Eric Nelson, spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California
Are you a lobbyist?
No. The work that I do is more advocacy work. Because I’m affiliated with a church, we don’t need to register as lobbyists. The other distinction is that we rarely if ever come out in favor or against a particular bill. We’re always advocating for a particular accommodation within the legislation.
You focus on healthcare reform. What about the case of [Muppets creator] Jim Henson?
People ask me, what are you doing in healthcare, don’t you guys rely on God for healing, on prayer? I believe he was a Christian Scientist. I don’t know the details of that particular story. This is a common misperception out there that Christian Scientists categorically refuse medical care or they’re opposed to the medical profession. That’s not true. In fact, I had occasion to be in a hospital once many years ago. Another misperception is those who do seek medical treatment are chastised. There’s nothing like that, no official excommunication from the Church.
Generally, my approach to healthcare is complete reliance on prayer for healing—physical healing, relationship healing, financial problems, all kinds of things. Christian Science treatment also includes availing oneself of a Christian Science practitioner. Sometimes this is a professional person who charges for their services for prayer-based treatment. There are Christian Science nurses who in certain instances when people need to have practical, physical care taken care of, who also charge.
Because of the associated costs involved, we’ve gotten involved with the health reform movement. That is to ensure that anybody who is relying on prayer or healing and has associated costs is able to take part in whatever mechanism is set up for reimbursement. Not just for Christian Scientists but for anyone who is relying on prayer for healing.
There are two big things we ask for in legislation. The first one is to include spiritual healing in any healthcare plan. The second thing is to not have a medical requirement for a non-medical treatment, meaning if someone wants to seek spiritual care, that they’re not required to go to a primary care physician who then says yes. The two fields are so diametrically different that it would be like going to a Christian Science practitioner who then says I recommend you go to a doctor.
How has you message generally been received?
Generally speaking, very well. There’s a bunch of reasons, not just that I’m a nice guy. I think it has to do with the fact that I represent not just Christian Scientists but anyone who is interested in a different approach to healthcare. And that’s a lot of people, especially in the state of California. We have a very friendly environment in this state, which translates into a very friendly environment in the legislature.
We’ve had lots of success stories. We’ve been active in California government since 1906. The two most recent ones we’ve had were Senator Keuhl’s bill, SB 840, which was the single payer bill that has been introduced two or three sessions in a row. I’ve heard that Mark Leno might bring it back. In that particular bill, we do have an accommodation for spiritual healing. The second bit of legislation we were successful in was AB X1, in the extraordinary session Governor Schwarzenegger had last year specifically for healthcare. What the accommodation did was ensure that the conversation would continue, that says spiritual care and prayer based healing should be considered. Even though those bills didn’t pass, for us it was a huge success. Everybody knows healthcare reform isn’t going away anytime soon. If there is another bill that comes up, we’ll be there.
Are there other groups the Church is aligned with?
By proxy. We don’t have any formal alliances. We don’t even pretend to speak for other people. It’s more individuals who are recognizing their own spirituality and its relationship to their everyday health. It was something like 40 percent, I think this was a Gallup poll done a few years ago, attributed prayer to at least some aspect of their healing.
In my experience [with] Christian Science treatment, the costs pale in comparison to traditional medical treatment. I can’t imagine that the rationing would ever kick in. That’s for treating everything from a headache to a terminal disease to a relationship problem.
How long have you been in this position, and have you had any run-ins with professional medical organizations?
About a year now. In my experience, no. Historically, in the very beginning with the American Medical Association, there was a bill saying it wasn’t legal for you to practice medicine unless you were an allopathic physician. At that time, we had very good conversations and were able to get an accommodation, largely by working with them in coming up with language. That hasn’t always been the case, but we have a pretty good track record.
Tell me a bit more about you.
This is a job where I feel like some of the things I’ve done in the past have come together. I worked for Christian Science Monitor TV for a few years, so I have some background in working with the media, marketing, public relations. Immediately prior to taking this job, I was the cofounder of an Internet startup company. We launched a website called Video Passports, a video-based travel planning website.
I’ve also worked part-time as a Christian Science practitioner. The role of the practitioner is to help the patient gain a better understanding of the laws of God. It’s similar to someone coming to a math tutor. You don’t do the work, you explain the laws and help them gain a sense of dominion through conversation and deep prayer.