The Politics of Protestant Healing: Theoretical Tools for the Study of Spiritual Bodies and The Body Politic
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The Politics of Protestant Healing:
Theoretical Tools for the Study of Spiritual Bodies and The Body Politic

Spirituality and healing are a potent combination that is as likely to provoke skeptical critique as convinced testimony. Claims that physical healing may occur as a result of spiritual conviction or influence have long been problematic for most medical institutions, while lucrative for some religious ones. In this paper, I argue that scholars of religion who seek to study the confluence of spirituality and healing ethnographically must attend carefully to this tension between skepticism and testimony. As concepts or claims, both spirituality and healing are not exact, fully quantifiable, or fully measureable. The question for the ethnographer, who seeks to set spirituality and healing within cultural and political contexts, then becomes: what forms of legitimation do those testifying to the healing powers of spirituality use to make sense of it, and what forms do skeptics use to render claims of spiritual healing literally incredible? Answering this question requires that any scholar studying the confluence of spirituality and healing attend to how political economies and social imaginaries shape the practices of legitimation that support and constrain spiritual healing.1

At a broader level of interest for the readers of Spiritus, I hope to show that ethnographic approaches to the study of “Christian spirituality” must resist naturalizing the category of spirituality as an “authentic” expression of lay or lived religion. The Christians with whom we interact as ethnographers may privilege spirituality over religion by posing practice over prescription, or by explicitly framing spirituality as a more genuine form of human experience than the ossified, institutional structure that is religion. As scholars, however, we must acknowledge that the concept of religion and spirituality share twinned, Christian-inflected genealogies within contested national myths, colonial and postcolonial politics, and academic disciplines. Part of the work of ethnographers is to ask why people in particular times and places give accounts of themselves and their societies in the ways that they do, and to set competing accounts in comparative perspective. In North America in particular, spirituality and healing are both powerful tropes that Christians have used to imagine, discipline, and change their communities and their bodies; neither spirituality nor healing come to us as natural categories.2 [End Page 68]

In my own research, I have come to understand the politics of spiritual healing through the concept of “anthropologies of the spiritual body,” by which I mean particular frameworks by which people and communities come to understand the body as a site of spiritual power and encounter. This concept draws from the anthropology of religion, while acknowledging the effects of an alternative tradition of anthropological thinking, namely the Christian legacy of thinking of anthropology, which has considered how the human body interacts with what is considered to be the spirit, or the divine. I do not conflate these two meanings of the anthropological, but argue that anthropologists studying Christianity need to have a critical awareness of this terminological overlap.3 Specifically, I have focused on the role of Protestants in the rise of medicalization in twentieth century North America—a time and place in which the very notions of healing and spirituality underwent dramatic changes.4 With the analytical frame of anthropologies of the spiritual body, and building on the research of other scholars who have drawn strong links among religion, healing, and class in the Americas, I have worked towards a method that allows for focus both on the particularity of individuals’ stories and experiences of what it is to seek healing from illness and on the wider political, economic, and historical contexts in which spiritual claims and religious institutions shape what counts as healing.5

In the pragmatic vein of “theoretical tools,” I suggest four vectors of analysis for understanding how the concepts of religion and spirituality help to establish the legitimacy and authority of specific approaches to healing, especially during and after the twentieth century. These vectors are: historicity, by which healing “traditions” are cultivated; supernaturalism, by which the power of divinity is both imagined and channeled; postbiomedical embodiment by which the authority of biomedicine is absorbed and sometimes challenged by those who are not...