Beliefnet
For the past 30 years, psychologists, social workers, and other kinds of therapists have been working to strengthen their understanding of spirituality as a factor in their clients' lives and wellness. The effort represents an "up" trend in the see-sawing, century long relationship between religion and the mental health profession, which got off to a rocky start due to the deep suspicions about faith harbored by psychiatry's founder, Sigmund Freud.

The most public expression of the warming trend has been on the bestseller list. Since the 1970s, a bumper crop of spiritually oriented psychology books, led by 1978's "The Road Less Traveled," by Presbyterian minister and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, have led the bestseller lists. The most recent smash hit was psychotherapist and former Catholic monk Thomas Moore, with his 1992 book "Care of the Soul."

Less celebrated but as important are contacts that have been made in the past three decades by organizations such as the Association for Transpersonal Psychology, Association of Humanistic Psychology, Common Boundary, and the Society for Social Work and Spirituality--all of which have sponsored conferences and helped publish literature on ways that therapy could support clients' spiritual journeys. These groups have been more apt to focus on "spirituality," an inner search for meaning and wholeness that may or may not involve institutional religion.

Meanwhile, some faith-based educational institutions, where therapy has traditionally been considered suspect, have established graduate degree programs in psychology over the same span. The clinical psychology program at Christian Evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif, founded in 1972, was the first American Psychological Association-accredited School outside of a university. The four-year-old program at Baylor University, in Texas was founded after Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, closed its the graduate social work program.

With so much mutual interest, we might expect psychotherapy and religion to have developed into cozy, if not intimate, bedfellows. Quite the contrary. Even as they reach out, their courtship is a tense one, with hostility and suspicion on both sides.

In a recent journal article, social work doctoral fellow David K. Hodge castigated his social workers, who make up by far the majority of practicing psychotherapists, for discriminating against evangelicals. The discrimination, he wrote, stems from vastly different views about God and politics. Hodge cited studies that showed that the majority of Americans (of which evangelicals make up a full 25 percent) believe in a personal God, while social workers, on the whole, do not. The majority of social workers professed liberal values while evangelicals hold conservative political beliefs. In Hodge's eyes, these and other differences fuel a bias among social workers against evangelicals that is played out in both the therapy room as well as in the halls of academia.

What's remarkable about this discrimination is that psychotherapists are taught that a sensitivity toward diversity is a basic skill. In academic social work circles, inclusivity is invoked with a mantra-like frequency. This regard for other cultural viewpoints seems to crumple, however, when it runs up against evangelicals' exclusively Jesus-oriented view. Hendricke Vande Kemp, a psychologist in private practice in Virginia, who taught in the Fuller program for many years, says evangelicals see Jesus as the only way." There's a subtle inference that "Ours is the right religion."

Frederick Brewster, a Ph.D. in public and community health and licensed clinical social worker in Silver Spring, Maryland, admits he's bothered by what he perceives as conservative Christians' condescension and judgmentalism. Counting "a fair number" of born-again Christians among his friends, he says that they "are good people" but admits that he has "trouble with their punitive and exclusionary" attitude.

"One friend won't go into a Unitarian Church because it's not based in Jesus Christ," says Brewster. "Once this person said, referring to a group of Muslims who happened to be nearby, 'I don't want to be sitting here. They are ungodly people.'" In contrast, Brewster says, the liberal social workers he knows "seem to know themselves well enough to be respectful of persons."

Belleruth Naparstek, an author and social worker, who leads guided imagery training seminars, has also seen the bias in action. Participants in her workshops have described how they tried to introduce guided imagery into public schools, only to be met with fierce opposition from fundamentalist Christians. A snickering and nasty buzz about "ignorant, anti-intellectual, narrow and rigid" religionists often erupts in the room, she says. Apparently, people who bend over backwards to refer to African-Americans as "people of color" don't extend the same courtesy to "people of faith."

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