The Faith Tradition and Universal Health Care

It’s estimated that 28 million Americans did not have health insurance prior to the COVID19 crisis, and that number could swell to over 40 million as many Americans lose their jobs and job benefits.  Additionally, many Americans have high deductible insurance plans, so if they are hospitalized for treatment of the coronavirus, they could face thousands of dollars in medical bills.  If ever there was a time to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable health care, it is now.

Religious scholar Reza Aslan notes that nearly a third of the Gospel of Mark “consists solely of Jesus’ healings.”  And as in his time, those most affected by COVID19 tend to be people with limited access to health care.  Given the faith tradition of tending to the sick and infirmed, one wonders why contemporary American religious organizations are so silent on the issue of universal health care.  Well, it turns out they have not been silent and in actuality nearly all denominations support the concept.  Nonetheless, at the congregant level, few parishioners are aware of their church’s position on universal health care.

According to the organization Faith in Healthcare, during the debate over the Affordable Care Act/Obama Care, virtually every denomination, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, endorsed legislation that would guarantee affordable, quality health care to all Americans as a basic right.  Even conservative churches supported universal coverage as long as it excluded public funding for abortion.

Take for example the stance of the United Methodist Church, one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States and notice that this position statement contradicts the Republican Party’s position regarding the role of government to assure everyone has access to health care:

“The provision of health care for all without regard to status or ability to pay is portrayed in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:24-35) as the duty of every neighbor and thus of every person.  In a democracy, our duty to our neighbor merges with the duties that the Hebrew scriptures assign to government: the prophet Ezekiel denounced the leaders of ancient Israel whose failure of responsible government included failure to provide health care: “you don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice” (Ezekiel 34:4). The United Methodist Church therefore affirms in our Social Principles (¶ 162V) health care as a basic human right and affirms the duty of government to assure health care for all.”[1]

If ever I was seeking an ally in support of the universal health care plan proposed in my book, it would be the Presbyterian Church.  In the Church’s 2019 statement of priority issues, Church leadership:

“endorse[d] in principle the provision of single-payer universal health care reform in which health care services are privately provided and publicly financed.” The Office of Public Witness, the public policy, advocacy, and information office of the Presbyterian Church advocates for universal health care coverage for all people in addition to supporting Medicaid expansion, improvement of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and other programs that promote health and wellness.”[2]

The Catholic Church in the United States has a long history of directly providing health care, particularly to the poor, through church supported hospitals.  Worldwide, the Catholic Church “provided health care at 5,287 hospitals and 15,387 dispensaries, 15,722 residential programs for the elderly and for persons living with debilitating chronic illnesses and other disabilities.”[3]  And as Pope Francis reiterated in 2018, the quest for universal health care for all citizens of the world has been a Vatican goal for decades: “the right of all to have access to health care as a means of fostering the value of justice and the common good, which at the same time is the good of all and of everyone in particular.”[4]

Of course, it is not just Christian denominations that support universal coverage.  The Jewish scholar Maimonides was a physician and so the Jewish tradition toward universal coverage goes back to antiquity:

“As a community of faith, American Reform Jews have consistently supported universal health care coverage, feeling called to action in the face of such a massive challenge.  A broadly shared concern for justice compels the Reform Jewish community to encourage the establishment of a health care system that better meets the needs of all people.  Only by working to change the current system, piece by piece and child by child – until no cry for help goes unheard – can the U.S.’s health care system honor and respect the idea that all people are all created in the image of God, and are all entitled to equal treatment.”

Given that America’s faith organizations have endorsed universal health care, why is there a dearth of support from the pulpit?  To give them the benefit of the doubt, some clergy may not be aware of their church’s position.  And, no doubt, some clergy may accept the theology behind universal health care but may reject it as a policy issue because it doesn’t fit their personal politics.  That would reflect the fault of church leadership for not vociferously communicating their support nor providing local clergy the information and tools to share the church’s position with congregants.

Another reason may be a misguided belief that they should not address partisan issues from the pulpit.  However, endorsement of universal coverage is a church position, not a partisan one.  The fact that it conflicts with the Republican Party’s belief that health care is not a basic right, the party’s rejection of health care as an act for the common good, and that it should be market-based does not warrant silence on this issue.[5] 

There is, of course, a long history of American Christian churches being on the wrong side of social issues such as slavery, women’s suffrage, and racial integration.  Indeed, the Bible has been used to justify these social inequities.  Historically, conservative Christian churches have also been in lockstep with the Republican Party and southern Democrats (Dixiecrats) in their opposition to pensions for the elderly through Social Security, health care for the elderly through Medicare, and health care for the poor and infirmed through Medicaid because these programs included African-Americans.  However, time has also proven that Republicans, Dixiecrats, and conservative Christians were wrong on these issues which are antithetical to Jesus’ ministry.

Like politics, churches, regardless of denomination, tend to reflect a range of values from liberal to conservative.  In conservative Christian churches emphasis is placed on personal salvation and a personal relationship to God.  Accepting Jesus as your savior takes precedence above all else including doing good works.  In liberal Christian churches fulfilling the common good is an essential aspect of being in God’s good grace, thus you are much more likely to hear a sermon on social issues such as universal health care in those churches.

Finally, clergy may be reluctant to bring the topic up in their sermons because they may not want to alienate conservative members of their congregation.  They may be afraid that bringing up social issues will divide church members, and in a conservative leaning church, they may be concerned that it could lead to their losing their appointment.  Nonetheless, given the church’s official position as well as the faith tradition, clergy have an obligation to both educate and advocate for the common good.

To be frank, the fact that so few clergy are willing to discuss universal health care from the pulpit is like reading the New Testament and having everything that Jesus said in defense of the poor and the needy, every healing he performed, and every castigation he made of the rich, expunged.  It would be a New Testament about 20 pages in length, if that, which would lack both context and moral authority.  That’s not the faith tradition toward health care we need in these times.   


[1] https://www.umc.org/en/content/ask-the-umc-what-is-the-united-methodist-position-on-healthcare-reform

[2] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/opw/2019/03/15/the-work-of-presbyterian-public-witness-in-2019/

[3] https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2019/01/vatican-underlines-support-of-universal-health-care-coverage/

[4] Ibid.

[5] Climate change is another issue local churches are reluctant to address because of the position of the Republican Party, even though, like UHC, at the leadership level churches support efforts to save the environment.

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