Patient, Heal Thyself

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Conservative Christians are joining their liberal counterparts in replacing conventional medical treatment with natural remedies. Rita Maas/Getty

Jennifer Lanham doesn't believe in modern medicine. "God blessed the Earth with everything we need to heal ourselves," she says. In addition to her faith, she also had a bad experience with doctors during her grandfather's cancer treatment. "I truly believe it was the chemotherapy itself that killed him and not the cancer," Lanham says. "We have become scared of what those medicines are going to do to us in the long run." As a result, she began to "lean away from the man-made alternatives," which she believes are inferior to the natural remedies God created.

As a devout Christian and owner of Weatherford, Texas–based By Faith Essential Oils, which sells a variety of products used in massage and aromatherapy, Lanham was an early adopter in a growing trend: conservative Christians who reject modern medicine in favor of "holistic" or "natural" approaches historically associated with the political left. Medical experts report a rise in the number of patients from conservative Christian areas who are rejecting traditional medicine.

The anti-vaccination movement is a case in point. The movement is well documented among liberal communities in California, Oregon and New Jersey. But evangelicals have also grown more skeptical of vaccines, health experts say. The language used in many anti-vaccination campaigns seem to be directed to the religious right, says Dr. Peter Hotez, director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development in Houston. Advertisements lean on the term "medical freedom," which Hotez says resonates among Christians concerned with freedom of religion. This form of advertising has been especially effective, Hotez says, for groups that "spread misinformation about vaccines to push phony remedies" they then profit from.

In a paper published in the online journal PLOS Medicine in July, Hotez and his colleagues document a rise in religious exemptions among kindergartners in 12 states, including Idaho, Utah, Arizona and Texas. Many of these pockets align with extreme liberal and conservative voters, including right-leaning Christian communities, Hotez says.

The number of children in Texas who claim exemptions from vaccines for nonmedical reasons has risen 20-fold since 2003, to more than 57,000. "I don't buy this term, 'medical freedom,'" he says. "What's happening is parents are denying children a fundamental right."

In 1998, physician Seth Asser published a study that documented a rise in deaths from Christian faith healers replacing traditional doctors, but that phenomenon is now rare. The current threat entails the use of natural remedies in place of conventional medical treatment. So far, the evidence is largely anecdotal. For instance, he recently encountered a mother of a child with epilepsy who tried to treat the condition with an herbal remedy that damaged the child's liver. On another occasion, a woman died after treating her allergies with injections of sheep's blood. "These people are not necessarily on the fringe of society," he says. "It becomes a social thing. It's a group at a school, with four to five mothers talking about it all the time, so you jump in."

Jennifer Johnson, associate dean of clinical education at Bastyr University's School of Naturopathic Medicine in Washington state, blames social media for making it easy to find and spread false information, the polarized political climate and a widespread distrust of the pharmaceutical industry.

Even Lanham, who sells natural remedies, says the rhetoric and aggressive sales tactics have led some people to take foolish risks. Some of her customers, for instance, have tried to ingest herbal oils. "I don't think there's any ill intent," she says. "What we all strive for is a greater sense of well-being, and in doing that, a lot of people reach desperation."