JASON COOPER LOOKS out at the audience gathered in Restoration Church and asks, “Is it God’s will to heal?”
The former art school classroom, where the Pentecostal Dover, N.H., congregation meets, is nearly full, even though it is a Thursday evening in April. In addition to the 70 or so regular members who have come to hear Cooper preach, there are nearly a dozen visitors. One woman leans heavily on a cane. Another can’t turn her head from side to side and needs neck surgery.
They are casualties of slow research and expensive health care. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health-care policy think tank, health expenditures have increased 10-fold in the past 30 years. Though some health- care increases can be attributed to longer life spans, the high costs of drugs, hospital stays, and doctor visits have been compounded in the wake of the recession.
A young woman tensely watches Cooper as if he might explode at any minute. No one knows exactly what he will do. The audience fidgets in response to his question. Cooper, with his soul patch, slick black haircut, white button-down shirt, and stone-washed jeans, looks a little like a Vegas magician.
But Cooper is a traveling faith healer.
Restoration Church is a member of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination that believes faith healing is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit available to all Christians. It is a modern church of about 170 members, with a worship team that includes electric guitar players, a bassist, and a drummer. Its logo, a stenciled yellow “R” on a black background, is as trendy as an Apple icon.
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NEW YORK — The apostle bellowed in Portuguese to a packed crowd in a rented Astoria, Queens, church.
“Get out, spirit of death. Now you are burnt, now you are plucked out by my God!”
A blood-curdling shriek rose from one of the front pews, but Apostle Valdemiro Santiago, founder of the Worldwide Church of God’s Power, didn’t flinch.
“Don’t be afraid, church, by these screams,” Santiago reassured the crowd. “They are the evil spirits being defeated.”
Fourteen years after he started out in the countryside outside Sao Paulo, Santiago sits at the helm of a booming Pentecostal church in Brazil, the world’s fastest-growing evangelical country. He now leads 4,000 churches, including 10 in the United States, where fiery worship and exorcisms form part of the appeal.
The sovereignty of religion in the United States is a thorny issue when it comes to state powers. But most Americans can agree that there are lines that even the Church cannot cross.
The problem is that sometimes that realization comes too late.
Sixteen-year-old Austin Sprout is the most recent victim of such religious transgressions. Oregon’s Register-Guard recently reported that Sprout’s parents declined medical care for their son, opting instead for prayer to ensure his recovery from an undisclosed but commonly preventable illness. He died in spite of their faithfulness.
Sprout’s father, Brian, reportedly died of sepsis five years ago when the family refused medical treatment for his medical injury, opting for faith-based healing. The family attends The General Assembly Church of the First Born, a congregation the Huffington Post notes is “known for their practice of faith healing.”
When I was in my early 20’s, a Bible teacher by the name of Dianne Kannady posed a rhetorical question that continues to haunt me to this day: “If Jesus was your only source of information about what Christianity should look like, how would you live your life?”
That question has gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years.
Consider the three things that instantly come to mind.
1. Jesus preached nonviolence.
2. Jesus was a faith healer.
3. Jesus challenged the religious fundamentalists of his day.