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Salon: Like Jonestown in slow motion

Is Christian Science a cult ?


The respectable cult?

A new book asks why Christian Science has gotten away with the kind of paranoid, secretive practices that usually push religions into the kook bin.

By Laura Miller

September 2, 1999
Web posted at: 4:32 p.m. EDT (2032 GMT)

(SALON) -- Picture a relatively new American religious sect founded by a charismatic, paranoid, authoritarian leader. The church has a set of secret doctrines, and it threatens legal action against those who would reveal them. It vigorously pressures journalists, publishers and booksellers who attempt to disseminate anything but the officially sanctioned accounts of its deceased founder or its current autocratic leadership. It has a handful of celebrity followers and some really weird beliefs. It's also a potential threat to the well-being of many of its members.

Chances are you weren't imagining the Church of Christ, Scientist. Yet, at various points in its approximately 130-year history, all of the above have been true of the religious movement founded by Mary Baker Eddy. While the Church of Scientology is burdened by a sinister public image resembling a cross between the KGB and a UFO-contactee cult, Christian Science has emerged from a bruising bout of legal suits and financial crises with its respectability essentially intact. That's astonishing when you consider that the sect is primarily known for its prohibitions against conventional medical care, strictures that have led to the avoidable deaths of children raised in Christian Science households.

In fact, Americans are so given to orgies of sentimental outrage over the subject of child welfare, you'd think that by now Christian Science would be regarded as the embodiment of evil. (After all, the ATF supposedly stormed David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound because they thought he was molesting 13-year-olds, not killing them.) Instead, the Christian Science Church's defense of its members' actions on grounds of religious freedom has been taken seriously as a constitutional issue.

Despite the occasional scandal, Christian Scientists have held onto their reputation for wholesomeness. "Perhaps the most common word used to describe Scientists," writes Caroline Fraser in "God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church," her scathing new history of the religion, "is 'nice.'" And, in fact, "most Scientists are nice, courteous, and thoughtful ... sincerely concerned for the common good." Fraser, a former Scientist who abandoned the faith in her teens, blames the church's leaders for most of the misdeeds committed in the name of Christian Science. And the tale she offers is a real eyebrow-raiser -- from Mary Baker Eddy's delusions of people zapping her with the long-distance equivalent of the evil eye to the church's multiple attempts to squelch books criticizing Eddy or her successors, and to the influence the organization continues to wield among elected officials and the special treatment it's accorded. Maybe you already knew that Ginger Rogers was a Christian Scientist, as are Val Kilmer and Cindy Adams, but did you also know that former FBI and CIA director William Webster was one, too? Or that your tax dollars, in the form of Medicare benefits, pay for stays in Christian Science nursing homes where very little actual nursing occurs?

Fraser declares her disillusionment with the Church from the outset. Christian Science holds that the material world is an illusion and that its misfortunes are the result of "incorrect" thinking and spiritual "error"; as a result, Fraser's father father "was offended by seatbelts -- we never wore them -- because they implied that accidents could happen." She felt her last shred of respect for the faith snap when the 12-year-old son of a Scientist woman in her affluent suburban neighborhood died of a ruptured appendix.

Hers is not an impartial book (that is, it doesn't present a facade of impartiality), but neither is it an "intemperate" one, as it was called by Philip Zaleski in the August 22 New York Times Book Review. Richly and thoroughly researched, "God's Perfect Child" is the work of a writer whose passionate commitment fuels her reasoning instead of hijacking it. Fraser, a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, is careful to give Christian Scientists their due, and more than careful in praising their finest moments (supporting the war effort in World War II, producing the Christian Science Monitor, trying to get their leaders to behave decently).

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