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A health care 'Judas' recounts his conversion
A clinic such as this, where countless uninsured line up at dawn for free medical care, convinced one man to quit his Cigna job.
June 27th, 2012
01:46 PM ET

A health care 'Judas' recounts his conversion

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - When Wendell Potter first saw them, he froze.

“It felt like touching an electrical fence,” he says. “I remember tearing up and thinking, how could this be real.”

Thousands of them had lined up under a cloudy sky in an open field. Many had camped out the night before. When their turns came, doctors treated them in animal stalls and on gurneys placed on rain-soaked sidewalks.

They were Americans who needed basic medical care. Potter had driven to the Wise County Fairgrounds in Virginia in July 2007 after reading that a group called Remote Area Medical, which flew American doctors to remote Third World villages, was hosting a free outdoor clinic.

Potter, a Cigna health care executive who ate from gold-rimmed silverware in corporate jets, says that morning was his “Road to Damascus” experience.

“It looked like a refugee camp,” Potter says. “It just hit me like a bolt of lightning. What I was doing for a living was making it necessary for people to resort to getting care in animal stalls.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Thursday on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act is a colossal legal and political issue. For Potter, though, the issue became a crisis of faith.

For the last three years, Potter has been one of the most visible supporters of President Barack Obama’s health care legislation. He has testified before Congress, appeared on countless talk shows and written a tell-all book on the health care industry called "Deadly Spin." With his Southern drawl and mild professorial manner, he has been described as a health care industry “Judas” in some media accounts.

Yet none of the media coverage of Potter has explored what drove his conversion - his faith. Potter was raised as a Southern Baptist in Kingsport, Tennessee, where he says his parents instilled in him an appreciation for helping others.

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He says the New Testament is filled with Jesus providing universal health care - he healed the poor and outcast.

“Christians needed to be reminded of what Jesus did,” Potter says.  “It was important to him for people to have access to healing care. That’s what he did. A lot of people of faith lose sight of that.”

A health care hit man

Potter says he lost sight of that because the health care issue was an abstraction to him when he worked at Cigna as a public relations executive. Part of his job was to snuff out stories in the media that made the health care industry look bad.

But his visit to that free clinic in Virginia that July morning shook him. In a column that he wrote for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization, where he works as a senior analyst, he wrote:

“Until that day, I had been able to think, talk and write about the U.S. health care system and the uninsured in the abstract, as if real-life human beings were not involved.”

Yet even after that visit to the clinic, Potter says, he still stayed with his Cigna job. He had a son and a daughter, a six-figure salary, bonuses.  He felt trapped even as he resumed his job.

“It was always gnawing at me,” he says of the experience at the clinic.

There was another reason he couldn’t leave his job.  It was his identity.

Wendell Potter was moved by his faith to quit his Cigna job.

“Our egos are tied to our jobs even if the jobs we’re doing are not what we thought we were going to be doing,” he says. “Our jobs, to a certain extent, help define who we are.”

Potter found a new source of identity - his faith. He read the Bible and found particular solace in the New Testament book of Philippians, where the Apostle Paul advises Christians to “cast all their anxiety” on God. He also read “Profiles in Courage” to fortify his resolve.

He finally quit, and eventually became one of the most visible advocates for health care reform.

“I felt that if I were on my death bed and looked back on my life and realized that I had not taken this risk to do the right thing, I would have huge regrets,” he says.

Why churches are silent

Potter now spends some of his time talking to churches. He says an estimated 45,000 Americans die each year because they don’t have insurance that provides them access to the care they need.

“This doesn’t happen in any other developed country in the world, and it should not happen here, the richest nation on the planet,” he says.

When he takes this message to churches, some shut their doors, he says. They don’t want to hear him. Pastors know the debate over health care divides their congregations.

“A lot of pastors are just too afraid to get involved in this and step up and say this is a moral issue,” he says. “They’re afraid of offending their parishioners.”

Some of Potter’s most consistent supporters, though, are former colleagues in the health care industry.  "I've had calls and emails from people I used to work with in the industry who thank me quietly," he says.

No matter what the Supreme Court decides, Potter says health care changes are inevitable. The current system of for-profit health insurance companies is not sustainable. He says some Americans dismiss the uninsured, but they don’t realize how close they are to joining them.

He says many of the people who attended the Remote Area Medical clinic were working people. Their jobs simply didn’t provide enough good medical care. While many companies provide health insurance to people with pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, most people with these maladies wouldn’t get coverage if they suddenly lost their job.

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“Most of us are just a layoff from losing it,” he says of health insurance.

Potter can’t guess what the Supreme Court will decide, but he has predicted what the United States will look like if the health care law is struck down.

We’ve already seen that future in a book and movie called “The Hunger Games," he wrote in a recent column.

"The Hunger Games" depicts a future America renamed Panem, where the government is disconnected from the people who struggle every day for basic needs such as medical care while the wealthy have access to modern medicine, he wrote.

“This society-gone-bad scenario of denying basic care to citizens based on their income or social status seems on the big screen not only cruel and unusual but even incomprehensible,” he wrote. “In fact, it’s occurring every day in what is still called the United States.”

Potter didn’t have to see that future on the screen. He’d already seen it in Virginia, where doctors cared for Americans in animal stalls.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Faith & Health • Health • Health care

soundoff (1,958 Responses)
  1. Patrick from CA

    I cannot speak for anybody but myself.

    I grew up poor. For the majority of my childhood, my parents could not afford health insurance and there were times when we were forced to rely on the benevolence of others. Not having healthcare, yet receiving the gift of care from a Doctor was for me, a humbling experience and I have complete empathy for those who are currently in a situation where they do not have or cannot afford, healthcare. As an adult, there have been periods where the job I had did not provide any health care. And when I found Jobs that did provide it, I was very grateful to have it. I have close friends whom as of today, do not have healthcare. And it pains me to see them suffer. I've given my time and in some cases, money, to help those that I care about, when they've been in need. So I can say that I've been doing my part.

    I look at the healthcare industry as a whole and I am torn. As an empathetic individual, I have a hard time understanding how an industry can generate (yearly) billions of dollars in profit, yet continue to raise prices. On the other hand, as an investor, I want my money to grow and if I invest in a corporation, I expect them to do their best to make my investment grow, so that my children can be better off than I. I think that this is a place that a lot of Americans are at. At the individual level, they are very empethetic, but at a corporate level, it's all about profit.

    I honestly think that Health Care needed to be reformed. And everybody needs to understand that this is a very complex issue that tears at the heart of our society. Greed is rampant within the corporate structure and it's celebrated as good. If a corporation does not post quarterly profits, then that corporation is considered to be failing. As an example, let's use the corporation that I work for. I work for a fortune 500 company which posted over $450 million in profits last year. As a person, that sounds amazing. Yet, that was down by a tad more than 40% from the previous year, therefore the company stock price dropped. Internally, there has been a concentrated drive to drive up profits. Now, the company I work for, is not in the healthcare sector. But when it comes to wall street, that doesn't matter. Quarterly profits that are better than last years quarterly profits are all that matters. And each of us (me, you, the guy next door) is at some level, responsible for this idea that a company must grow or die.

    Don't get me wrong, I don't wholeheartedly object to paying a little extra so that people I love and care about, people that currently do not have healthcare, will be able to recieve it. What I object to is the reality that the real winners here are the healthcare insurance corporations. Obamacare does not address the fact that they will continue to push for greater profits in order to meet their investors demands. With the added burden of addtional patients and the need to generate more profit every year, two things will happen.

    #1 – Premiums will continue to rise
    #2 – Because the government will provide tax credits to those who cannot afford the mandated insurance, the government will be on the hook to pay the rising premiums for those who still cannot afford it.

    Obamacare doesn't address this fundamental issue. Instead, it focuses on those who can pay (the shrinking middle class) and essentially lays additional taxes on them to pay for those who cannot pay. My company has already confirmed that our medical premiums will be going up next year by as much as 10%.

    June 29, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  2. UK Dave

    Have you failed to negotiate the twilight zone?
    Which organisations have failed to negotiate the twilight zone?

    June 29, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Mafia Don

      I guess we all saw this question coming UK Dave.
      Yes, us sharks have failed to negotiate the twilight zone.
      Us sharks know what way we're heading after failing to negotiate the twilight zone.
      And we know what way you're heading UK Dave – well away from us thievin' weasels.

      June 29, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  3. PrimeNumber

    That pic above reminds me of an old photo I saw. The photo showed emaciated 1880s Native Americans lined up at the Indian agency to receive a small ration of weevil- or maggot- infested food. Today, Native Americans have terrible health problems and low life spans. This is because their timeless living cycles were destroyed and replaced by the white way of doing things. Back then, a genocide campaign was under way compiiments of da gubment.
    Maybe it's true: The sins of the father are visited upon the sons.

    June 29, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  4. clubschadenfreude

    like many Christians, Mr. Potter shows that it is not religion that makes a decent man but simply realizing very human facts. He decided to change, and he knows that many other Chrisitans haven't; they've made up their own versions of Christianity each very sure that their version is the only "right" one. No need for any divine truth or magical being for any of this, just humans.

    June 29, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  5. BriSoFla

    OBAMA 2012!!!!

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    June 29, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  6. Question

    When someone is so passionate 'bout something other than soul it is suspect. Why do we need the church as a platform for our political beliefs?

    If Jesus was here he would have reacted exactly like he did in John 2:16

    Hypocricy and lying at its highest.

    June 29, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  7. Big Mike

    Wendell Potter's book, Deadly Spin, should be read by everyone before you have any knee jerk reactions about whether Obamacare is good or bad. It's a real eye opener.

    June 29, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  8. UK Dave

    Maybe we planted Believers on the inside just to get the most out of it!
    Figures!

    June 29, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • Mafia Don

      This is the smartest comment I've ever read!
      Crafty little mother Believers!

      June 29, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • The Corrector

      You do me justice UK Dave!

      June 29, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  9. UK Dave

    You always were invited back onto the straight & narrow Mr. Wendell Potter!
    You're starting to notice COMMONSENSE PREVAILING!
    Lock into your commonsense & you'll always get the right rewards from it!
    WHEN IS COMMONSENSE NECESSARY?
    Now, walk through your commonsense with like-minded people!

    June 29, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  10. Cindy

    When the insurance companies caused health care to become an "industry" instead of letting doctors actually help their patients, when doctors became hard hit by law suits, when patients are force-fed medications by their doctors because the pharmaceutical companies have their hands out; that is when this country started going downhill in regards to health. It is getting harder and harder for doctors to get paid by the insurance company on the first filing. Most of the time we have to file insurance repeatedly and still only get 1/3 of what we charge, if we're lucky. Medicare is planning another cut to what they pay the physician. Most people think doctors are rich. I'm here to tell you, that is a lie perpetuated by the insurance companies and the media. Sure, there are some wealthy doctors, but more often than not, it's our office who sees patients that have no insurance and no jobs and we never see a dime. People get sick, need surgery, need follow-ups, and we do not turn those patients away. Our doctors are compassionate and caring men who sometimes know they will never see a dime, but they care for the PERSON, not the $. That's much more than I can say about any insurance company executive.

    June 28, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
  11. Jack

    On this day – everyone is invited to – thestarofkaduri.com

    June 28, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  12. trekie70

    Good to hear that someone's religion actually changed someone in a positive way. It's a nice change from what Christians are usually in the news for.

    June 28, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Mike

      Can I get an AMEN! 🙂

      June 29, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  13. n222s

    Regardless of good intentions we must be careful. Healthcare will not be free. Someone will have to pay but many will perceive it to be free. Which will lead to a greater demand. And if we don't have the human resources to meet this demand, what exactly will we do in response? Ration care? Raise taxes? Manufacture doctors and physicians out of thin air? And now, as a middle class member, if I don't like my doctor I can find a new one. If I am put into a government system will I have any choice in physicians? If a world renowned heart surgeon is 50 miles away but a terrible one is 5 miles away will I be able to choose the better one? I know many can't make that choice now but is the best way to handle this through taking away everyone's ability to choose? And what about the hated profit margin? Do you think it is any coincidence that if you take away the profit motive we may lose people inclined to create fantastic products, services and drugs for a profit? You can hate profit but not everyone will work hard if not properly rewarded. And if you have a job, aren't you making a profit on your efforts?

    June 28, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • momingle

      You probably forgot in most of our human history, healthcare was mostly non profit even in the good old days. Yes, doctors got paid but there were also non profit clinics, hospitals, etc. Even some of the health insurance companies right were started out as non profit. For example, blue cross blue shield was non profit. It used to depends on its members to go around the neighborhood to ask everyone to buy insurance (especially the health ones) so that the cost is cheaper for everyone. It used peer pressure. No body disagrees that no matter it is government or private industry, there is a cost associated with paying for it. The question is what kind of system that can provide the best cares to the most people possible. The current system in US is failing at it. It is not the best care and it and it does cover 1/5 of the population.

      June 28, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      The biggest problem with our system right now is the for-profit status of the entire health care industry.

      June 28, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      n222s said:
      "Do you think it is any coincidence that if you take away the profit motive we may lose people inclined to create fantastic products, services and drugs for a profit? You can hate profit but not everyone will work hard if not properly rewarded. And if you have a job, aren't you making a profit on your efforts?"

      You see, that's 's why you immoral concerva/tea/baggers are more repugnant then the godless liberals, because you pretend to have morals and values, but to you even life itself is measured by $$$$!

      June 28, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      HG
      I've gotta hand it to ya! Even you god-less atheist have more sense of justice then some of the "moral' hypocrites and their cronies! That speaks volumes!

      June 28, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
  14. Nope!

    "Everyone should have the right to health care, but not at the expense of bankrupting the government or American people"

    Every time $$$ from my paycheck are deducted for HC ins. , even though my employer is paying a portion, I AM BEING TAXED , on top of the other taxes I'm already paying!
    We are paying enormous amount of taxes, not just to Gov't. but to thieves who make profits of people's needs . Why don't you nitwits understand that? Why don't you see that you are being taken in by crooks?

    June 28, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Momof3

      How do you figure that you are being taxed on deductions that are taken from your salary BEFORE you taxes deductions are determined? HC Contributions are typically pre-tax, if your HC contributions are post-tax, then you didn't try hard enough to get a good job! That's YOUR fault!

      June 28, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • Nope!

      You don't get it, bozo, do ya?! Duh!

      June 28, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • n222s

      Nope, EVERYONE makes a profit. When you work you use your product (your labor) to make a profit. How much do you make, translated to an hourly rate? What if I decide that profit is excessive? Is that fair? Is it fair for you to profit from your time if you are doing something that doesn't meet people's needs? Would it be better for you to make a lesser wage meeting someone's basic needs? How can you be so selfish, so greedy? Do we really need your work as a Starbucks employee? Wouldn't your time be better spent doing something more meaningful? And if you are already doing something meaningful, couldn't you do with a little less pay so that this noble pursuit doesn't cost so much?

      Stop being so selfish Nope! and do what I think is important. For my judgement of you is just as valid or invalid as your judgement of anyone else.

      June 28, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • trekie70

      How do you figure your premiums are a tax???????? If you would rather pay cash for your trmt, go for it. Just done whine when you get a serious illness and have no money to pay with.

      June 28, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Nope!

      n222s
      "May they, the greedy vultures make their profit of your desperate need"

      Should I wish it on you? Nah....what goes around comes around!

      June 28, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • Mike

      Uh. The crooks are the Tea-Party members who choose not to have health insurance... but then try to file for bankruptcy when they go to the emergency room and end up with a $50,000 bill they can't afford. Guess who gets to pay that? WE the rest of the insured. It averages out to $1,000 per insured person. So think about that for a minute. You eliminate this extra charge to those of us paying for our insurance that covers emergency room visits by others and guess what? Our premiums go down. 🙂 Whoop Whoop!

      June 29, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  15. APFromPA

    For all those who say the health care law will cost us in the form of an added tax; I think they should look at the fact that we have paid all along for the uninsured in the form of higher medical costs and taxes. When doctors and hospitals need to charge more for someone who does not pay their bill, it affects everyone else who pays, and that could be you who pays cash, or your insurance company who pays the doctors on your behalf. Same applies to the government as most of the folks using the health systems tend to be at the upper end of the age range, this affects medicare and medicaid costs. Which then affects our taxes. So in reality, the new law (though a mandate) at least attempts to get people on insurance so that hospitals are not having to cover as many uninsured as we do now. Now, I do not think for a minute that the affordable care act is the best thing since sliced bread, and I am not a fan of the mandate, but to call it a socialist system, I suggest to those people to take a good look at the system we have now, and let me know if people who pay for healthy care (cash or via insurance) who currently pay for uninsured, isn't that a socialist system? The new law, which I hope can be improved, will at least make an attempt at reducing the number of uninsured and now there will be a known cost of paying for the uninsured, vs seeing a 5 to 10% increase in insurance premium, at the same time as the co-pay increase of 20-60% in a year..... All this without the health care law, unless the new increase is greater than what I have seen in the last decade, the new law will not cost us anything else. republicans say the cost will go us about 7%, well my total cost has gone up more than 10% per year without the new law going into effect. The 7% increase if true, to me is a welcomed discount of at least 3%. I hope the two parties work together and reform the whole medical system, along with the legal system (TORT reform) to help all the people.... but something tells me I am asking for too much.

    June 28, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • manob88

      Well said, too bad most people don't look at the whole picture like this

      June 28, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • krazgeo

      I agree...well said. The big picture is sometimes very informative. It's nice to see it so well displayed once in a while.

      June 28, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  16. Nope!

    @L
    Who claimed that it (health care) was ever fixed? Your response must have strayed to wrong page!

    June 28, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  17. L

    The reason christians don't agree with this – is because it is costing each individual tax payer more $$$, we are all being taxed into poverty. If it was guarranteed not to increase taxes then there would be no reason to but accept this. Everyone should have the right to health care, but not at the expense of bankrupting the government or American people.

    June 28, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • TexasHell

      Todays "Christians" are fueled by money! 99% don't know squat about JC the man they supposedly honor. If they did they'd know he'd be sickened by their presence and cast them out into the hell they say they believe in. Leads me to believe they are more of an atheist than those who proclaim to be atheist.

      June 28, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Nope!

      Mr Potter said when he takes this message to churches, some shut their doors. They don’t want to hear him. Pastors know the debate over health care divides their congregations.

      “A lot of pastors are just too afraid to get involved in this and step up and say this is a moral issue,” he says. “They’re afraid of OFFENDING their parishioners.”

      Isn't that something? They are afraid to offend!

      June 28, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • sam

      Everyone's already paying for it, one way or another, when someone without insurance needs major surgery, or gets hit by a car and ends up in ICU. You thought of that, right?

      June 28, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      "The reason Christians don't agree with this – is because it is costing each individual tax payer more $$$, we are all being taxed into poverty"
      No, the Christians don't agree with this because they have taken their eyes off of Christ whom they are supposed to follow, and put them on corrupt, split- tongued politi/tians who ride them for their votes.
      Today's American Christianity is anemic, and void of life of Christ. It's fitting the description of Church of Laodicea, the one Christ talked about in Rev. Ch. 3. If it were not so, they would not follow those immoral hypocrites, and would not sit on their lofty seats claiming that Christ was really a wealthy man, and God rewards faith with abundance of material goods. If they knew Christ, they would have taken stand and demanded those polit/tians to comply if they wanted their votes, not allowing them to blind them by their split -tongued propaganda filled with lies!

      It's no wonder they don't want this man in their churches! And that's' the very reason I don't attend one!

      June 28, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • trekie70

      L, the no-insurance freeloaders are who is causing premiums to rise and driving the rest of us into poverty. Being responsible for your own health care costs isn't being taxed, it's called doing what is right.

      June 28, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Mike

      The narrative of Jesus and the money changers, commonly referred to as the cleansing of the Temple, occurs in all four canonical gospels of the New Testament. In this episode Jesus and his disciples travel to Jerusalem for Passover, where he expels the money changers from the Temple, accusing them of turning the Temple to a den of thieves through their commercial activities.[1][2] In the Gospel of John Jesus refers to the Temple as “my Father’s house” thus in some views making a claim to being the Son of God.

      June 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  18. Nope!

    Hey, RatLib,
    Go find a rock to crawl under and find yourself some 'rattling' company!

    June 28, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Stan- I thought you said they were aliens.

      Morpheus- Aliens, zombies. Who gives a s.hit? F.uck you.

      June 28, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    June 28, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Jesus

      Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      June 28, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  20. PRISM 1234

    Our health care system is a dark, cancerous spot on this country's conscience.
    The cries of those who have been burdened and leached by greedy vultures who oppress the people of this country like the feudal lords did the serfs in dark ages, those cries have reached the Heavens, and are provoking teh anger of Almighty God against the evil that's done to multi-tude of those who can't help themselves, because the load is to heavy for them to bear!
    But what's so pathetic, the "moral' conservatives think, fighting against abortion and to keep definition of marriage sacred, that's waht makes them righteous, and are pacifying themselves thinking that's all that matters.Yeah, they should have done that, and not neglected the other.....But there is a big sruprise coming to them , because to rob and leach for gain those who are already hurting and are in need of help, and to put such heavy burdens on common man who is struggling to keep his family fed, THAT is a sin that this country will have to answer to God for, for allowing such monster to hatch in it's own midst, and not having done anything to curb the greed of those who use other people's misfortunes for an opportunity to gain.

    And all those who are siding with this greedy corrupt system, and who justify it, defending it, saying it's not wrong, and who add insults to injury of those who are already hurting, their guilt will be just the same, as partakers with them!

    June 28, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Derp

      June 28, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Nope!

      Hey, RatLib,
      Go find a rock to crawl under and find yourself some 'rattling' company!

      .....posting second time....just making sure you get it!

      June 28, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • L

      You are an idiot. If they actually fixed the health care issues this would not even be the debate we are having.

      June 28, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.