The deadly consequences of Christian ‘faith-healers’

A new film explores a fringe sect’s concept of freedom and the child deaths caused by it.

 

In the first few scenes of the new A&E documentary “No Greater Law,” we see a man named Dan Sevy, the most visible face of Idaho’s reclusive Followers of Christ church, rising early for his morning chores. He wears a barn coat, jeans, a cowboy hat. At the pre-dawn hour when even a ramshackle house or the ugliest row of power lines looks like an oil painting, Sevy pauses to take in the moon.

“You know, you start looking at that landscape over there, and the moon hanging in the sky like that. The mountains there. You just don’t hardly find a better looking picture or painting anywhere you go,” Sevy says. “In my mind, this is the Garden of Eden.”

A landscape still from the film “No Greater Law.”
Arthur Mulhern

It’s a prescient moment in a impeccably shot film about one of the West’s most harrowing questions: Should a state penalize parents who try to heal their children by prayer alone? The Followers of Christ are a sect of Christians who believe medicine is a form of witchcraft, and only attempt to heal their sick, including children, by anointing them with olive oil and praying over them. Aspirin is a no-no. Some won’t even wear eyeglasses.

Idaho is one of only six states where faith-healing parents are guarded from felony charges — negligent homicide, manslaughter or capital murder — if their children die of treatable illnesses. Where other states, like neighboring Oregon, have stepped aggressively in the opposite direction by removing religious shield laws and prosecuting faith healers, Idaho legislators continue to bolster protections for churches like Sevy’s, even as the bodies of children continue to go to cemeteries.

Idaho’s policy hasn’t gone without scrutiny: In the past few years, increasing media attention has focused on Idaho’s laws. But few reporters, if any, have found faith-healers willing talk about their perspective on the issue. Sevy — who has lost three children after denying them medical care — declined to speak with High Country News last year, saying “we lack confidence in all forms of media at this time.”

But “No Greater Law” pierces the secrecy, getting inside Sevy’s thinking, and inside the minds of other Followers, offering new insight into why the group continues to be protected in Idaho.

The film turns its lens on state legislators, such as Republican state Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, who have dug in on religious shield protections, seeing any changes to the law as peeling back religious freedom. Meanwhile, Canyon County coroner Vicki Degues-Morris says, on camera, that she helps safeguard the Followers of Christ, telling the group she aims to help them “keep your way of life.” (Last spring, Degues-Morris, who’d held her position for 28 years, lost in the primary election.)

  • Canyon County, Idaho Sheriff, Keiran Donahue is pictured in his office.

    Arthur Mulhern
  • Former Followers of Christ member, Linda Martin.

    Arthur Mulhern

“No Greater Law,” too, shows the small but vehement resistance pushing for change in a state dead-set on staying the same, such as former Followers Linda Martin and Brian Hoyt, who remain scarred by childhoods surrounded by death. And with them stands the cowboy-hatted Canyon County Sheriff, Keiran Donahue, who bluntly asks the camera: “How many children does it take to die until people say this is not acceptable?”

But it is the Followers’ relationship to the Idaho landscape itself that resonates the loudest. In Sevy and his friends, the film captures Westerners for whom living in the often-unforgiving wide-open spaces out West means getting far away from the government — a concern that eclipses child welfare.

“It seems like every time we turn around, there’s some government entity looking to encroach on that freedom,” Sevy says in one early scene. “I don’t understand it. I guess I’m just too simple a man.” He calls himself “a child of the sagebrush,” and characterizes the fight to preserve faith-healing protections as a class issue. “It always seems that when somebody makes choices you disagree with, especially if you consider yourself more educated than them, well you just think they’re stupid: ‘They’re uneducated. They’re just people that dig in the dirt,’ ” he says in a speech to state legislators.

Sevy sees laws that penalize child deaths caused by faith healing as an imposition of the outside world. “I want to point out, folks of our persuasion have tended towards the frontiers. And when civilization encroached too much, we moved again. But, you know, we’re out of frontiers,” Sevy says. “And now I guess we’re gonna have to stand up, and as our families have done all through the history of this nation, we’re gonna have to fight for freedom again.”

It’s this revelation that makes “No Greater Law” such an important snapshot of Western culture right now. This is a film about the way state lawmakers have firmly interlaced their fingers with those of faith-healers, united in the firm belief that the West is the last bastion of freedom for white men to live without interference — that Idaho’s landscape of ancient mountain ranges jutting like lower jawbones from the earth, stubborn and enduring, is their final refuge from a changing society.

“This is his last stand,” Sheriff Donahue says of Sevy’s fight. Donahue realizes that the Followers of Christ’s battle to keep faith healing isn’t a fight over a couple of aspirins or a spoonful of Robitussin. It’s a fight about enduring bitter cold winters and carving a living from the land — and of not being told what to do, even if that means doing things in archaic, outdated ways.

And if children die in the process? To Sevy, they are necessary casualties in a war for freedom.

Leah Sottile is a Portland, Oregon, freelance journalist whose work appears in the Washington Post, California Sunday Magazine, and Playboy.

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