In the wake of enactment of costly and controversial health-care legislation that will significantly broaden the federal government’s power over the U.S. health-care system — as well as over states and individuals — United Methodist bishops and other church leaders are attempting to mollify laity and clergy unhappy about the UMC’s role in supporting the bill.
In recent days, bishops, district superintendents and pastors have issued letters attempting to clarify the church’s position and explain the work of the General Board of Church and Society, the denominational agency that played a key role in pushing for a larger federal role in the allocation of health-care resources and for federal mandates on insurance companies and individual Americans.
Just before the bill passed the House of Representatives on Sunday, March 21, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi singled out the United Methodist Church as a key supporter of the bill.
“[M]ore than 350 organizations, representing Americans of every age, every background, every part of the country…have endorsed this legislation,” she said on the House floor. “Our coalition ranges from the AARP…to the United Methodist Church.”
The speaker’s comments set off a firestorm of reaction from United Methodists not pleased with the legislation or the sharply partisan process by which it was adopted. (The bill, which according to polls was opposed by a majority of voters, failed to garner a single Republican vote in either the House or Senate; in addition 34 House Democrats voted against the bill, as did three Democratic senators on final passage.)
The morning after Speaker Pelosi’s remarks, church leaders from pastors to bishops began receiving calls and e-mails from concerned United Methodists demanding an explanation. A few laity and clergy posted their concerns in the “blogosphere.”
“I am so disgusted with our denomination,” one commenter wrote on the blog of the North Carolina Conference. “While I love my local church and the people in my community, I will not financially support a denomination that thinks [it] can speak for me [in] a political forum.”
A prominent United Methodist pastor noted that the speaker’s remarks about UM advocacy for the controversial bill could further harm the denomination’s attempts reverse decades of membership losses.
“In my opinion, Speaker Pelosi’s comments give [many] Americans another reason not to be Methodist,” wrote Tim Stevens, executive pastor at Indiana’s Granger Community Church, on his Leading Smart blog.
“I do everything I can to help thousands of Methodist pastors and leaders every year…. It saddens me that the United Methodist Church is often known primarily for its political positions that have nothing to do with making disciples of Christ,” he wrote.
A clergy commenter responding to Mr. Stevens post was more circumspect, but echoed Mr. Stevens’ concerns. “I’m a UM pastor who has had to walk a fine line between having my own opinions and expressing them publicly. I fear that if I side with one or the other publicly I may damage possible opportunities to engage someone that doesn’t yet know Jesus,” he wrote. “I will say this though: The handling of this bill was shady at best and to attach the name of a denomination to it does no one any good.”
Strictly speaking, the United Methodist Church did not officially “endorse” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a point made by bishops and others who responded to concerned church members (several such responses are linked below).
However, the UM General Board of Church of Church and Society (GBCS), an official agency of the denomination, did play a lead role among religious organizations in pushing for a stronger federal role in health care. That emphasis was tantamount to lobbying for legislation likely to be embraced by Congressional liberals and opposed by those who preferred a more free-market approach to addressing issues of health care availability and affordability.
As part of its advocacy, in December GBCS orchestrated a letter-writing and telephone campaign aimed at persuading Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) — a United Methodist — to vote for the same controversial legislation that passed the House last week. On Christmas Eve, six days after that focused campaign began, the Senate passed the bill. Sen. Nelson — the final senator to make up his mind — voted “yes.”
(After enduring a strong constituent backlash for his Christmas Eve vote, Sen. Nelson voted no when a slightly revised health bill came back before the Senate this week, but this time his vote did not affect the outcome.)
On the House side, GBCS’ Faith in Action newsletter noted earlier this month that “[h]elp is needed in the next few weeks as Congress deliberates over final passage of critical health-care protections.”
GBCS urged United Methodists to “contact your members of Congress” and “support health care reform.” In the context of the legislative process, GBCS — without actually endorsing the bill by name — was essentially endorsing the bill that had already passed the Senate and was about to come before the House.
Given the General Board of Church and Society’s clear attempt to sway members of Congress to “support health care reform” in the weeks leading up the March 21 House vote, it seems reasonable that Speaker Pelosi (who is not a United Methodist) would construe GBCS’ advocacy as an actual endorsement by the United Methodist Church of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, especially since GBCS is an official agency of the denomination.
In response to church member concerns about role of the UMC in passage of the legislation, Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the UM Council of Bishops, issued a letter that characterized the role of GBCS as simply one of “monitoring Congressional action” and “informing [Congressional leaders] of the church’s stance consistent with General Conference action.”
Likewise, Bishop D. Max Whitfield of the Northwest Texas Conference insisted that GBCS simply promoted principles, not specific legislation.
[T]he General Board of Church and Society has worked diligently to promote key principles of health care reform. Principles like access to health care, for all people, have been promoted by the UMC for many years, and it was behind these principles, not any specific legislation, that the GBCS put their endorsement….
General Conference believed reform was essential, and in 2008, they did pass a Resolution urging reform of the health care system. However, that resolution did not advocate for any particular piece of legislation.
Meanwhile, the United Methodist News Service released a commentary piece by freelance writer and retired New York Conference clergy member Rich Peck, who downplayed the fact that GBCS may have used money from local churches to fund its efforts on behalf of health-care legislation.
“Very little United Methodist money is involved in advocacy efforts,” he wrote. “Only 3.1 cents of every dollar goes to support all the ministries of the denomination, and only a portion of that amount supports the entire program of the Board of Church and Society.”
It is true that the 2008 General Conference, meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, did pass legislation related to health care, as several bishops noted in their statements on the health bill, but it remains an open question as to whether the Conference “believed reform was essential,” as was argued by Bishop Whitfield.
As detailed in “How Did the UMC Come to Define Health Care As a ‘Right’?” (includes audio from GC ’08), there was no floor debate at the 2008 General Conference on any of the heath-care-related resolutions.
Instead, three such resolutions were hurriedly passed — in a single, omnibus vote — on the final night of the Conference as delegates rushed to complete action on nearly 50 legislative items.
Less than four minutes transpired between the time the health-care resolutions were presented and the vote was taken. One of the resolutions consisted of nearly 6,000 words (stricken language and new language), or roughly nine pages of single-spaced type.
That lengthy resolution, “Health Care For All in the United States” (now Resolution #3201 in the 2008 edition of the UM Book of Resolutions), was authored by Jim Winker, head of the General Board of Church and Society — the same agency that used the resolution as a basis for its involvement in advocating what became the controversial and unpopular legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Obama.
The lack of adequate time to debate controversial items at the General Conference tends to create confusion on the Conference floor, leaving delegates unsure about what they are voting on. The result is there is little confidence that the outcome of certain votes actually reflects the will of the Conference.
At a November 2009 “dialogue” with the Council of Bishop’s Unity Task Force, held at Lake Junaluska, N.C., a group of United Methodist renewal leaders focused on the time-pressure issue as one of the key “tension points” of the General Conference — as noted in this excerpt from the renewal leaders’ written report (PDF).
[P]aragraphs 15 and 16 of the [United Methodist Book of] Discipline state that the responsibilities of the [General] Conference are primarily legislative. We believe that sufficient time for debate and action on all the legislation that delegates are charged to address should take precedent over other matters….
[Near] the end of the 2008 GC, the numbers of speeches and length of speeches allowed for legislation were shortened due to time constraints, leaving many important pieces of legislation…without proper debate before voting.
The health-care resolutions, presented on the frenetic final night of the 2008 conference, were among the pieces of legislation that did not receive “proper debate.”
The renewal leaders also voiced concerns about controversial items being placed on “consent calendars” to be voted on in omnibus fashion with no debate.
It is worth noting that the United Methodist Church first went on record declaring health care to be a “right” via a consent-calendar vote at the 1996 General Conference in Denver, Colorado.
After approval by committee, the matter was added to Consent Calendar A02 (PDF—see item 107) and was never specifically presented on the Conference floor, much less debated. Via a vote that approved 108 other disparate items at the same time (see PDF linked above), the assertion that health care is a right became official United Methodist policy.
The leaders who met with the Unity Task Force in November included, among others, Dr. Billy Abraham of the Perkins School of Theology at SMU; Liza Kittle of RENEW, a women’s ministry network; Tom Lambrecht, coordinator of the Renewal and Reform Coalition at the 2008 General Conference; Patricia Miller, executive director of the United Methodist Confessing Movement; and Rob Renfroe, president and publisher of Good News.
Below is a sampling of comments, from clergy and laity, regarding the UMC’s involvement with the health bill. These comments are excerpted from various blogs and have been edited for length.