How Christian Science Became A Dying Religion

How Christian Science Became A Dying Religion

Mainstream Christians can learn from Christian Science's rise and steep decline, and see its new incarnation in 'Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.'
Alfred Siewers
By

A recent Pew study claiming that Christians are overrepresented in Congress, given that 23 percent of Americans now identify as religiously unaffiliated, contained one detail that caught my eye as yet another indication of demographic and cultural change in American politics: There are now officially no Christian Scientists in Congress. With the retirement of Republican Reps. Bob Goodlatte and Lamar Smith, that small but historically influential denomination has vanished from high office after a presence of decades, as if the Cheshire Cat of WASP American civil religion.

Christian Science historically bridged ascetic American Protestantism and the prosperity gospel, with a reliance on prayer rather than standard medicine for healing. Its influence echoed in the “positive thinking” teachings of the Dutch Reformed Protestant Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the spiritual mentor of young Donald Trump. In his book “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe described how Christian Scientists were more elite among American WASP military culture in World War II and the early Cold War than Episcopalians.

The faith received unique special status in the United States in the early 1970s when the organization was given a special copyright on its sacred book “Science and Health,” and successfully lobbied for special exemptions from childhood medical care. The special copyright status has seen been struck down in court, and the original regulation removed, although newer religious exemptions from required care for children remain controversial in broader contexts today.

Its disproportionate representation in the halls of power in recent decades, and disappearance today, offers a cautionary tale for more traditional Christian communities in the United States as they still jockey for recognition from a political and cultural establishment increasingly hostile to faith.

Lessons From Christian Scientists

Only a few decades ago, Christian Scientists H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were at the apex of White House influence, top aides to President Richard M. Nixon, whose mother-in-law had practiced the faith and whose West Coast Quaker background seemed to find an affinity with it.

From my native state of Illinois alone in the last half of the twentieth century, Sen. Charles Percy and Rep. Robert McClory were Christian Scientists on Capitol Hill. Not to mention Judge William Webster and Admiral Stansfield Turner, who served as directors of the FBI and CIA, respectively (Webster later also directed the CIA). John Rousselot, a leader of the John Birch Society, and David Dreier were among national legislators identifying as Christian Scientists. Former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut was another, until he left the religion.

The first known Christian Scientist in Congress was Sen. John D. Works, a Republican progressive from California in the 1910s. Christian Scientists in office since tended to be Republican, ranging from liberal-moderates like Percy to conservatives like Rousselot. Coincidentally, Haldeman and Ehrlichman had a nemesis in the Pentagon Papers scandal, Daniel Ellsberg, who was raised in Christian Science. In the late ’90s, Monica Lewinsky reportedly turned to a Christian Science healer for help during the Bill Clinton White House sex scandal.

The faith was founded in the 19th century by Mary Baker Eddy. It seemed to inspire both a certain kind of puritanical discipline and success ethic. Percy’s Christian Science, at the time of the tragic killing of his daughter in his 1966 senatorial campaign, was seen as a source of stoic endurance. He also credited it with his business success as “boy wonder” president of Bell and Howell.

But the religion’s eschewing of standard medicine, as the latter became more successful, begat increasing scandal over the deaths of children under Christian Science care. A small genre of apostate memoirs testify also to concerns with psychological impacts of a disembodied faith concerned with negative mental influence.

Still, church publications continue to publish testimonies claiming healing through prayer. My family credited prayers of a Christian Science healer in helping my grandfather’s recovery from severe pneumonia in the early 1900s. The faith also won recognition for an ethos of public service in sponsoring The Christian Science Monitor, for which I worked briefly, before I left the faith a quarter-century ago.

What has been labelled Gnostic idealism in Christian Science culture arguably did not promote the kind of reproductively successful demography seen among America’s other most prominent homegrown religion of WASP origins, the Latter-day Saints. But Christian Science won more than its share of glamour in its day.

Christian Science in Pop Culture

Movie and TV stars such as the recently deceased Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Doris Day, Mickey Rooney, Milton Berle, Robert Duvall, Joan Crawford, Val Kilmer, and screenwriters Horton Foote and Dalton Trumbo, were practicing adherents throughout their lives or at various times. Others such as Henry Fonda, Robin Williams, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Carol Burnett, and Ellen Degeneres, were raised by family members in the faith but didn’t continue.

Walt Disney reportedly had relatives involved and praised it. George Lucas reportedly had passing experience with Christian Science Sunday School, and some Christian Scientists came to see the “Force” in the Star Wars franchise as a distant echo. There were significant examples of Christian Scientists in business and financial circles, such as Hank Paulson, George W. Bush’s Treasury secretary. It influenced some American writers and artists of earlier generations, such as Joseph Cornell.`

A friend from college, when home in southern California, valet-parked the Cadillac of Jack Lord, star of the original “Hawaii Five-O” TV series, at a Christian Science church there. Lord’s hip but conservative anti-communist series premiered in 1968 as a top TV hit in the same season that Richard Nixon was elected to the White House with the crew of Christian Scientists who later became embroiled in Watergate.

One Nixon aide, Chuck Colson, who reportedly had a passing interest in the religion before becoming an evangelical Protestant in prison, wrote that its positive attitude and disbelief in evil as reality contributed to the Nixon White House’s undoing. The same tendency, he concluded, was evident in the role of Christian Scientists Nancy Astor and Lord Lothian in the Cliveden Set as a hotbed of British appeasement before World War II. But the Christian Science Monitor has a track record of covering evils and issues globally.

The Christian Science ethos was an important thread in the “soft establishment” of generic Protestantism in mid-20th century American civil religion, which arguably peaked in the weekly ecumenical worship services held at the Nixon White House led by Christian Science aides.

Today, demolished or converted Christian Science churches testify to its decline. Classical-style Christian Science churches sprouted across the American landscape during its peak growth in the 1920s. The old historic First Church of Christ, Scientist in Manhattan is being transformed into a children’s museum. The old Christian Science First Church in Los Angeles gained notoriety when converted into a branch of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple.

The number of Christian Scientists in the United States was 270,000 in 1936 (the last reliable public count). Today, despite growth in the nation’s population, actual church membership in the U.S. could well be down to 50,000, based on a steep drop in numbers of congregations and registered healers.

Christian Scientists Versus Christianity

While Christian Science was seen by converts as an American-style re-establishment and renovation of early Christianity, traditional Christians saw in it a lack of connection with the teachings of the church fathers, and a revival in new form of old heresies of Gnosticism, Sabellianism, and Arianism. A strand of Anglo-Israelism influenced some followers, adding ethnophyletism to that list. But it also gathered a small yet often elite group of African-American followers, such as musician Lionel Hampton.

In certain ways, the religion’s emphasis on individual will, denial of physical limitation, and embrace of material success fit well with America’s zeitgeist and the generic Eisenhower/Cold War-era motto “In God we trust.” But success in secular culture arguably was a challenge to continued emphasis in Christian Science on the Bible and biblical morality, by comparison to increasingly popular New Age, Neopagan, prosperity gospel, and social gospel alternatives.

As the last Christian Scientists left Congress, the highest-profile member of the Latter-Day Saints in America arrived: The new U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). Even his community, though, has started to see signs of fraying as young people flee pews for cyberspace.

The American Orthodox Christian writer Rod Dreher, in his best-selling book “The Benedict Option,” opines that “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” today is the closest thing Americans have to established religion. It, in some ways, parallels the former appeal and influence of Christian Science in its heyday, with less rigor. Its tenets, he writes, include: “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions … The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”

Anything standing in the way of “feeling good about one’s self” gets culturally ostracized today, especially in terms of orthodox Christian anthropology of sex, condemned as hate. What’s missing in America’s penchant for “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” Dreher argues, is dedication to the enduring cross of traditional Christian faith, as people identify more with secular success than faith.

Dreher warns traditional Christians to rebuild their communities through allegiances beyond the secular world, by letting the otherworldly light of their faith shine more brightly in the darkness of a growing cultural nihilism. American Christianity won’t survive, he argues, by continuing to seek salvation in political civil religion, which, like Alice’s Cheshire cat, may leave only a smile behind.

Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers is associate professor of English at Bucknell University and was the 2018-2019 William E. Simon visiting fellow in religion and public life at the James Madison Program, Princeton University. He is also an ordained subdeacon and warden at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He teaches and writes on Christian literature and ideas of nature, and on literary resistance to totalitarianism. His views are his own.

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