Churches, social justice, and public health

Continuing a series on the “citizen” mode in ecumenical Protestant churches 

There was a time when churches were committed to helping sick people get well. They sent some of their most committed young people around the world as medical missionaries and here at home they used their resources—money and people—to establish hospitals. Around the country, some of these hospitals still carry their religious origins in their names: Methodist, Sacred Heart, Presbyterian, Adventist, Emmanuel, Jewish, Providence.

Churches and church-related organizations continue to be involved in healthcare issues. Many of these efforts have been widely publicized, however, because they focus around controversial aspects of the larger field of activity, such as birth control, pregnancy, abortion, and HIV-AIDS.

The alliance of conservative Christians and conservative political groups further confuses the witness of churches because specific economic principles and the role of governmental action trump convictions concerning the accessibility and cost of medical services.

Ecumenical Protestant churches, which once were active participants in the public debate about these matters, have become strangely silent.

One reason is that their current commitment to freedom of thought makes them reluctant to urge particular points of view upon their members. Another is that it is always easier to cry out against things that are wrong and proclaim broad principles and hopes than it is to endorse specific polities and programs.

Another reason for silence is the fact that churches depend upon the voluntary support of their members if they are to stay in business, and these very members often represent both sides of any seriously disputed topic. Whatever one says is likely to alienate part of one’s constituency.

The current debate over healthcare in the United States is an example of the impasse. Most people believe that the current system needs major revision, but there the agreement rapidly disappears. Some people are unable to acknowledge any aspect of the Affordable Care Act as useful or promising. Even its most ardent supporters recognize that some parts of the Act are flawed and need improvement.

It’s hard to know what to say and do.

One way for ecumenical Protestant churches—those that stand in the liberal Protestant tradition—to engage in public witness is for them to regain their citizen mode of participation in the public sphere. In the citizen mode, these churches study, inform, analyze, and encourage. They bring people of various points of view together for debate and new understanding. They stimulate other forms of participation in public life.

The citizen mode of engagement can be distinguished from the activist mode, which includes advocacy of specific programs and policies and direct engagement in the process that brings them into being. Even with respect to the intensely debated issues, many members of ecumenical Protestant churches—and some congregations, too—will move from citizen to activist mode.

An example of how a church in the citizen mode can participate constructively in the discussion of health care is the forum on this topic conducted recently by First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Portland, Oregon. This forum was one of eight during the summer months in which congregants are considering a wide range of hot button issues including immigration, gang violence, and caring for the earth.

Each session begins with scripture and prayer. One or more prominent representatives of the topic, some of them members of the congregation, present facts and representative points of view about the topic, and there is opportunity for discussion. A packet of materials for further study and action is given to all people in attendance.

The point of view presented by speakers and the printed materials lean left, as does the tradition of this congregation. But no one is demonized, no position is labeled as “the one Christian point of view.” People can go away from the session free to think things through for themselves and act in ways they believe to be right.

The morning devoted to healthcare featured, Martin Donohoe, a Portland physician who has dual associations with a major provider of health services and a public university. He used the forum and a later luncheon gathering to present a highly compressed picture of the complex and dysfunctional state of the health care system.

The speaker opened the door for action by citizens, but that aspect of the forum was pushed forward with the materials in the packet. Among the most provocative were two documents, one describing “a moral vision for our health care future” and the other entitled “Engaging Faith Communities in Working for Health Care Justice.”

These forums at First Christian Church do have an advocacy factor. Each week the packet includes a list of specific ways that members of the church can become involved. This week, the list included ten possibilities, including suggestions on becoming more acquainted with the Affordable Care Act, checking out and participating in opportunities for advocacy, and becoming a volunteer in a specific healthcare activity. To read the full list, click Health Care-You Can Get Involved.

With ideas like those on the list, there’s something that everyone of us can do regardless of what we think about the Affordable Care Act.


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