Faith-healing book alternatively angers, saddens

By Jayson Jacoby May 09, 2014 03:43 pm

I made it five pages into the book before I got so mad I had to put it down.

I figured the library wouldn’t appreciate it if I returned the book with half the pages dangling from the binding like rotten shingles from a neglected roof.

I picked up the book a few hours later, determined to finish it without so much as dog-earing a single page.

Over the next several days I read the remaining 445 pages with emotions ranging from anger, which never totally dissipated, to bewilderment to sadness.

I’m grateful to Cameron Stauth for writing “In the Name of God.”

But that he was able to write it — although it seems to me that he felt he had to write it — is a tragedy.

The subtitle for Stauth’s 2013 book explains the topic: “The true story of the fight to save children from faith-healing homicide.”

Except most of the children Stauth writes about weren’t saved.

They died.

They died in pain, gasping for breath or with their kidneys ruined or their brains burning with fever. 

Yet reading the detailed descriptions of these children’s final hours isn’t the most excruciating part of getting through Stauth’s book.

It’s worse to realize that almost certainly none of them would have died had their parents taken them to a hospital.

None of them suffered from a rare malady that would defeat all but the most skilled surgeons.

These children had minor afflictions.

Many of them could have been cured by antibiotics or a brief surgery, with no permanent effects save perhaps a tiny scar.

And yet they died, as newborns or toddlers or teenagers, solely because their parents believed that only God could cure them, and that to seek help from a doctor was to betray their faith.

Stauth’s book was especially compelling for me because most of the events he writes about happened in Oregon.

Specifically in and near Oregon City, where a church called the Followers of Christ adhered to the strictest edits of faith-healing.

The book ends on a triumphant note.

Between 2009 and 2011 Clackamas County prosecutors convicted several members of the church for neglecting their children — children who died because their initially insignificant illnesses had turned deadly only after, in some cases, they went years without medical treatment.

The most important of those convictions, though, involved the 2009 death of a newborn, David Hickman, the son of church members Shannon and Dale Hickman.

David Hickman was born two months prematurely. He died several hours later. Doctors who testified at the couple’s trial said David Hickman almost surely would have survived had his parents taken him to a hospital.

A jury convicted both parents of second-degree manslaughter. A judge sentenced both to six years and three months in prison.

A church member, who was appalled by the unnecessary deaths among his own congregation and became an informant for police, was also the most vital source for Stauth as he researched his book.

The man told Stauth he believed the convictions of the Hickmans and others had persuaded many of the Followers of Christ to relax their stance regarding doctors.

Yet despite its comparatively positive conclusion, “In the Name of God” also stands as an indictment of Oregon’s tolerance for unconventional behavior, even when that behavior has demonstrably deadly results for innocent children.

Although the Legislature passed a bill in 2011 that prevented parents from using religious beliefs as a defense when they are charged with endangering their children by withholding medical care, Stauth explains how, little more than a decade earlier, Oregon had the most lenient “religious shield” law among the states.

Several dozen children died of treatable illness while that law, which protected parents from all charges, including murder by abuse or neglect, was in effect.

It’s a shameful part of Oregon’s history, and one we ought not forget, lest the understandable desire to protect individual freedoms, including religious freedoms, ever again subvert the rights of children to live so that they might some day enjoy those same freedoms.

Beyond the obvious horror of so many children dying needlessly, Stauth’s book bothered me because the parents responsible seem to be, in every respect save one, good people.

They loved their children.

They provided shelter and food and the sort of nurturing family atmosphere that many Americans strive for and can’t quite manage.

Yet they wasted all their good works, and they doomed the children they loved, by slavishing following an irrational edict.

When I finally closed the book a sense of frustration had suppressed my anger.

But it was a frustration mixed with melancholy.

I doubt I will ever understand how people who place so much trust in Jesus could believe that their Savior would have preferred that their own children perish, often in agony, when they didn’t have to.

The Followers of Christ, when a child was gravely ill, would anoint him with oil and touch him — what’s known as the “laying on of hands.”

If only they had supplemented their own hands, imbued with love but lacking skill, with a physician’s trained hands, they would have succeeded.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.