Freedom and Responsibility in Health-Conscious America

“When a man who is happy compares his position with that of one who is unhappy, he is not content with the fact of his happiness, but desires something more, namely the right to this happiness, the consciousness that he has earned his good fortune, in contrast to the unfortunate one who must equally have earned his misfortune.”—Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (1922)

I was born on a hippie commune in 1974 where yoga, free love, and vegetarianism, blended together seamlessly with Christian mysticism and Tibetan Buddhism. We left the commune a week or two before John Lennon was shot. It was 1980, we were in North Carolina, and I was six years old. I realize now, and only in retrospect, that I have been going back to the commune, as a scholar, over and over again. Much of my academic odyssey through the history of America was a personal attempt to make sense out of the strange epoch that produced me. As an undergraduate history major, I was attracted most of all to the 1830s and 1840s, which witnessed an extraordinary flowering of utopian experimentation, radicalism, and reform. I was amazed to learn that my parents’ generation—the babyboomers—were not the first to dabble in free love, vegetarianism, and Eastern mysticism. They were also not the first group of relatively privileged white middle-class people to turn their backs on traditional politics in favor of personal development. I have always agonized over the ethics of this inward turn. Is the personal really as political as proponents of this strategy say, or is this move essentially irresponsible and narcissistic?

My first attempt to answer this question came in the form of an undergraduate Honours Thesis entitled “Antislavery Realpolitik: Salmon P. Chase, the Kansas-Nebraska Debate of 1854, and the Politics of Reform on the Eve of Republicanism.” I used the letters, diaries, and speeches of the prominent abolitionist to demonstrate how a profoundly moral individual might choose the messy road of democratic politics, knowing full well the compromises and disappointments that it would entail. Chase’s willingness to grapple with the moral complexity of political engagement astonished me and held my attention for quite some time. In graduate school, however, I soon found myself gravitating back toward the other kind of abolitionist, who would have little or nothing to do with politics or compromise. Under the tutelage of my advisor, Ron Walters, my fascination with radical abolitionism gave way to a more wide-ranging interest—spanning two centuries—in those who have spurned political activism for a personal, utopian approach to social reform.

My first-year paper, a major rite of passage at Johns Hopkins, focused on the lives of Helen Knothe Nearing (1904-1995) and Scott Nearing (1883-1983), two socialists who moved from New York City to rural Vermont at the height of the Great Depression. In their homesteading manifesto—Living the Good Life (1954)—the Nearings insisted that we could all change the world for the better by withdrawing from politics, moving back to the land, and living a self-sufficient existence. Living the Good Life became a classic among hippie homesteaders soon after it was republished in 1970. The Nearings, in turn, became countercultural celebrities and their New England homestead, Forest Farm, became a sacred place. Thousands of long-haired idealists made the pilgrimage to Forest Farm in the 1970s. I thought that my research into the Nearings at the Boston University Special Collections would lead to a dissertation on hippie homesteading. But something in the Nearing Papers kept drawing my attention away from the back-to-the-land movement: the Nearings were obsessed with food, health, and disease. All of these concerns came together in what was commonly referred to in the 1970s as the natural health movement.

I began to track the relationship between radical ideas about politics and radical ideas about health. What I expected to find was a necessary connection between the two. After all, I reasoned, many nineteenth-century reformers—such as William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), Theodore Dwight Weld (1803-1895), Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)—were vegetarians who obsessed over food purity, as were many of the radicals and reformers during the Progressive Era. Upton Sinclair (1868-1968), Jack London (1876-1916), and Scott Nearing are obvious examples. The list could go on. Still, ultimately I would have to confess that this expectation rang true because it accorded with my personal experience.

I was brought up in a single-parent household where progressive politics and health consciousness seemed to go hand-in-hand. My mother was a feminist who railed against Reagan, wrote angry letters to politicians, and went to demonstrations to protest against this and that; she championed the cause of the mentally ill, wrote an M.A. thesis on literary decolonization, and composed environmentalist hymns such as “Hugged by a Tree” and “World with Whales.” But she also ate sprouts and tofu, popped large quantities of vitamin pills, shunned meat, avoided hydrogenated fats, burned incense, played the guitar, sang folk songs, went to a Buddhist temple, wrote a book about a Tibetan lama, and interrogated the food labels at the grocery store mercilessly. And she was not alone. Virtually all of the activists that I had known were vegetarians of some description who fretted over chemical additives, organic food, genetic engineering, food purity, and disease causation. My experience with the Student Labor Action Committee (SLAC) is a case in point.

When my wife and I joined SLAC in 1999, the organization’s main objective was to force Johns Hopkins to abide by Baltimore’s living-wage legislation. Baltimore was one of the first cities in the United States to enact an ordinance of this kind. The law stipulated that every organization that received municipal money—directly or indirectly—had to pay its workers “a living wage”. In Charm City at the time, a living wage was judged to be about $10.00/hr (the minimum wage was, then, less than $6.00/hr). Johns Hopkins was unaffected by the living-wage legislation. Even so, we maintained that as the largest employer in the state of Maryland and the recipient, each year, of over a quarter of a billion dollars in federal money, the administration had a moral obligation to abide by the law regardless of whether or not it technically applied to Johns Hopkins. We organized demonstrations and letter-writing drives, yet to no avail: the administration simply would not budge. In 2000, we staged a sit-in and occupied JHU’s Garland Hall (the president’s building) for 17 days. A number of local restaurants kindly donated food—delicious food—but much of it went to waste because it contained meat. Back then, before the kids, my wife and I were strict vegetarians, as were most of the members of SLAC. We subsisted on organic food, drank echinacea tea daily, went to a farmer’s market every Saturday, and spent a great deal of money on vitamins. For these reasons, and others, I was quite sure of what my research into the relationship between health reform and the Left would unearth, long before I started digging.

Initially, what I found supported my preconceived notions. As I had suspected, an interest in a recurring cluster of unconventional ideas about food, health, and disease was indeed something that united a diverse group of radicals and reformers on the political Left. Still, this was not enough. To prove that there was a connection between liberal-left politics and popular health reform, I had to demonstrate that the influence of these ideas was confined, or at least largely confined, to those on the political Left. This would, I thought, be relatively easy to prove. But I was wrong. Indeed, before long I realized that the influence of these ideas extended far beyond the countercultural world of faded blue jeans, brown rice, and yoga mats, even during the early 1970s. Moreover, it soon became clear that these ideas were more than just un-conventional or un-orthodox, which is to say that they were united by more than what they were not. By and large, I found that these ideas had a grammar, a syntax, and a logic—the logic of individual responsibility; they shared a common style too, which seemed to echo the rhythms and sounds of the Old Testament, not the Old Left. Taken together, this recurring cluster of ideas about food, health, and disease constituted a fairly coherent belief system—an ideology of natural health—which can be stated as a series of existential propositions: First, every human being is in possession of a free will regarding health. Second, good health and a long life are rewards for a certain kind of behavior. Third, certain lifestyle decisions lead inexorably to the salvation of the body—that is, good health and a long life—while others lead to sickness and ill health. Chance has little or nothing to do with this process, and allowances were only rarely made for mitigating factors such as hereditary predisposition. Commitment to these three propositions was, I discovered, what held the various factions of the natural health movement together.

The ideology of natural health was not incompatible with liberal-left politics in the twentieth century. My own experience bears witness to this. Even so, I found that its emphasis on individual responsibility often made it much more compatible with a socially conservative outlook, especially during the 1980s. But to linger too long on this point would be a mistake. Much like evangelical Protestantism and the New Age movement, the natural health movement was a challenge to the modern scientific worldview, not merely the post-New Deal liberal faith. Sprout-eating health gurus, crystal-gazing spiritualists, and sweaty televangelists had at least one common goal: to make the world a meaningful place for the American people. They wanted to banish the confusion and uncertainty that they thought modern science had engendered, and they all achieved a certain measure of success, though we are here interested primarily in the contributions made by the mainstream leaders of the natural health movement.

I am not the first to compare twentieth-century health reform to religion, nor am I likely to be the last. Thus far, however, the value of this comparative approach has not been fully realized because those who have employed it have done so in a fuzzy and imprecise manner. At its worst, the comparison is used in such a way as to stretch the definition of religion so much that it ceases to be meaningful. If, for example, mall-shopping is a religion—as a friend of mine from New Zealand once argued at a dinner party—then what could possibly not be described as a religion? If everything is a religion, then nothing is. Funny as it was, my friend’s disquisition taught me much more about his highly unconventional definition of religion than it did about shopping. Analogical reasoning can only yield significant insight when all key terms are used in a more or less conventional way. In this instance, however, adhering to a conventional definition of religion is not enough. There are a wide variety of religious traditions in this world, and an even wider variety of ways in which those traditions are interpreted, so religious analogs can be found for many secular practices.

If all religion is fair game, as it was for mythologist Joseph Campbell, and one’s knowledge of religion is encyclopedic, then finding the religious in the secular is fairly easy—too easy in fact—since one can selectively draw upon a wealth of potential examples. Thus, if an analysis of the similarities between religion and American health reform is to be truly meaningful and suggestive, it must be hemmed in by the limitations of culture and history, time and place; a specific religious tradition must be identified, with demonstrable ties to twentieth-century America, and this tradition must be used, throughout, as the only point of comparison. To that end, let me state from the outset that I believe the philosophical origins of twentieth-century health reform are to be found in the religious traditions of the West, and not, as is commonly assumed, in those of the East.

Health reformers such as Jerome Irving Rodale, Adelle Davis, Carlton Fredericks, Adolphus Hohensee, Robert David Rodale, and Mark Harris Bricklin drew heavily upon language and concepts derived from Judaism and Christianity, not from Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, or Taoism. They were especially indebted to many of the elements of the Protestant tradition that came together during the Second Great Awakening and continue to inform the modern evangelical worldview, such as: 1) the rejection of predestination in any form; 2) the concomitant emphasis upon free will and individual responsibility; 3) the belief that we are all in need of salvation from a corrupt and unclean world; 4) the notion that living a virtuous life in this world is hard work and ceaseless struggle; 5) the idea that feeling more or less inadequate on a regular basis is an indispensable characteristic of the virtuous life, as it wards off complacency and propels the individual toward perfection; 6) the belief that the wayward cravings of the body are, ultimately, the individual’s worst enemy; 7) the notion that the spiritual must be incorporated into everyday life; and, finally, 8) the idea that conviction ought to lead to repentance. Being convinced of the truth of the gospel of health was not enough; it had to lead to behavior modification and lifestyle changes.

Health reformers employed the biblical language of sin and redemption, in part, simply because of who they were. They were products of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and, as such, this language came naturally to them. But there were other—less spontaneous but more practical—reasons for expressing their message in such a manner. The storytellers of the natural health movement knew their audience. They understood that they were preaching the gospel of health to the most religious country in the industrialized world; to a country where prayer is common and church attendance remains high; to a country shaped by centuries of Protestantism; to a country where many still believe in Good and Evil, angels and demons, salvation and damnation, Heaven and Hell. They understood that by and large, in America, Protestant theology is optional, but Protestant psychology is not. Even so, health reformers departed from the mainstream American Protestant tradition in one critical way: they embraced a secular form of perfectionism.

Like most Protestants, health reformers posited the existence of a fateful Fall from Grace: it was, for them, the Fall into the industrialized world of machines, pesticides, lazy living, obesity, pollution, white sugar, cancer, and Wonderbread: “What’s going on is that we are all becoming exiles from nature. Not being driven out of our native land by a cruel tyrant, but simply walking away of our own volition, enticed by nothing more than cuteness and convenience,” wrote one health reformer in 1978. “In fact,” he added, “the biggest threat to our health and well-being today is this gradual shift from a natural lifestyle to a technological, synthetic—call it phony if you will—lifestyle. It’s constricting our arteries and our spirits. It’s giving us depression and diabetes. It’s making us passive, fat, bored and lonely. It’s making us allergic, addicted, and malcontent.” Unlike the Fall described in the Book of Genesis, the Fall described by health reformers was reversible. The evil brought into the world by modernity could be exorcised. The gates to the Garden of Eden could be reopened. Human nature was not hopelessly flawed. One could retrain the body to crave that which was healthy.

If the ideology of natural health was a sort of Protestantism, it was a peculiar Protestantism wherein God was optional, The Fall was reversible, and original sin was altogether absent. These were major breaks with the Augustinian worldview that has informed mainstream Protestantism since the Mayflower. Health reformers departed from the Augustinian tradition decisively when they rejected original sin and all of its secular analogs. The intolerance towards human frailty that has so characterized the thought of twentieth-century health reformers can be traced back to this root cause. Health reformers have as a rule failed to appreciate their own limitations, just as they have failed to account for the limitations of the human beings who they have judged so harshly. As we shall see, the natural health movement was liberating and undeniably empowering for many Americans, especially women. Even so, it gave rise to a new orthodoxy, with a decidedly unforgiving approach towards aging, mothering, and disease. As one alternative medicine provider put it in 1977: “You’re going to have to take the blame for everything once you get your body back.” In health-conscious circles across America, tragedies such as cancer, heart disease, depression, schizophrenia, crib death and miscarriage were redefined as punishments meted out to those who failed to obey the natural laws of health.

Between 1970 and 2016, millions of Americans embraced concerns that were once the exclusive province of a quirky subculture: health-food stores and health clubs proliferated; anti-smoking campaigns won astounding victories; vegetarianism and breastfeeding became much more common—and the demand for organic food, vitamin and mineral supplements, water filters, exercise gear and alternative health care created multi-million-dollar industries. Pre-1970 America had its fair share of health nuts, exercise gurus, vegetarians, anti-smoking activists, organic farmers, and alternative health-care providers. Yet even the most widespread of these health enthusiasms never affected anything more than a small percentage of the American population. Twentieth-century health reformers succeeded in doing what generations of health reformers before them failed to do: they broke through to the masses and helped define mainstream American attitudes toward food, health, and disease. “History,” observed the authors of Panic in the Pantry (1975), “is full of food fads. But our current preoccupation with organic and additive-free food has assumed truly unprecedented dimensions. Sylvester Graham would have been pleased—and probably a bit envious.”

—John Faithful Hamer, In Healthy Living We Trust (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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