“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own…. Therefore honor God with your body.” 1 Cor. 6:19-20
It is well known that blacks live sicker and die younger than any other racial group. Look no farther than the church with the pastor battling hypertension and diabetes or the congregation with several obese members sitting in the pews. It would seem that the black church in America would be the leading ally supporting the nation’s first black president in the debate over access to affordable healthcare. It would seem that the black church would lead the way toward healthier eating and living.
Could it be that black church culture is leading us astray?
I thought about this during a recent conference in Baltimore on black global health. The International Conference on Health in the African Diaspora, hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions, brought together healthcare professionals and researchers, from across the Western Hemisphere to discuss common health problems among the descendants of African slaves. Black Arts Movement icon Sonia Sanchez set the tone as the keynote speaker July 4, inspiring the crowd with a special poem for the occasion. The award-winning author participated throughout the weeklong conference.
Listening to a sister from Brazil and a brother from Peru discuss high rates of obesity, diabetes, infant deaths and the spread of HIV/AIDS among blacks in their countries sounded like the health crisis of black New York, Chicago, or the Mississippi Delta. Modern racism and the legacy of slavery haunt all of us. Participants also shared solutions and pledged to work together. In fact, according to Dr. Thomas LaVeist, a book and curriculum addressing these health themes are being created for the public and for high school and college educators. Thomas, who happens to be my brother, directs the Hopkins center and is the mastermind behind the conference, which is scheduled to take place every two years.
Solutions are basically what government and institutions can do to end racism and ensure all people have access to quality affordable healthcare and what blacks can do themselves to care for their “temples of the Holy Spirit.”
The black church should be more outspoken in support of increased access to quality affordable care. Our cousins from Canada and Central and South America, who for the most part receive varying degrees well-executed and poorly-executed universal healthcare, are puzzled as to why we richer Americans are debating what the rest of the industrialized world has long settled — that healthcare access is a God-given human right, not a privilege to be determined by profit-seeking private insurance companies.
After the conference, Thomas told me that the Catholic Church (obviously many Catholics are also black) has been the most vocal Christians on healthcare, mainly around the debate on whether Catholic organizations should be mandated to support abortions for employees (some evangelical Protestant organizations have recently joined that fight, too). Thomas suggested the traditional black church denominations could find their unified voice by calling for all Americans to be insured (Obama’s Affordable Care Act would still leave 20 million people uninsured). However, regardless of what the government does, black churches should lead by example with healthier eating and living, he said.
BAD FOR THE SOUL? Black churches are routinely feeding their people unhealthy soul food staples such as fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. Is that biblical?
“Black church culture is out of alignment with some biblical teachings, particularly when it comes to how we eat,” my brother said. “Church culture has got us drinking Kool-Aid, eating white bread, fried chicken, large servings of macaroni and cheese and collard greens drenched with salty hog maws (foods that are high in sugar, salt, calories, and carbohydrates that trigger health problems). We’re eating this in the church basement at dinner and at church conventions! Meanwhile, the Bible teaches against gluttony.”
Don’t judge or condemn those who are obese, but encourage and show everyone how to eat healthy, Thomas added. He cited Pastor Michael Minor of Oak Hill Baptist Church in the Mississippi Delta as pushing the healthy eating message that all black churches should adopt. The Delta is one of America’s poorest areas and leads the nation in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates. In 2011, Pastor Minor, known as “the Southern pastor who banned fried chicken in his church,” banished all unhealthy foods and insisted soul food meals be prepared in healthier ways; many of his members are losing weight and improving their overall health. Other churches across the country such as, First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, are on similar missions.
Ask yourself, when it comes to health, what is the black church best known for?
What might the state of black health in America (and the African diaspora) be if your answer was healthy eating and living?
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY UNDER FIRE?: Supporters of religious freedom and against President Obama's HHS mandates on faith institutions rallied in front of the HHS building on March 23. New protest rallies led by Catholic and conservative groups are taking place around the nation. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Newscom)
Last Friday at noon, hundreds of demonstrators gathered on Capitol Hill and at rallies across the nation to protest President Barack Obama’s health-care law and, specifically, the law’s mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives.
Conservative politicians and activists led the charge, with leaders such as Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann declaring, “This is about, at its heart and soul, religious liberty. … We will fight this and we will win.” Bachmann’s battle cry represents a growing movement of religious conservatives who contend that the president’s plan violates their freedom and beliefs.
Growing up, I had the opportunity to attend a Catholic school until my senior year. As a result, I know first-hand the strong commitment to pro-life causes that many Catholics hold. For instance, as a choir member, it was an annual tradition for us to sing at the youth mass that occurred before the Right to Life March, a protest against Roe v. Wade. Abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty were topics that came up regularly in religion class. So it came as no surprise when I heard that 34 Catholic organizations have filed 12 federal lawsuits challenging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ birth control mandate under the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”).
Under the mandate, employers are required to provide access to contraceptive services as part of their health plans at no cost. However, as President Obama stated during a February 10 press conference, “[W]e’ve been mindful that there’s another principle at stake here — and that’s the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution. As a citizen and a Christian, I cherish that right.” Knowing that many religious institutions oppose the use of contraceptives, originally all churches were exempted from the requirement. Now, that exemption is extended to any religious organization that has an objection to providing contraceptives; in those cases, the insurance company is responsible, not the organization.
To many people, including Christians, this sounds reasonable. So, why are Catholic organizations complaining?
The problem, they argue, is in the definition of “religious organizations.” In a lawsuit filed by Catholic organizations in Washington, D.C., the plaintiffs state that the mandate requires religious organizations to satisfy four criteria.
• First, the organization’s purpose must involve teaching and sharing religious values.
• Second, employees must subscribe to the same faith.
• Third, the organization must primarily serve those that subscribe to the same faith.
• Finally, the organization must be a non-profit.
“Thus, in order to safeguard their religious freedoms,” the lawsuit continues, “religious employers must plead with the Government for a determination that they are sufficiently ‘religious.’ ” Failure to adhere to the mandate could lead to penalties and fines. Since many Catholic organizations, such as hospitals, charities, and schools, employ and extend services to people of different faiths (and many people who claim no faith at all), it would be difficult to prove they are exempt from the mandate based on religion.
“If a group isn’t perceived as ‘religious,’ then they will be forced to provide drugs that violate their doctrine,” says Chieko Noguchi, the Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, one of the plaintiffs. “If the government can order us to violate our conscience, then what comes next?”
But don’t think that this is just a Catholic issue. According to the mandate’s opponents, it affects all Americans who profess to believe in God.
“One of the central missions of any church is supporting the less fortunate in our communities,” writes Lutheran pastor Joe Watkins in a June 3 editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “With this mandate’s redefinition of a religious institution, many charitable operations will effectively be driven out of business. Under the new law if you are a Lutheran charity and you provide help to or hire non-Lutherans, you cease to be a religious institution. The same goes for Catholics, other Protestant denominations, and all other faith-based organizations.” He also argues that this will not only impact all religious groups, but also those who are either influenced or helped by these groups, since more time would be dedicated to religious background checks for potential employees and clients.
“It is distressing that our government would opt for a coercive and unfair regulation that requires us to make such an impossible choice,” Watkins wrote. “As a church, we have always opposed the use of drugs and procedures that are abortion-inducing. … Under this new governmental regulation, though, just by simply following our beliefs, we will face penalties under law.”
Watkins isn’t alone in his critique of the mandate. Back in February, some 2,500 Catholic, evangelical, Protestant, Jewish, and other religious leaders signed a letter asking the President to “reverse this decision and protest the conscience rights of those who have biblically based opposition to funding or providing contraceptives and abortifacients.” Also, the Catholic Church is planning to invite evangelicals for their upcoming event “Fortnight for Freedom,” which will take place the two weeks between June 21 and July 4 in order to bring attention to religious freedom issues.
In his speech announcing changes to the mandate, President Obama reflected on his first job in Chicago working with Catholic parishes in poor neighborhood. “I saw that local churches often did more good for a community than a government program ever could, so I know how important the work that faith-based organizations do and how much impact they can have in their communities.”
I am living proof of the positive effects of the faith-based organizations that President Obama described. I’m a proud, non-Catholic alumna of a Catholic school who understands why Catholics and their supporters are upset and concerned by the Affordable Care Act’s implications for religious freedom. By defining what a religious organization is, the HHS mandate could potentially hinder Christians from living out their faith with integrity. We, as Christians, are called to serve others no matter what. As a self-professed believer, President Obama should’ve recognized this.
What do you think?
Are Catholics and their conservative allies overreacting to the mandate or do they have a point?
As the U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with the constitutionality of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and especially the “individual mandate” provision requiring every capable American citizen to buy health insurance, many people continue to frame the debate as one of individual rights versus socialized medicine. They view a law requiring all citizens to buy insurance as a violation of fundamental American freedoms. I’d suggest the opposite: requiring all Americans to own health insurance is actually a demonstration of American patriotism and solidarity.
Allow me to explain.
Guess how many states today have laws that REQUIRE citizens TO BUY insurance? FIFTY. That’s right, folks. Every single one of them. Red states as well as Blue states require citizens to buy insurance. To be more specific, every single state requires citizens who drive motor vehicles to buy liability insurance to cover any damage they might inflict.
Now of course this law doesn’t apply to everyone. There are two primary classes of people who do not have to buy automobile liability insurance. Those who don’t drive. And those who can prove financial responsibility to cover any damage they might cause up to a certain limit.
The rationale behind these laws requiring citizens to buy liability insurance is simple. There is a significant risk that anyone who drives a motor vehicle may, over the course of their lifetime, cause an accident which causes damage to the property or bodies of others. There is a strong societal interest in making sure that those so injured can be compensated for their losses. You cannot buy insurance to cover an injury after you cause it. You have to have the insurance ahead of time. The insurance covers the damages caused by negligent drivers. Of course, this cost is paid for by all of the non-negligent drivers who pay their premiums every month without causing any damage. Hence, the requirement that ALL drivers, negligent as well as careful, carry liability insurance.
Those of us who live on planet Earth are also at significant risk of needing medical treatment at some point in our lives. We may contract a disease, be injured as the result of an accident, or develop some other illness or chronic condition — sometimes as the result of our own choices, sometimes not. There is a strong societal interest in making sure that those who need medical treatment can afford treatment for those illnesses. There is also a strong societal interest in making sure that those who provide medical treatment are compensated for having done so.
Health insurance, like any other form of insurance, only works if there is a shared assumption of the risk. Insurance companies rely on actuarial tables to assess the risk and base their rates accordingly (after factoring in a healthy profit, of course). Healthy people have to pay into the program so that sick people are covered. Previously, insurance companies could refuse coverage or charge significantly higher rates for people with pre-existing medical conditions. The current legislation seeks to prevent that by spreading the risk around to all citizens.
Now some may argue that health insurance is different than auto insurance because only people who drive motor vehicles have to purchase insurance. Granted that is true, mandatory health insurance should only be required of citizens who might be expected to contract, carry, pass on, or suffer from a medical condition, or sustain an injury requiring medical treatment. Of course, since I’ve yet to meet another human being who doesn’t fit that profile, I think it’s safe to say it applies to everyone. All of us are vulnerable to physical injury and ailments. Only corpses are not at risk of needing health care.
For those who still think the individual mandate is a violation of one’s individual freedom, another option would be an opt-out provision. To be effective, this kind of provision would need to come with the understanding that those who opt out are not entitled to receive any medical-care treatment that they haven’t paid for prior to the administration of the treatment. Kind of like buying broccoli at the grocery store — you can’t take it home and eat it until you’ve paid for it. If you opt out and don’t have the money when a health issue hits, you’ll get no EMT care, no ambulance ride, no appendectomy, no CPR, no emergency room care, no cancer treatment, no life-saving procedures.
Nada. Zip. Nothing.
If you think this is a cruel approach to health care — leaving people to suffer or die who can’t afford treatment — I agree with you. But what justification for entitlement to treatment can people give who, given the chance to share the risk with the rest of us, REFUSE to do so?
Mandatory health insurance is PATRIOTIC. It exemplifies the highest ideals of the American public — a willingness to stand up with our fellow citizens against threats against any of us. That means patriotic citizens who are willing to fight and die in the military against threats to the rights and freedoms from our enemies. And it means patriotic citizens being willing to pay for our fair share to spread the risk around, standing together against threats to our health. We don’t want our fellow citizens to be denied health insurance by insurance companies because they have pre-existing medical conditions, or to be charged so much they can’t afford it. We don’t want our fellow citizens losing their homes because of catastrophic illness. We don’t want our fellow citizens buried in debt which they can never repay because of some medical misfortune. We’ve got each other’s backs. That’s how we roll.
May God bless America, and may every American citizen be willing to shoulder his or her fair share of the risk to provide medical care for all, even if it means the government requiring us to buy it.