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Back to the Future: The AMA and Religion, 1961–1974

Kim, Daniel T. MA, MPH; Curlin, Farr A. MD; Wolenberg, Kelly M.; Sulmasy, Daniel P. MD, PhD

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000000370

U.S. medical scholarship and education regarding religion and spirituality has been growing rapidly in recent years. This rising interest, however, is not new; it is a renewal of significant interweavings that date back to the mid-20th century. In this Perspective, the authors draw attention to the little-known history of organized medicine’s engagement with religion from 1961 to 1974. Relying on primary source documents, they recount the dramatic rise and fall of the Committee on Medicine and Religion (CMR) at the American Medical Association (AMA). At its height, there were state-level committees on medicine and religion in 49 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, and there were county-level committees in over 800 county medical societies. Thousands of physicians attended annual conferences for clinicians and clergy, and direct outreach to patients included a film viewed by millions. The CMR arose in the context of rapid medical advances, the growth of professional chaplaincy, and concern for declining “humanism” in medicine—conditions with parallels in medicine today. The CMR was brought to a puzzling end in 1972 by the AMA’s Board of Trustees. The authors argue that this termination was linked to the AMA’s long and contentious debate on abortion. They conclude with the story’s significance for today’s explorations of the intersection of spirituality, religion, and medicine, focusing on the need for mutual respect, transparency, and dialogue around the needs of patients and physicians.

Mr. Kim is a PhD student of religious ethics and senior program manager, Program on Medicine and Religion, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

Dr. Curlin is professor of medical humanities, Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities, and History of Medicine and the Duke Divinity School, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Ms. Wolenberg is a medical student, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, Tennessee.

Dr. Sulmasy is Kilbride-Clinton Professor of Medicine and Ethics, Department of Medicine and Divinity School, associate director, MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, and director, Program on Medicine and Religion, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

Editor’s Note: A Commentary by B.J. Crigger appears on pages 1582–1585.

Funding/Support: This project was funded by the Program on Medicine and Religion at the University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

Other disclosures: The authors report no potential or actual conflicts of interest.

Ethical approval: Reported as not applicable.

Previous presentations: A version of this Perspective was presented at the First Annual Conference on Medicine and Religion, Chicago, Illinois, May 23–25, 2012.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Sulmasy, University of Chicago Medicine, 5841 S. Maryland Ave., MC 6098, Chicago, IL 60637; telephone: (773) 702-0912; e-mail:

© 2014 by the Association of American Medical Colleges