neumann of Weston, Wis., died as the result of a diabetic condition known as ketoacidosis. This condition is normally treatable with injections of insulin. When properly treated it is rarely fatal. But Kara’s parents did not seek medical treatment for their daughter. Instead, they prayed.Kara’ parents were not part of an organized church or denomination. They met with a few other families for Bible study and followed the teachings of a Florida-based online ministry. This is where they became convinced that prayer rather than medicine was the best way to care for their daughter’s medical condition.
In April the couple was charged with second-degree reckless homicide. This is a felony in Wisconsin and carries a penalty of up to 25 years in prison. But Shawn Francis Peters, author of When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law, believes there is a chance that the prosecution of the Neumann’s will fail. This is because of a feature in the Wisconsin legal code known as the “treatment through prayer” clause.
In other words, Wisconsin, and 30 other states, recognizes a parent’s right to use faith healing rather than standard medical practices even if the result is suffering or even death of the child.
Peters notes that a number of groups are working to have religious exemptions of this type overturned. He cites Rita Swan who directs Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD) who argues that these exemptions may protect the First Amendment rights of parents, but at the cost of the health and even the life of children.
There is some truth to the notion that these are isolated and tragic examples of faith trumping reason and do not represent the mainstream of religious life. But at the same time we must also be willing to admit that choosing prayer and faith over established medical practices is part of wider rejection of fact based reality which permeates much of the Christian community in the United States.
For instance, we see this distortion in the global climate change debate. Because people don’t want to believe that human activity is having an effect on our climate, they simply dismiss the science. Then there are those who put faith over science because they believe in an imminent second coming of Jesus at which time God will destroy the world. For these believers, environmental concerns are irrelevant.
The same thing happens in the teaching of history. There are people of faith who want to believe that the framers of the Constitution were all Christians and sought to create a Christian nation. The facts are readily available to refute these ideas, but faith trumps the facts. There are many, too many examples of this problem in our culture.
The New Testament defines faith as “the evidence of things not seen.” In other words, if something is seen we have no reason to take it on faith. If we can see, for example, that surgery will cure appendicitis, then attempting to cure the condition by faith is not appropriate. The best course is to surgically remove the diseased organ.
Quaker and scholar Elton Trueblood had a lot to say about the interplay between faith and reason. His conclusion was that a faith not tempered with reason was not worth having. Given the existence of “treatment through prayer” exemptions in the law, and the rejection of other fact based reality, we might add that an unreasoned faith may also be dangerous–especially to children.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.
James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).