Michael V. Tueth

A media professor at Marquette University, Claire Hoertz Badaracco has already provided a valuable study of the interaction of media and religion in the collection of essays she edited in 2005, Quoting God: How Media Shape Ideas About Religion and Culture. She now adds the medical profession to the mix in her latest book, Prescribing Faith: Medicine, Media and Religion in American Culture. Each of the book’s five chapters takes a different approach in observing the interaction among these three major elements of American society; the very diversity of the approaches, however, makes it difficult for Badaracco to arrive at any comprehensive theme. Meanwhile, the brevity of each chapter prevents the sort of detailed documentation or analysis that each topic deserves.

Chapter 1 offers some historical perspective in its account of the pattern of “heroic cures” and the exhortations toward religious acceptance of one’s illnesses and their accompanying pain (especially in women’s cases) in mid-19th-century America. (“Heroic cures” included massive doses of mercury and/or arsenic.) At the same time, homeopathic medicine, with its faith in herbs and folk medicine, experimental use of hydrotherapy, hypnotism, mesmerism and other medical advice that could only be called quackery, offered alternatives to the mainstream medical treatments of the time.

Chapter 2 chronicles the career of Mary Baker Eddy and the rise of the religion of Christian Science. Badaracco’s account places Dr. Eddy firmly within the current of 19th-century alternative approaches to healing, describing her popularity and the controversies that surrounded her. For the larger purposes of the book, one wishes that the author had provided a fuller explanation of Eddy’s specific theories about the healing power of faith.

Chapter 3 investigates various in-stances of research on the effectiveness of prayer in the healing of patients suffering from cancer, heart disease and other serious illnesses, concluding that there has not been any firm evidence of healing through prayer.

Chapter 4 concentrates on the influence of religion on the reduction of the stress that leads to severe medical conditions. Badaracco’s survey of many alternative medical practitioners provides much more evidence of the healthful influence of spirituality but offers little insight beyond what has already been given in Herbert Benson and Miriam Klipper’s The Relaxation Response, whose research is often mentioned in the chapter.

Chapter 5 attempts to expose the phenomenon of “disease mongering” practiced by the pharmaceutical industry in collusion with media advertising and the medical profession. Religion receives little attention in this chapter, however, and Badaracco’s analysis wavers from blaming media advertising for encouraging fear and anxiety over imaginary medical conditions to asserting that such media claims have created an atmosphere of distrust of medical science, driving the public further to seek healing from alternative (and even religious) medicines and therapies.

Prescribing Faith suffers from the author’s tendency to generalize on many issues while providing little supporting evidence. Badaracco refers, for instance, to “a raft of best-selling self-help advice books by physicians” and the “abundance of medical advice books” that “have reached global audiences from best seller lists,” but she never offers specific examples of such current literature or a summary of their messages. Likewise, when she states that “today, the issue of guilt and blame in medicine, and the industry in popular books about self-help and self-care that equate virtuous living with good health, is as robust as it was” in the 19th century, a footnote or two would help substantiate such a strong claim. Some documentation would also enhance her example of the “hysteria induced by widespread press coverage...during the 1990s” of news about the use of mercury in dental fillings or reports of “the recalls of toxic pharmaceutical prescriptions that routinely fill the headlines.” What hysteria? What widespread press coverage? What routine headlines? No citations are provided.

More precise documentation is needed particularly to support Badaracco’s references to “the abundance of research data that correlates [sic] religious habits and health” or her statement that “more scientists today agree that healing can indeed be achieved through belief.” These particular claims seem especially shaky coming at the end of a chapter that described, in admirable detail, the diverse and even opposing conclusions derived from experiments on the curative effect of prayer on hospital patients.

The pursuit of such a broad topic is bound to wander off in various directions, and one is left wondering whether this book is an attempt at historic contextualization, a report on current experimentation or an exposé of the conflicts of interest in the medical profession and the media. One almost wishes for three distinct books. In the meantime, Badaracco’s eclectic study provides a good assortment of anecdotal information on the myriad connections between faith and medicine. This reader, for one, is grateful for Badaracco’s account of the 19th-century best selling author Dr. James Ewell and his praise of the medical effects of the “heart-gladdening religion of Christ.” What a healthy religion he seems to have practiced.

 

Michael Tueth, S.J., is a professor of communications and media at Fordham University in New York.