By Annie Blazer
Hallelujah Acres is a health ministry and social movement aimed at evangelical Christians in the United States. The organization encourages an alternative to conventional medicine and to the standard American diet (which they call “SAD”). Hallelujah Acres advocates a vegan, raw foods diet (food is not heated above 115°F) as God’s plan for perfect eating and as a curative treatment for most illnesses and diseases. My research shows that, for the most part, believers turn to Hallelujah Acres when conventional medicine fails to cure their ailments and that belonging to the Hallelujah Acres community affirms a sense of distinction and moral superiority that resembles evangelical ideology generally.[i] This essay explores how the group demonizes and criminalizes conventional medicine in order to present the Hallelujah Diet as medically and scientifically superior.
Hallelujah Acres founder Rev. George Malkmus was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1976. Having recently lost his mother to colon cancer, Malkmus decided to explore alternative treatment options. On the advice of Texas evangelist and self-proclaimed “health nut” Lester Roloff, Malkmus completely changed his diet. Using a Bible verse, Genesis 1:29, which reads “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food,’” (NIV) Roloff convinced Malkmus that his cancer could be cured with a raw foods diet of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. After one year on the diet and with no conventional cancer treatments, Malkmus’s tumor was gone. According to Malkmus, since adopting a predominantly raw foods diet he has experienced no significant health problems, and he is now in his 70s. Based on his successful experience with this biblically-based raw foods diet, Malkmus felt compelled to share his story with other Christians and published Why Christians Get Sick in 1989. Since then, Hallelujah Acres has grown from a family-run, smalltime operation to a national network of over 5,000 “health ministers” promoting the Hallelujah Diet through seminars at churches nationwide, an Internet TV station, monthly magazines and weekly e-mail newsletters, weekend educational retreats, and lifestyle centers offering week-long in-home training on the Hallelujah Diet.
At lifestyle centers, experts on the Hallelujah Diet demonstrate and instruct guests how to eat and live accordingly. In the summer of 2011, I conducted participant observation fieldwork at a lifestyle center in Lake Lure, North Carolina. Ed, one of the health ministers in charge of the lifestyle center I attended, told the group “doctors don’t know anything about nutrition” and promised a reeducation on dietary concerns like protein (you can get all the protein you need from vegetables) and calcium (dairy-based calcium sources are harmful and plant-based calcium sources are beneficial).[ii] This reeducation was to occur through DVDs featuring “real science.” Over the five-day period that myself and 11 other guests spent at the lifestyle center, we watched seven DVDs and listened to a two-part audio recording all propounding the benefits of a plant-based diet.[iii] Very few of these DVDs were from a Christian perspective and all featured doctors, scientists, and researchers.
Hallelujah Acres demonstrates a conflicted relationship with medical science. The leaders of the organization reject traditional medical treatments but use doctors and scientific experts to justify this rejection. Because evangelicals already rely on a distinction between “the saved” and “the world,” they can easily map this distinction onto scientific experts. Those who recommend conventional treatments are of the world and, at best, unaware of the error of their ways or, at worst, part of a financial conspiracy to exploit the sick.
For example, one DVD popular with the Hallelujah Acres guests was Healing Cancer from the Inside Out. The film presented an ominous view of the “cancer industry,” claiming that the American Cancer Society’s goal is to convert people into longtime patients for profit. The filmmakers contended that if the medical establishment recognized diet as curative, this would injure the profits of hospitals, pharmaceuticals, and the medical profession generally. One guest at the lifestyle center had bought this DVD for her church pastor after he was diagnosed with colon cancer and was extremely frustrated that he wouldn’t watch it. For her, the film provided scientific evidence in favor of the Hallelujah Diet.
Scientists and doctors like those featured on Healing Cancer from the Inside Out who recommend dietary changes that resemble Hallelujah Acres’ recommendations are lauded as the enlightened few in a sea of ignorant or malicious counterparts. However, the religious perspective of the doctor is seldom taken into account. Rev. George Malkmus serves as the religious expert promoting the diet as God’s will, but he does not try to convince Christians with his testimony alone. He mobilizes scholars, experts, and medical professionals to support his dietary recommendations. Hallelujah Acres seems to see health as within the realm of medicine and to see religion and medicine as separate spheres. Therefore, the desire to infuse health practices with religious meaning still relies on the scientific expertise of medical professionals far more than the religious testimonies of believers.
The organization demonstrates a desire to have science on their side as they argue for biblically-based diet choices. For evangelicals, this can be an effective mobilization strategy because it resonates with evangelical ideas on distinction and moral superiority. However, this distinction rests on a shaky foundation because Hallelujah Acres’ use of credentialed medical experts to argue against conventional treatments relies on secular sources of expertise. For conservative Christian groups, having science on their side can be extremely effective, but at the same time, it can subtly disturb foundational ideologies like distinction and moral superiority.
[i] Christian Smith explores distinction and moral superiority as facets of evangelicalism at length in his work. See American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
[ii] To protect the privacy of organizers and participants, all names have been changed.
[iii] These DVDs included: The Miraculous Self-Healing Body (Hallelujah Acres Publishing, 2007); Michael Klaper, A Diet for All Reasons (Feel Good Again, 1992); Mike Anderson, Eating (Ravediet.com, 2008); Mike Anderson, Healing Cancer from the Inside Out (Ravediet.com, 2008); Neal Barnard, Breaking the Food Seduction (Modern Manna, 2003); Lee Fulkerson, Forks Over Knives (Monica Beach Media, 2011).