Naturopathy and Liberal Politics: Strange Bedfellows

Yesterday’s post by Wally Sampson and an offline discussion with David Gorski have moved me to post something that I wrote in 2001. At the time, I was a member of the Massachusetts Special Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medical Practitioners. I’ve previously mentioned that experience here.

During that tenure I wrote a treatise on the tenets and practices of ‘naturopathic medicine,’* hoping to change the opinions of several others on the Commission (no such luck). In an early draft I included a section titled “The Political Philosophy of Naturopathy.” My ally on the panel, emeritus New England Journal of Medicine Editor Arnold “Bud” Relman, advised me to remove it, citing its tangential relevance and the possibility of it irritating rather than persuading. He was right, of course, but it now seems reasonable to hall it out of the mothballs. Here it is, with minor revisions and, I hope, a provocative postscript.


The Political Philosophy of Naturopathy

I was surprised, during one of the Commission meetings, to hear a brief discussion implying that the licensing of naturopathic physicians is a ‘liberal’ initiative. The reason for my surprise is two-fold. The first is that liberal politics has, for at least the past one hundred years or so, been associated with exposing the truth (The Nation advertises itself, with some justification, as a journal for “the most skeptical people”). How likely is it that “naturopathic medicine” could emerge with its pretensions intact after a hardnosed, leftist, investigative report by Jack Anderson or Ralph Nader?

I’m also surprised because the history of naturopathy is anything but liberal. Anti-vaccination and pro-Laetrile forces have been allied for years with other antisocial movements, most notably the far-right anti-fluoridationists. A 1978 study found that organizational participation in the Laetrile movement was strongly associated with “disapproval with fluoridation” and right-wing politics.[1] The modern catch phrase “freedom of choice in health care,” which is echoed in the AANP position paper on cancer, was coined by the founders of the pro-Laetrile “Committee for Freedom of Choice in Cancer Therapy,” every one of whom was a member of the John Birch Society.[1]

The discussion of “vitalism” vs. “mechanism” in the Textbook of Natural Medicine [2, 3] is infused with the same sort of sectarian zeal that one finds in discussions of “creation science” vs. evolution in other forums. Pat Robertson could use entire paragraphs from that chapter, simply by exchanging those words. The flavor of large portions of naturopathic literature, with its defiantly anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, conspiracy-theory rhetoric, is reminiscent of the far Right. It’s no surprise that the pockets of the country in which naturopaths maintained strongholds prior to the recent “CAM” fad were also strongholds for wacky, anti-government movements.

The early history of naturopathy makes it an even stranger bedfellow for the Left. The most influential naturopath in the U.S. for the first half of the 20th century was the German immigrant Benedict Lust. In 1918 he published his Universal Directory of Naturopathy, whose introduction is reprinted in the Textbook of Natural Medicine. The document includes several of the ideas that have been discussed here, including the following:

[“Allopaths”] have sought to cure disease by the magic of pills and potions and poisons that attacked the ailment with the idea of suppressing the symptoms instead of attacking the real cause of the ailment.

Medical science has always believed in the superstition that the use of chemical substances which are harmful and destructive to human life will prove an efficient substitute for the violation of laws, and in this way encourages the belief that a man may go the limit in self indulgences that weaken and destroy his physical system, and then hope to be absolved from his physical ailments by swallowing a few pills, or submitting to an injection of a serum or vaccine, that are supposed to act as vicarious redeemers of the physical organism and counteract life-long practices that are poisonous and wholly destructive to the patient’s well-being.[2]

The remainder of the passage is filled with similar fascistic reprimands, excoriating humanity for its immoral behavior—“the real cause of the ailment.” This is not surprising, given the German heritage of every major ‘founding father’ of the field; it’s also not surprising to learn that the Nazis favored “natural healing.”[4]¶

That history is not merely of academic interest. Modern naturopathic philosophy persists in this view, even if it has softened somewhat. It can be seen in this passage:

Naturopathic physicians contend that most disease is the direct result of the ignorance and violation of what would be called “natural living laws.”[3]

It can also be seen in the strange, priggish, preoccupation with bowel function:

A healthy lifestyle could be generalized to include…the maintaining of proper elimination.[3]

It is found in the vastly complex “therapies” and Calvinistic lifestyle prescriptions that are so common in the field. One wonders if today’s idealistic graduates of Bastyr University can hear the authoritarian tones echoing from

…the patient must… make a total commitment to their [sic] health and well being in order for the treatment to ultimately be successful.

The newest school of naturopathy is the University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine. It boasts that it is the only one affiliated with a “real” university. But this is no ordinary university. It is the flagship of the World University Federation, a front organization for the Unification Church. Recall that this is the cult of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, from whose name its more common designation, the “Moonies,” is derived. Rev. Moon is famous for his bizarre, right wing, megalomaniacal eruptions, including these:

Therefore, as individuals and families you have to absolutely follow True Parents (Mr. and Mrs. Moon). Your opinion cannot stand against TrueParents.

You must understand what I have in mind and take my commands as strict orders.

Let’s say there are 500 sons and daughters like you in each state. Then we could control the government….

The time will come, without my seeking it, that my words will almost sense as law. If I ask a certain thing, it will be done. If I don’t want something, it will not be done.

The true sovereign is not the American president nor the English king, but the Lord of the Second Advent (that is, Rev. Moon)…Americans must listen to me and follow me.

How did naturopathy ever become affiliated with the American Left? I can only imagine that this sprang from the Sixties and the essential lapse of critical thinking, especially among young people, that accompanied the social upheavals of the time, laudable and not so laudable. I was a college student in the early 1970s, and can easily recall the intellectual laissez-faire that was encouraged, even required of otherwise intelligent people—including students who, only a few years previously, would have been expected to learn the tools of critical thinking as part of their college educations. Thus “other ways of knowing” and “differing paradigms” (a mangling of the writings of Thomas Kuhn) had suddenly become de rigueur.

The problem is that there really is knowledge. Streptococcal pharyngitis is dangerous, and so far we really have only one sure way to reduce the danger. Heavy metal toxicity is rare, as are food allergies and chronic yeast infections. Sugar in the diet doesn’t have anything to do with ear infections. Childhood immunizations really do, dramatically and safely, prevent terrible diseases. An acute asthma attack needs to be treated with a bronchodilator. Goldenseal doesn’t act, in any significant clinical way, as an antibiotic. And so on. There aren’t, when it comes to safety and efficacy in medicine, “other ways of knowing.” So far, the only way humanity has found to understand the objective world is through scientific research, and the knowledge gained through science is cumulative, even if at some level it remains tentative.


Although I didn’t attempt to embarrass the liberal, ND-advocating politicians on the Commission with this material, I doubt that I could have done that. Even at the time I wasn’t so naive as to predict otherwise; I was more interested in exposing their hypocrisy.

Since writing that piece I’ve found additional, tortured ‘integrations’ of classical, fascistic hectoring with kinder, gentler approaches to naturopathic ministrations. An example is a piece written by a student at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona; while mostly touchy-feely, it also includes this (emphasis added):

Act in Cooperation with the Healing Powers of Nature; Address the Fundamental Cause of Disease

The counseling relationship begins with a reverence for life, the purpose of life and what it means to be human. The architect of the human has created a complex design consisting of emotional, psychological and spiritual components that manifest the fear of the unknown…

When disease is viewed as the enemy, randomly striking, then the doctor performs heroic acts on the sick individual who has taken on the role of the powerless victim. In contrast, when disease is viewed as a lesson, never random, ideally the doctor takes on the role of teacher and mentor, and the patient becomes an active participant in the healing process.

“Sectarian” is the term favored by Dr. Sampson. He is, obviously, correct. Those who favor separation of church and state might wonder why the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine administers a Loan Repayment Program for students and grads of “accredited” naturopathic schools.


¶ In Nazi Germany there were striking parallels to current “CAM” politics in the United States. Ref. 4 below, which is available online, demonstrates several:

More Goethe, Less Newton

Kötschau’s demands were sweeping: the thrust of the Nazi revolution must be to replace the mechanistic thinking of recent medicine by a new and more organic (biologische), holistic view of the world. It was not enough…for surgery to make techical advances; indeed, the primacy of technical or mechanistic thinking had stifled the search for alternative methods and made difficult the preservation of valuable traditional therapies. Natural methods of healing (Naturheilkunde) had as a result been replaced by exclusively physicochemical models and techniques; time-tested methods such as homeopathy had been supplanted by modern pharmacology and mass-produced chemical products. Kötschau complained that two, separate sciences had developed: one for the laboratory and one for the bedside. Science had become ‘separate from the people.’ Kötschau called for a new philosophy of medicine, a philosophy that would reorient medicine toward ‘more Goethe, and less Newton.’

Sound familiar? Other choice quotations:

Natural medicine was not something…invented by the Nazis. New in the Nazi period was the government’s apparent willingness to revive and regulate certain of these traditions and to place them on a par with other forms of medical practice.

The natural health movement enjoyed support from the highest levels of Nazi leadership [Hitler, Hess, Himmler].

Academic medicine, [Gerald Wagner of the Nazi League of Physicians] charged, used complicated methods to diagnose problems in particular parts of the body, while ignoring the person as a whole.

Under National Socialism…natural methods…would have to be regulated so that ‘anyone who wants treatment by a natural healer can rest assured that the healer has been adequately trained in the art of his trade.’

Sound familiar? More:

A broad reorientation of German medicine…

Organic care stations were being planned for Munich and Dresden…

The formation of a Committee for a New German Science of Healing…

…the establishment of professorships in the New German Science of Healing at German universities.

The intent of the congress…was ‘to bridge the gap that separates academic medicine from the feelings and desires of the people.’

Professor Alfred Schwenkenbecher of Marburg, in his opening speech before the congress, hailed an era of new thinking in medicine, characterized by ‘a retreat from purely scientific attitudes.’ German medicine had come to a crisis, or turning point, from which would come a new kind of medicine, one ‘closer to the people’ and dealing with ‘the wholeness of the human personality.’

…physicians must become both ‘allopaths’ and ‘homeopaths’…in the future there must be no difference between school medicine and organic medicine.

…if something is good for the Volk, it doesn’t matter where it comes from—whether that be the university professor, or the herbalist.

…the purpose of preventive care was to strengthen the organism so that it can fight illness on its own…

Kötschau argue that the goal of the New German Science of Healing was not to eliminate curative healing but to render it unnecessary.

Sound familiar? The Weisbaden Congress of 1936, where much of that language had been used,

concluded by issuing a resolution that German medical science had won its worldwide reputation by virtue of its love of truth and its exacting research standards; the congress resolved to test the methods of natural healing using these same strict and unbiased standards.

Sound familiar and even more so? It was a Golden Age of ‘integrative medicine':

In the years following the 1935 and 1936 Nuremberg and Weisbaden meetings, natural healing enjoyed unprecedented status in Germany. The government established homeopathic hospitals and funded popular lectures and exhibits on organic medicine. Several journals of the movement expanded publication. Natural medicine was for the first time in many years taught in German universities; plans were made to establish a number of professorships in this area. Orthodox medical journals reported on the value of natural healing for internal medicine, pharmacy, and surgery; in 1936 Berlin’s Academy for Postgraduate Medical Education offered courses on homeopathy.




1. Markle GE, Petersen JC, Wagenfeld MO. Notes from the cancer underground: participation in the Laetrile movement. Social Science & Medicine, 1978;12:31-37. Available here.

2. Pizzorno JE and Murray MT (eds.) Textbook of Natural Medicine. Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh, 1999.

3. Bradley RS. Philosophy of Naturopathic Medicine. In Textbook of Natural Medicine. pp.41-49.

4. Proctor R. The “Organic Vision” of Nazi Racial Science. In: Racial Hygiene. Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988:223-235. Available here.


* The Naturopathy Series:

  1. “CAL”: a Medico-Legal Parable
  2. Another State Promotes the Pseudoscientific Cult that is “Naturopathic Medicine.” Part 1
  3. Another State Promotes the Pseudoscientific Cult that is “Naturopathic Medicine.” Part 2
  4. Another State Promotes the Pseudoscientific Cult that is “Naturopathic Medicine.” Part 3
  5. Another State Promotes the Pseudoscientific Cult that is “Naturopathic Medicine.” Part 4
  6. Colorado is Nearer to Promoting Naturopathic Pseudomedicine—Aided by the Colorado Medical Society
  7. Naturopathy and Liberal Politics: Strange Bedfellows
  8. Open Letter to Dr. Josephine Briggs
  9. Smallpox and Pseudomedicine

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