Healing and Religion in the United States
- Brett HendricksonBrett HendricksonLafayette College
Religions, in almost every case, are concerned with healing the sick and the broken. Of course, healing is not the sole feature or function of religion, but for many people, restoration of wellness and wholeness is a central component of their religious experience. Religious healing comes in many forms, from miraculous supernatural intervention, to the manipulation of metaphysical energies, to the proper ordering of healthy human relationships and societies. Some religions rely on the ministrations of healing specialists such as shamans, parish nurses, or gifted miracle workers. Others focus on therapeutic modes of self-help, while yet others link healing with redemption from iniquity. In many cases, various kinds of religious healing overlap, all in service of that which is most efficacious in providing relief and recovery. The history of religions in the United States is likewise full of instances and varieties of religious healing. Americans of many creeds and diverse heritages have often sought healing within their religious traditions, and they have innovated new religious movements that focus primarily on the alleviation of suffering. Moreover, the attention to healing within American religions predates the rise of scientific biomedicine, evolves alongside of it, and endures through the present. Finally, recurrence to religious healing has often played a role in ethnic identity construction and maintenance in this largely immigrant nation.
Given the scope and impact of healing on U.S. religious history, it is imperative to consider how the idea of healing has captivated and motivated religious actors. Of particular interest is the complex and sometimes violent process by which religious ideas and practices related to healing have been exchanged, modified, and even appropriated. Throughout the course of American history, religious healing—in its many expressions—has been characterized by ongoing competition, collaboration, overlap, and constant change. Ultimately, it bears little fruit to look for a common thread that might run among all the various traditions and formulations of American religious healing. Rather, it is more rewarding to consider carefully the interactions and evolutions of healing in the ever-changing American religious scene.