Much of the debate around recent religious freedom laws in the U.S. has centered on legislation ostensibly designed to protect the beliefs of conservative Christians that nonetheless directly impacts those who don’t share those beliefs. But what about instances where the law protects actions only within the ranks of the faithful, yet those actions (or inactions) are deemed abhorrent by many outside their community?
“No Greater Law” investigates one such case, in which Idaho government officials faced pressure regarding a particular congregation’s refusal to treat parishioners’ medical issues with anything more than prayer — a religious choice that’s resulted in childhood death rates 10 times the state average. Tom Dumican’s scrupulously neutral documentary examines a type of conflict likely to become more and more common in a current climate in which evangelical forces are gaining political clout and “separation of church and state” appears to be a value losing its currency.
The Followers of Christ church was founded in the Great Plains states in the mid-19th century. Though its relatively small flock (estimated to be less than 2,000) is now primarily located in Oklahoma and Oregon, the focus here is on a rural Idaho community, as agitation from estranged former members forces local police to investigate — and, ultimately, the state Senate to consider changing existing laws.
The applicable statutes provide fairly broad leeway for citizens to cite religious conviction as justification for behaviors that might otherwise be considered neglectful or even abusive. Though Followers congregants appear to embrace other secular and technological aspects of modern life (participation in rodeos, modern commercial livestock-raising methods, hunting with guns, homes with modern conveniences), they cite biblical passages to argue that any application of medical science (even aspirin) to the human body offends God.
Unfortunately, this has led to a great number of deaths from such easily preventable and/or treatable illnesses as pneumonia and food poisoning, as well as an apparent epidemic of birth defects vaguely attributed to “some kind of genetic problem.” One woman (a rare female parishioner heard from here) shrugs: “They’re not our children. When God wants them back, there’s nothing we can do.” Patriarch Dan Sevy explains “Our goal is eternity,” and that spiritual welfare is far more important to them than the transient physical plane. Regarding outside efforts to impose health protocol on his community, he says, “There’s nothing left to America if you don’t have control over your own body, and your own children’s bodies.”
This logic falls short for Linda Martin and Brian Hoyt, who were raised in the church but fled (or in his case, was kicked out) as youths. Both cite personal experiences of abuse (psychological, occasionally physical) that in this largely sealed-off community never had a chance of reaching authorities’ ears. Touring a graveyard in which a third of those buried are children, Martin says, “These kids deserved better than this.” She’s particularly persistent in nagging officials to investigate suspicious deaths and remove “religious shields” that allow them to continue.
But many of those officials, from the county coroner to state senators, seem more concerned with protecting the religious freedom of adults than the welfare of children. Not among that camp (though he’s a Christian father of three) is Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue, who after a disappointing legislative vote laments, “How many children does it take to die until people say ‘This is not acceptable?’” It’s a question American students themselves are raising in response to other dangers in their lives these days.
Though the facts may seem to present an open-and-shut case, the documentary presents things as less simple. While we don’t learn a great deal about the Followers’ other specific beliefs, or hear from anyone but their adult menfolk (with the exception of the single above-mentioned woman), they don’t appear to be fanatics. If anything, their exiled accusers, who have battled traumatic upbringings, seem the more emotion-driven and fragile.
Dumican leaves it up to viewers to decide whether the church members’ “right to serve God” as they see fit (and belief that “whatever’s not of faith is sin”) is a greater good than preventing often-mortal consequences that Donahue, for one, sees as a public safety issue. Clearly, faith-healing often fails to work — but should that even matter to parents who are certain their child is going to a “better place” anyway? Should outsiders’ different priorities be forced on them? Wherever you stand on the relevant issues, this deftly balanced doc provides provocative fodder for debate.
Apart from some brief low-end, hand-held footage when police are called to the site of yet another death, “No Greater Law” takes pains to leaven its somewhat grim subject with graceful packaging. Arthur Mulhern’s widescreen cinematography is attentive to the often stark yet spectacular beauty of the Idaho landscapes, while London-based composer Stuart Miller contributes a fine original score for string ensemble.