Southern ministers lose their Christianity when it comes to Obamacare

I’m always interested in what the mainstream press has to say. If there’s anything that progressives and conservatives can agree […]

I’m always interested in what the mainstream press has to say. If there’s anything that progressives and conservatives can agree on, it’s that the mainstream media is not fair.

I recently saw a post on CNN’s “Belief Blog” by CNN reporter John Blake – a post that strikes me as thoughtful and well-reasoned. Progressives for the most part would consider it sound journalism; conservatives would likely see it as a form of heresy. The topic is how so many Christian ministers in the South have been silent about the fact that many or most of their parishioners can benefit by signing up for the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare).

Southerners have had mixed feelings about programs coming out of Washington since the establishment of the Great Society by Lyndon Johnson. On the one-hand, as long-time supporters of the New Deal, southerners appreciate largesse from the federal government, especially since the South his consistently been the poorest region of the country. On the other hand, it is Washington that mandated civil rights legislation in the 1960s, legislation that removed most of the legal underpinnings of segregation in the South. Southerners, and most particularly, men and women of the clergy, have a tough time knowing on what side of ObamaCare to come down. Unfortunately, they generally fall on the side that does not encourage congregants to get necessary health care coverage. As Blake relates in his piece:

The Rev. Timothy McDonald gripped the pulpit with both hands, locked eyes with the shouting worshippers, and decided to speak the unspeakable.

The bespectacled Baptist minister was not confessing to a scandalous love affair or the theft of church funds. He brought up another taboo: the millions of poor Americans who won’t get health insurance beginning in January because their states refused to accept Obamacare.

McDonald cited a New Testament passage in which Jesus gathered the 5,000 and fed them with five loaves and two fishes. Members of his congregation bolted to their feet and yelled, “C’mon preacher” and “Yessir” as his voice rose in righteous anger.

“What I like about our God is that he doesn’t throw people away,” McDonald told First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta during a recent Sunday service. “There will be health care for every American. Don’t you worry when they try to cast you aside. Just say I’m a leftover for God and leftovers just taste better the next day!”

McDonald’s congregation cheered, but his is a voice crying in the wilderness. He’s willing to condemn state leaders whose refusal to accept Obamacare has left nearly 5 million poor Americans without health coverage. But few of the most famous pastors in the Bible Belt will join him.

Joel Osteen? Bishop T.D. Jakes, and other prominent pastors throughout the South? Like McDonald, they preach in states where crosses and church steeples dot the skyline yet the poor can’t get the health insurance they would receive if they lived elsewhere. All declined to comment.

When people talk about the Affordable Care Act, most focus on the troubled launch of its website. But another complication of the law has received less attention: a “coverage gap” that will leave nearly 5 million poor Americans without health care, according to a Kaiser Health Foundation study.

The Catholic Church is struggling with this issue out in the open. Many Catholics considered the words of Pope Francis to be just what Catholics must hear. They need to care more about the plight of the poor rather than church positions on polarizing social issues. Church doctrines across the country need to be more tailored to better match the will of the people.

Who among the leadership class is going to stand up for poor people living in the south? Governors of most southern states have refused to accept “free” Medicaid grants from the federal government. Southern legislatures have repeatedly taken moves to disenfranchise the poor by restricting voting rights. The Supreme Court has forbidden the federal government from enforcing basic human rights on Southern states.

I for one am not a big fan of intertwining state and church. However, when the state is rendered helpless to provide assistance to those in need, then church becomes the place to look for charity. And when members of the clergy render themselves silent on issues of justice, the charity also dries up.

Why is it that so many southern ministers have not encouraged their parishioners to sign up for the Affordable Care Act? The answers are complex, but we should never forget the obvious — that the South was home to American slavery. The prejudices may be more subtle now, but they are strong enough to incentivize millions of white people, in the south and elsewhere, to summarily dismiss whatever our African-American president supports. It doesn’t seem to matter whether their rejection of anything associated with President is neither in their self-interest nor in that of those whom they serve. During the height of slavery, white ministers were about as inclined to preach justice for members of minorities as the actual slaveholders were.

The difficult task for progressives is to describe the situation as it is, but to be very careful about how they do it. When Americans, in the South and elsewhere, are described as acting in a way that is prejudicial, they are most likely to say, “Who me? How dare you” and then further dig in their heels. I don’t have an answer beyond first recognizing the problem. Thanks to John Blake of CNN for bringing it to the attention of many.


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Arthur Lieber

About Arthur Lieber

Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.