Oct 5, 2018

Religious faith or child abuse? A new documentary investigates

Brian Hoyt, a former member of the Followers of Christ, believes the group’s denial of healthcare to children is a form of child abuse. Photograph: Arthur Mulhern/A&E Indie Films
In Idaho, different belief structures collide, ‘with lives hanging in the balance’, says the film’s producer, Jess Lichtenstein

Jason Wilson

The Guardian
September 22, 2018

The Followers of Christ is a Pentecostal church that believes in faith healing. Its members refuse to avail themselves, or their children, of modern medical care.

In many states this exposes them to prosecution. But in Idaho, Nixon-era religious shield laws protect them from charges of child neglect.

Critics – including ex-members – say that the Followers are getting away with murder, or something close to it. They also allege that the reclusive group permits other forms of abuse.

The Guardian shone a light on the Followers in Idaho two years ago. Now the makers of a new documentary film have gained unprecedented access to the church.

No Greater Law, directed by Tom Dumican, will be shown on A&E on Monday night, following screenings at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and a nomination for best international documentary in Britain’s Grierson Trust Awards.

No Greater Law depicts the debate over Idaho’s shield laws from a range of perspectives, including the Followers’ most vehement critics. But the film also allows the Followers of Christ to present their side of the debate, and invites them to explain how they balance the lives of their children against the demands of their church.

A central figure is Dan Sevy, whose own children have died in failed attempts at faith healing, and who now acts as an unofficial spokesman for the group. Others featured include Linda Martin and Brian Hoyt, two ex-adherents who report horrific abuse at the hands of church members, and Kieran Donohue, the sheriff of Canyon county, where most of Idaho’s Followers live.

The Guardian spoke with the film’s Portland-based producer, Jess Lichtenstein, about the process of making the film, and the tensions that run through the story.

How did you come to make a film about the Followers of Christ?

Shane Dixon Kavanaugh, the Portland journalist, had written about the trialof Followers of Christ parents in Albany, Oregon. He became fascinated and engrossed in the story and just driven to explore the issue of these faith-healing cases and something deeper beyond it.

When I read Shane’s work, I was drawn to the characters in the story. Their children’s lives hung in the balance and these outcomes were dictated by their faith. These are life and death consequences that I couldn’t imagine as an outsider.

The Followers of Christ are a somewhat reclusive group. How did you gain access?

Through the very patient, long-term, deep-access work of developing contacts in the Idaho legislature and in the [Followers] community in Idaho and Oregon.

But that community was so skeptical of journalists and the liberal media. That was a big stumbling block. We had to approach everyone by differentiating ourselves from investigative journalists, [identifying instead] as film-makers and storytellers.

There are big tensions in this story. There are people who have survived severe abuse in the church, and who actively campaign for the repeal of Idaho’s shield laws. And there are people still involved in the church, and willing to sacrifice quite a lot to adhere to the church’s doctrines. How did you negotiate that tension?

Well, I think that any story has two sides. No one is the villain of their own story.

The perspective from people like [ex-Followers] Linda Martin and Brian Hoyt, and other people who lived through experiences in the church and then left … the abuse that they suffered was unimaginable.

But when you talk to the church members, to them, the [anti-shield law activists] are outsiders trying to change their faith, trying to take their freedom away. When you are committed that way – to walk by faith and to live your life for God – then there’s no compromise. There’s no other side to see.

The people who have left the church have led very difficult lives, and it’s been a challenge for them, I think, to succeed and re-enter society in a normal way, because [they were raised] to see the world as a frightening place of outsiders who don’t understand their faith.

In the film, Willy Hughes says, “It’s like being a newborn baby. You go out into the world and it’s like everything is new, and everything is different, and you have no preparation.”

You were able to get past some of the Followers’ antagonism towards you, as representatives of the media, but there is a hostility to the secular world that’s kind of built into their worldview, right?

Yeah, they definitely feel themselves to be under scrutiny and under attack. They also see themselves as the last frontiersmen, fighting for freedom. That’s their narrative – the fight for freedom.

How do you think they expect their views to be received by the outside world? They must know that children dying from lack of medical care is something that is hard for the secular world to process as a legitimate practice.

I think they expect their beliefs to be criticized and they’re ready to stand up for their faith when it is called extremist. It’s a point of pride. It’s what separates them from the outside world – that conviction.

If there was any fear or doubt in their faith, then they wouldn’t be the individuals that they are. They know that the outside world is going to judge them and they see that as a weakness of the outside world, that the outside world’s faith is weak.

They call people outside the church “the worldly”, and it’s almost derogatory in their vernacular.

The Idaho shield laws are an artifact of the 1970s, though in Idaho some people talk like the laws have been there since time immemorial. But other jurisdictions, like Oregon, have repealed shield laws, and parents who neglect their children because of their religious beliefs have been prosecuted. Do you think the Followers understand the recent origin of these laws?

I didn’t get the sense that many Followers in Idaho were really very informed or concerned with the origins of the laws. They conflate them with the religious freedoms in the constitution.

I think, for them, biblical law governs how they see right and wrong and the law of the land is secondary. God’s law is their law and there is no greater law.

In a lot of other states, where there’s a different political climate, there is a different balance between individual and communal good. In Idaho, there’s an incredibly individualistic sentiment, and there’s a committed group of politicians who are not interested in making changes to laws that affect religious freedom.

I got the sense, talking to certain Idaho politicians, that they also think theBible and religious doctrine overrule the law of the land.

In the film, you see, at one point, that even in a state senate committee hearing, people are quoting the Bible. People are quoting God’s law and talking about healing by faith.

I did [encounter] politicians who didn’t seem to believe in a separation of church and state. Mostly because they saw it as positive that the church was involved in the state.

This seems to be a film about the deep cultural and political divides that characterize the whole country at the moment. The difference in Oregon’s and Idaho’s treatment of shield laws seems to illustrate that.

Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. We saw the film as illustrating a cultural fracture. And those divisions – those conflicts, that polarization – have never been greater.

So, that was a huge part of the film as well. It was never meant to be a film about a sinister religious group. It was a film about different belief structures colliding, with lives hanging in the balance.

From one side there was a story of villains and child abuse and a cult. From the other side, it was a story about families doing the best that they could to protect the eternal life of their children.

And to them, if their child died while they prayed, they were with God and they were saved. Even if their life wasn’t saved, their soul was saved, and that’s hard for most outsiders to accept.

It’s about a refusal to compromise, and an absolute commitment to faith regardless of the cost. There’s a support and admiration for that stance in the Idaho legislature.

Dan Sevy is a central character. He seems to have an informal position interfacing with the outside world, turning up to hearings, talking to journalists, taking the church’s message to the outside world. He is a compelling character. Were you persuaded that he is living as the dictates of his conscience require?

Dan Sevy was an incredible person to get to know. He really shattered a lot of my preconceived notions, and I think for everyone that worked on the film. [Sevy] is a very likable, charismatic, outgoing person. He’s a showman. He’s a musician. He’s charming. I think that through the film, you really identify with him, and he’s been through an incredible amount and had his faith tested at many turns. I didn’t always agree with things he would say, but it wasn’t my job to judge him.

His faith has been tested because he’s lost kids?

He’s lost numerous children to a genetic condition and has witnessed them suffer terribly over the years. He and his family cared for them in the way their faith dictated and in a way the outside world finds unbelievable.

The film shows [Canyon County] Sheriff Donahue and Dan Sevy in conflict. As the drama of the film unfolds, you see two men with their own moral codes. Both are men of faith. Sheriff Donahue’s a Catholic with a very strong faith. They’re both trying to protect children in these opposing ways.

Dan said to us early on [that] he wanted to warp our minds, and I think he did.

It was our job to bring his story out and to tell it, and I think that we did. That’s what we wanted to do, to bring people into the Followers’ world – to see the faith the way they see it, to see politics the way they see it, to see religious freedom the way they see it.

Speaking of going into their world, you attended Followers of Christ services, right? What was that like?

It wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t a Pentecostal, snake-handling, theatrical, speaking-in-tongues spectacle. It was very austere, very soft-spoken. Elders of the church read passages and people give testimony that’s very personal, and their services are very simple. They speak about their experiences and how God has touched them or healed them or tested them in that week or month and what that meant to them.

It was very eye-opening to see that, especially given what we knew as outsiders. All we knew was about the child mortality rate and about the way that medical care is denied in favour of prayer.

The film is visually very strong. It’s especially beautiful in its treatment of the landscape of that part of Idaho.

I think that was inevitable. We couldn’t help but showcase the Snake River Valley, because anywhere you point a camera is this incredible western landscape.

The landscape, the characters – [everything] made an almost natural western. I give a lot of credit to our cinematographer, Arthur Mulhern, for the visual scope that he brought to the film and to the screen.

It was a great privilege to bring that Idaho landscape to the screen. Idaho’s really a character in the film.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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