Spirituality Politics | Image via Flickr user Annalisa AntoniniDebates regarding health care have struck at the core of social and political imaginaries of what it means for both bodies and societies to thrive. As Obama’s health care reforms pointedly demonstrated, debate in North America about the respective roles of government and private interests in the administration of health care has been a catalyst of enthusiastic civic engagement, with different results on either side of the Canadian-American border. While much of this civic engagement rests upon a shared assumption that biomedical health care, based on Western scientific method, is the best kind of care for suffering bodies, the politics of health care is also shaped by a spiritual politics, divided along several axes.

First, there is contentious debate about whether health care is a commodity or, alternatively, a human right and an obligation of a society to its sick. Liberal Protestants, the focus of my forthcoming book, Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity, have long argued the latter. Over the course of the twentieth century, liberal Protestants have worked as doctors, politicians, and medical missionaries, inspired by a version of “religious healing” that calls on scientific medicine and state legislation as well as on the “spirit” to act as agents of healing. At once unambiguously bodily and yet ensnared by the demands of both science and the market, health care in North America has also been a complex site of spiritual politics that encompasses intimate anthropologies of the body, professional, religious, and civic identities, and transnational networks shaped by both colonial and anti-colonial politics.

A second fissure lies underneath the largely shared assumption of biomedicine’s primacy: is healing necessarily a biomedical concern, or is it a process that can also be complemented by services in a church sanctuary or treatments on a Reiki table? Though liberal Protestants were at the heart of the process of medicalization, and though they once argued strenuously against faith healing and for biomedicine as the essential healing technique, they are now likely to endorse a modified version of faith healing and the healing touch of Reiki alongside biomedical care. Like most North Americans, they live in post-biomedical bodies, in that they continue to rely on access to biomedical care while simultaneously drawing upon religious or alternative therapies. This plurality of approaches fits well with the liberal Protestant understanding of healing as an unfinished process that is at once political and bodily, about self and society, and not, in the end, primarily about efficacy or even cure. Without resigning themselves to disease and debilitation, liberal Protestants have often warned against an “idolatry of health” in which the natural processes of bodily decline are not acknowledged, denied either by what they call the distortions of “magical” thinking or by the arrogance of biomedical mastery.

Not many people, scholars or otherwise, characterize liberal Protestants as spirit-filled Christians, but seeing the spirit only in charismatic Christians is to miss how a politics of the spiritual has deeply shaped the contours of both “liberal” and “conservative” Christianity in North America. We can see this particularly in the 1960s, when liberal Protestants, with the help of psychiatric discourses, questioned in new ways what counted as “pathological” in terms of spiritual and sexual practice. Provoked by their own politicized missionaries and new converts to take responsibility for the sickening effects of western (and Christian) colonialism, liberal Protestants grew increasingly open to non-Christian religious practices, including those deemed broadly therapeutic, such as meditation and yoga. They practiced a kind of supernatural liberalism that was a “spiritual” sibling of the disenchanted, papery liberalism that more often appears in scholarly and popular accounts.

The dawning awareness that homophobia, sexism, and colonialism were themselves pathologies of modernity inhabiting North American Christianity infused the spiritual politics of liberal Protestant healing in the 1960s. This was a politics in which the concept and power of “spirit” were themselves at issue, as two competing yet interconnected anthropologies of the spiritual body were at play in debates over the relative authority of theology, church governance, medicine, and the state in the process and definition of healing. I use anthropology here in a doubled sense: both with echoes of its classic Christian theological sense, as the ways that Christians have imagined the divine to interact with, or inhabit, human nature, and in its related, and presently more common, academic disciplinary sense, which takes the study of what it is to be human as its goal.

In mid-century North America, both conservative and liberal Protestants shared an anthropology that divided human nature into “body, mind, and spirit.” But within this ubiquitous trinity, there were competing accounts of what fostered spiritual health and of how God worked on the human, which I call spiritual equilibrium and spiritual intervention. Advocates of spiritual equilibrium often set their analyses within the wider contexts of what they saw as immoral capitalist economic systems, the pathological effects of imperialism, and distortedly inhibited views of sexuality. For their part, spiritual interventionists took on charismatic influences and focused largely on the recesses of sin and distress that inhered in the individual body and memory, which could be healed not by better social programs, but by personal repentance and the forgiveness of God.

The tensions between spiritual equilibrium and spiritual intervention were at play within 1960s liberal Protestantism itself—that once dominant, even default, version of Protestantism that considered itself in step with its times, though perhaps not quite in the mode of Donald Draper and his Mad Men counterparts. Like many admen, however, liberal Protestants embraced psychology with a whole new enthusiasm in the midst of the newly supernatural 1960s, as they encountered self-help movements, developed pastoral counseling clinics, and read the crossover bestsellers of theologians and ministers—books such as Thomas Harris’s I’m O.K., You’re O.K. and Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be. At the same time, the charismatic movement was making its way into sanctuaries, especially in Episcopalian and Anglican circles, and exorcism dueled with psychoanalysis as the best technique for the cure of the soul and body.

For example, in 1965, Mervyn Dickinson, a minister and pastoral counselor trained at Boston University, who then directed the United Church of Canada’s Pastoral Counselling Institute of Toronto, came out strongly in support of homosexuality in the national church newspaper. Dickinson wrote a feature article for the United Church Observer condemning the church’s support for the “highly repressive sexual ethic of western culture.” Based on his conversations with gay men at a downtown Toronto bar, Dickinson’s article suggested, with reference to psychiatric theories, that homosexuality “may not be as totally ‘unnatural’ or pathological as we like to think.” Going further, Dickinson urged that the church openly welcome homosexuals and bless committed homosexual relationships, while also pressuring the government to revoke “prejudicial legislation.” Psychology provided the authoritative knowledge to challenge theological, medical, and legislative prejudices against homosexuality, allowing for the view that gay men (lesbians weren’t discussed until later) did not need healing, but did need the equilibrium provided by a balance of body, mind, and spirit.

At the same time in another part of downtown Toronto, Canon G. Moore Smith of the Anglican Church of Canada was leading a prayer and healing group in his small high church congregation of St. Matthias, based in part on the models offered by U.S. Episcopalian lay healer Agnes Sanford. In 1967, Smith’s increasingly insular group was forced onto the pages of the daily newspapers when a young woman residing in the manse died from meningitis, with no medical aid provided. Instead, she was repeatedly “spanked” and exorcised by Smith and other male leaders of the prayer group, until the last hours of her life. Even after the young woman’s death, Smith and his assistant, clothed in their vestments, visited her body in the city morgue to perform rituals meant to bring her back from the dead. Smith’s version of spiritual intervention was eventually the focus of a coroner’s inquest, which absolved him of legal responsibility, but charged the Anglican Church with investigating this flowering of faith healing in its midst.

The resulting Commission on the Ministry of Healing, convened by the Anglican Bishop of Toronto, and peopled by psychiatrists, ministers, and religious studies professors, ended up endorsing spiritual equilibrium at the expense of spiritual intervention. After chastising what they considered to be Smith’s misinterpretations of spiritual healing, the Commission advocated a pragmatic theology of the “wholeness” of body, mind, and spirit, which accepted that the perfection of wholeness could never be fully achieved, and that a “healthy” self was always “becoming” but never “finished.” The Report declared that healing should never be imposed but only offered, and that all future exorcisms required the written permission of the Bishop. Suggesting that the prayer for the Anointing of the Sick in the prayer book might contribute to inappropriate expectations for bodily healing, the Commission urged a revision: “If the word ‘bodily’ could be removed, it would permit ‘health’ in this prayer to be taken in its fullest sense—the whole person, including body, mind and spirit.” Shifting even more conclusively to a psychiatrically-monitored spirituality, the Report also recommended the establishment of a Centre for Pastoral Services, the expansion of Clinical Pastoral Education, and that chaplains be obligated to meet the accreditation standards of the Canadian Council of Churches.

Spiritual equilibrium and spiritual intervention both arose as aspects of a “modern sense of healing” that insisted on a holism of the material, the psychic, and the spiritual. Their overlapping holism, however, contained serious cleavages; the clearest difference between the two lay in the emphases they placed on the three pivots in the balance of body, mind, and spirit. Supporters of spiritual equilibrium, in accordance with their psychological affinities, were more likely to argue that healing came from honestly accounting for mental anxieties and fears (including those that were culturally induced), acknowledging the limits of the body, and acting with spiritual confidence as Christians who could transform a materialistic world in cooperation with tools of modern social organization. These views fuelled the many liberal Protestants who worked, together with allies of various sorts, to secure the passing of the Medical Care Act in the Canadian Parliament in 1966, granting universal, publicly funded access to the care of physicians. Health care, in their view, was not to be primarily oriented by capitalist models of economic and social organization, and healing need not be limited to explicitly Christian energies. Spiritual interventionists, on the other hand, gave an explicitly Christian shape and power to spiritual energies, alternately mediated by Jesus, by divine vibrational energies, and, in more perilous forms, by Satan. At the forceful insistence of such spirits, mind and body were permeable and open to change, whether through “instantaneous healings” or psychic realignment. There was nothing in the body that could not be cured by the spirit—be it cancer or sexual desire—if the Christian were receptive and truly patient.

Holistic healing, among Protestants, has operated as a metaphor that could contain markedly divergent ideologies: social responsibility vs. personal guilt as the etiology of illness; individual self-knowing mediated by biomedicine vs. divine intervention by the “finger of God” as paths to healing. The unity of all-embracing wholeness has been most severely tested when disciplines of the body have come to the fore: in the death of a young woman given exorcism and spanking instead of medicines, in the seed of transformation planted by the revolutionary suggestion that the church stop trying to heal gays and lesbians and welcome them as healthy and whole in their embodied selves. The Bishop’s Commission on the Ministry of Healing hoped that excising the word “bodily” from the prayer for the Anointing of the Sick would allow Anglicans to understand “‘health’…in its fullest sense,” and would help to restore the appropriate weighting of body, mind, and spirit. The very demarcations of body, mind, and spirit, however, ended up not so much establishing the equilibrium of the healthy Christian self as revealing the precariousness of its balance.

Getting rid of the body in the text was not quite the same as getting rid of the body in practice. Far from living as disembodied, “spiritually dead” pew-sitters—as their Pentecostal and charismatic critics have long charged—1960s liberal Protestants tapped into a longer tradition of liberal supernaturalism to infuse the body with a spiritual politics that has led to a transformation of both their ritual and their sexual lives. Practicing yoga, therapeutic touch, and eventually Reiki, and not only experiencing, but also talking openly about a wider array of sexual pleasures (and sexual abuses) changed the tenor of liberal Protestant discourses of healing, without abandoning the more conventional version of civic engagement represented by their lobbying efforts for state-funded biomedical health care, especially in the wake of HIV-AIDS. Tapping into currents of spiritual healing flowing within the same stream siphoned by their charismatic kin, liberal Protestants marshaled these energies into a spiritual politics dominated not by rhetorics of deliverance but by those of liberation.

(This essay is based largely on Chapter 4 of my book, Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity, Berkeley: University of California Press, Forthcoming.)