The Obamacare 'scandal' you haven't heard about
Few Bible Belt pastors mention what's in their backyard, millions of poor people trapped in the Obamacare “coverage gap.”
November 8th, 2013
10:01 AM ET

The Obamacare 'scandal' you haven't heard about

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - 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.

Learn more from Kaiser about the coverage gap in states that refused Obamacare

The coverage gap was created when 25 states refused to accept the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare. The people who fall into this gap make too much money to qualify for Medicaid and not enough to qualify for Obamacare subsidies in their state insurance exchanges. If they lived elsewhere, they would probably get insurance. But because they live in a state that refused the new health care law, they likely will remain among the nation’s uninsured poor after Obamacare coverage kicks in come January.

The coverage gap has been treated as a political issue, but there is a religious irony to the gap that has been ignored.

Most of the people who fall into the coverage gap live in the Bible Belt, a 14-state region in the South stretching from North Carolina to Texas and Florida. The Bible Belt is the most overtly Christian region in the country, filled with megachurches and pastors who are treated like celebrities.  All but two Bible Belt states have refused to accept the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.

Should Bible Belt pastors say anything publicly about the millions of poor people in their communities stranded by the coverage gap? Is it anti-Christian for state leaders to turn down help for the people Jesus called “the least of these"? Or should pastors say nothing publicly about such issues because they are strictly political?

CNN's Sanjay Gupta explains who falls into the coverage gap

Who speaks for the poor in the coverage gap?

When these questions were sent to many of the most popular pastors in the Bible Belt, they hit a wall of silence. Virtually no prominent pastor wanted to talk about the uninsured poor in their midst.

Joel Osteen, pastor of the largest church in the nation, declined to be interviewed about the subject. So did Bishop T.D. Jakes. Their megachurches are both in Texas, the state with the nation’s highest number of people without health insurance.

Max Lucado, the best-selling Christian author who is a minister at a church in Texas, declined to speak; Charles Stanley, the Southern Baptist pastor in Georgia whose In Touch Ministries reaches millions around the globe, declined to speak; Ed Young Sr. and Ed Young Jr., a father and son in Texas who pastor two of the fastest-growing churches in the nation, also declined to speak. 

Bishop T.D. Jakes declined to talk about the millions of poor people stranded in the “coverage gap."

The list goes on.

The silence is not hard to understand. Obamacare is a polarizing political issue in the Bible Belt. A pastor who publicly weighs in on the subject could divide his or her congregation or risk their job. And some prominent pastors like Osteen are popular in part because they  do not alienate fans by taking political stands.

The Rev. Phil Wages, senior pastor Winterville First Baptist Church in Georgia and a blogger, was one of the few Bible Belt ministers willing to speak on the subject.

He says he won’t preach about the coverage gap created by the state’s rejection of the Medicaid expansion because he has what he calls theological differences with the thrust of the new health care law.

Wages says the Bible teaches that the care of orphans, widows and the sick are given to the church, not to the government. Early Christians were the first to create hospitals, orphanages and hospices.

“I have an issue with the government coming in to get money through me - through taxes - to take care of people, when my argument is that I should be free to give to charities or to my church in order to take care of the sick and destitute,” he says.

Wages says he has no doubt that lack of health insurance is a monumental problem, and that many people are poor because of circumstances beyond their control. Yet there is no New Testament example of Jesus trying to shape public policy on behalf of the poor.

“I do not see any biblical precedent where Jesus ever went to Herod or Pilate and said you should be taking care of the poor,” Wages says. “Jesus told his disciples to take care of the poor and the apostles said the same thing to the early church.”

Wages’ position is impractical and unbiblical, says Ronald Sider, a longtime advocate for the poor and author of “The Scandal of Evangelical Politics."

Churches and charities don’t have enough resources to take care of an estimated 48 million Americans who don’t have health care. The Bible is filled with examples of God's fury over economic oppression of the poor, which Christians should regard as scandalous, he says.

“If you are not sharing God’s concern for the poor, it raises huge questions about whether you are a Christian at all,” he says about pastors who say nothing about the uninsured poor.

“As God’s spokespersons, you ought to be talking about God’s concern for the poor as much as God. In the richest nation in world history, it’s contradictory to have millions without health insurance.”

“It absolutely stinks”

The coverage gap may inspire a religious debate, but for its victims the issue is raw and personal.

A recent New York Times article about the coverage gap revealed that many of its victims are the working poor: cooks, cashiers, sales clerks and waitresses.

“These are people who are working people but they haven’t been able to afford health insurance or their employers don’t offer it and they’re stuck,” says Andy Miller, editor of Georgia Health News, a nonprofit news organization that covers health news in the state. “A lot of these folks have chronic health conditions.”

They are people like Shelley “Myra” Mitchell, a single mom with four children who makes $9 an hour working at a Chick-fil-A in Georgia. She makes $18,000 a year – too much for Georgia’s existing Medicaid program, but not enough to qualify for subsidies to sign up for Obamacare’s insurance marketplace in Georgia.

Mitchell’s voice grew edgy with frustration when asked to describe her health needs. She rang up about $20,000 in emergency room bills because she has no health insurance. She can’t afford to get pap smears, go to the dentist or get surgery for a two-year-old hernia. She can’t take medication for her depression and anxiety because she can’t afford it.

She thought she could get help under Obamacare but recently learned she can’t because Georgia did not accept the law’s Medicaid expansion.

“It stinks,” she says. “I’ve been dealing with this hernia for two years now, and I can’t get anyone to help me because I don’t have health insurance. It absolutely stinks.”

Why pastors should stay silent about the coverage gap

Mitchell’s plight may stink. But at what point should a pastor go public on such a complex issue, and what could he or she actually say?

Two prominent evangelical pastors openly wrestled with those questions.

Andy Stanley is one of the most popular evangelical pastors in the nation. He is the senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, a megachurch with at least 33,000 members. He is also the author of the forthcoming book “How to be Rich,” which urges Christians to be "rich in good deeds" instead of wealth. His church recently announced that it donated $5.2 million to Atlanta charities and provided another 34,000 volunteer hours.

Joel Osteen has the largest church in America. He also declined to speak about the coverage gap.

Stanley says the coverage gap disturbs him. The church cannot handle the needs of millions of uninsured people alone and should quit taking shots at government involvement, he says. But he adds that it’s not anti-Christian for political leaders in states like Georgia to turn down the Medicaid expansion for the poor.

“If you really want to know how concerned someone is for the poor ask them what percentage of their personal money they give to organizations that help the poor,” he says. “Ask them how much time they give to organizations that help the poor.”

Stanley says it would be difficult for any pastor to talk about the Medicaid expansion without addressing the entire law.

“I tried to imagine a scenario where I urged people to write our governor encouraging him to reconsider his decision regarding the expansion of Medicaid for the poor,” he says. “As I imagined that, I got the feeling that by the time I finished explaining the issue, people’s eyes would be glazed over.”

Pastors who don't preach one way or the other on Medicaid expansion aren't callous or apathetic, says Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. They may be suspicious of a bigger government and skeptical of whether this move will solve the problem.

“The Bible calls on Christians to answer the cries of the poor,” he says. “All Christians must do that. The question of the Medicaid expansion is a question of how we do that. I don’t hear many people arguing that we shouldn’t care about the plight of the poor when it comes to medical care. The question is a genuine debate about the role of the state.”

Moore says some people have a “utopian view” of what state power can accomplish.

“Government programs sometimes encourage dependency, unintentionally break down family structures, and become unsustainable financially,” Moore says.

Bob Coy, pastor of Calvary Chapel megachurch in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, wondered aloud about what he could, and should, say.

Florida, which has the second highest number of people without health insurance behind Texas, has not accepted the Obamacare Medicaid expansion.

Coy says he hasn’t spoken publicly about poor people missing health coverage in Florida. But he has called the governor to get more information.

“I’m not an activist guy. I don’t tell the government what to do. I am a church guy. I teach the Bible.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care for the poor, though, Coy says. He grew up in a poor family that couldn’t afford to go to the dentist. His church also spends a large percentage of its budget on serving the poor.

Coy says he is suspicious of large-scale programs that are publicly funded because they are often abused.

“One side of our society is saying, 'We need this,' while on the other side is saying, 'This isn’t fair and isn’t going to work.’ So how should a pastor, who has a heart to help people, respond?”

Why pastors should speak out

The Rev. Shane Stanford’s answer to Coy is simple: Talk about justice for the poor like Jesus did.

Stanford is the senior pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis and author of “Five Stones: Conquering Your Giants.”

He is also HIV-positive. He was born a hemophiliac and contracted the virus when he was 16 during treatment for his illness.

Stanford says he publicly speaks out about the millions of Americans stranded without health coverage because he knows how it feels. Once, after heart surgery, he was getting a transfusion when a nurse came into the room and pulled the needle out of his arm because she said he had maxed out his health insurance coverage.

He says standing up for people in the coverage gap is a matter of justice.

“Sometimes pastors have to tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.”

Stanford ignores fellow pastors who counsel him to be silent about his state and others that refused to accept the Medicaid expansion.

“They say you have to be careful talking about political issues,” he says. “When I look at their lives, part of me thinks they never had that needle yanked out of their arm.”

Conservative pastors who urge their colleagues to avoid politics are hypocrites, says James Cone, a prominent theologian who has spent much of his career writing books condemning white churches for what he says is their indifference to social justice.

“When their own interests are involved, they are very much involved in politics,” Cone says. “Same-sex marriage and abortion – they have no trouble politically opposing them.”

Cone, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, says a nation is defined by how it treats its most vulnerable members. But there is an entrenched hostility to poor people in America that goes unchallenged by some white, conservative Christians, he says.

“When poor people get food stamps, they get mad,” Cone says. “When the rich and corporations get tax breaks and pay no taxes, they don’t say anything.”

McDonald, the pastor who spoke out on behalf of poor people from his Atlanta church, says Jesus provided universal health care. The Gospels are filled with accounts of Jesus healing marginalized people.

“He did it for free,” McDonald says of Jesus’ healing. “The reason the crowds gathered around Jesus primarily was for healing. People want wholeness.”

Perhaps the gap between Bible Belt pastors who say nothing about the uninsured poor and those who do is also rooted in history. 

Conservative Christians have traditionally emphasized providing charity to the poor - soup kitchens, donations to impoverished people in undeveloped countries - while progressive Christians have blended charity with calls for public policy changes that help the poor.

The distinction between both approaches was distilled by a memorable quote from the late Brazilian Roman Catholic Bishop Dom Helder Camara, who said: "When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why so many people are poor they call me a communist."

That may be changing as a new generation of evangelicals rise in the Bible Belt and elsewhere. One minister who speaks to them is the Rev. Timothy Keller, a conservative Christian author who pastors a megachurch in New York.

Keller is the author of “Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just,” a popular book that argues that evangelicals should do more than preach personal salvation; they must “speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves.” He is a role model for many younger evangelicals.

“God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to ‘do justice.’ ’’

CNN.com recently contacted Keller to see if he would talk about "Generous Justice" and how it might apply to health care and the poor. Did he think pastors in Bible Belt states should say anything publicly on behalf of poor people being denied basic medical insurance? His publicist said she would contact Keller with the request.

Several days later, she returned with Keller’s answer.

He had no comment. 

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Baptist • Barack Obama • Belief • Bible • Christianity • Church • Church and state • Courts • Culture wars • Ethics • evangelicals • Fundamentalism • Politics • Poverty

soundoff (3,619 Responses)
  1. Phil iin KC

    The "big" pastors are not true spiritual leaders. They preach for their congregation, not to them. It is all about the money – and the politics of the situation. It's not really about what the Bible says. They pick and choose.
    I have a real problem with giving the money to the church to care for the needy. First of all, they're not in the healthcare business. Second, people won't necessarily give that same amount, so people will go uncared for. Third, they provide aid only so they can proselytize. if you want help from the church, you had better believe what they believe – or pretend that you do. Otherwise, you're left out in the cold. So they pick and choose who they will help.

    November 8, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  2. Catherine

    How very ironic that this administration only uses religion when it is beneficial to their agenda but otherwise keep religion out of everything the libs decide is inappropriate – hypocrites from Obama on down!

    November 8, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      So you're saying that religion allows itself to be used by the government whenever the government wants to use it for whatever purposes the government deems appropriate. I had no idea that religion was so weak and pathetic to be so easily used by the whim of the government.

      November 8, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
      • rael1964

        No, Catherine has no idea what she's saying, she's just regurgitating crap she hears on Fox News.

        November 8, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
  3. Felix Sinclair


    November 8, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  4. jack

    Kinda makes it sound like Christians and Christian organizations aren't providing free health care for anyone. Typical CNN.

    November 8, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  5. Dave

    Healthcare for every American should not be a political football, but these pastors and clergy clearly worship the dollar over everything else. they will all go to hell and buddy up with the Koch brothers and Ted Cruz!

    November 8, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  6. dswartz

    This is a very relevant discussion. As a Christian, we should be concerned about those that are less fortunate. And heathcare ranks up there as something that is critical to consider just like having a job, and being able to feed and house our families. While Obamacare may not be perfect, the intent is right on. It is time for us to come together and fix it, rather than deep six it.

    November 8, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • Matt

      You can polish a turd for hours and it will still be a turd. Obamacare is a giant abortion and needs to be scrapped and something needs to replace it that actually works.

      November 8, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  7. A Dose of Reality

    The Pastor says 'God doesn't throw people away'......ever heard of Noah? Pretty sure GAWD killed LOTS of folks and LOTS of animals too! Oh wait,,,that stuff is just made up and not real. Just like the rest of the BuyBull!

    November 8, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  8. Starr

    Hmmm...What would Jesus do?

    November 8, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  9. dragonfly310

    Christians refuse to follow the teachings of their supposed leader. So what else is new?

    November 8, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • Matt

      Did you come up with the awesome generalization all by yourself? It's so original and thought provoking.

      November 8, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  10. AJ

    I'm glad this article was published. I've often thought about many of these same issues. I mean, isn't the Affordable Care Act more in line with the teachings of Christ, than not??

    To me, it just reinforces the idea of how many Christians today, pick and choose to follow the parts of the Bible that fit their life the easiest instead of accepting it as a whole.


    November 8, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • Matt

      Thoughts are that you're a moron that doesn't know what you're talking about and probably doesn't even know enough about the bible to make this stupid gross generalization.

      November 8, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
      • Rett

        C'mon Matt, I think AJ poses a question that he has grappled with and has led him to draw certain conclusions. He simply asked for others thoughts on the topic. Calling him a moron is very unchristian. I think the only folks Jesus used ugly words for were the "sons of vipers", "whited sepulchers" "child of hell" Pharisees and teachers of the law.....or in short those entrusted with teaching people God's ways but who were in fact either driving them away of making serving God burdensome. If you are a believer you might want to ponder Jesus' thoughts of you.

        November 8, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
  11. Crashman

    The funny thing is that the 25 states that are refusing to uphold Obamacare would receive federal funds to do so, which means they're hurting their own people for no other reason than their spite and ideology. And I'm guessing they'll all pass laws now making it harder for poor people to vote, so they can continue to thrive while hurting so many people.

    November 8, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • Jeff Rome NY

      It's already happening. And I agree with your post.

      November 8, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
  12. John Edwards the Adulterer

    Man, these stinking Bolsheviks will go to any length, and stretch ANY story, just to defend their little Chicago Thug in Chief Boy, won't they? There are so many cross-hypocrisies in this article, it's hard to choose a starting point. Die Maoists!!!

    November 8, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • Crashman

      You seem to have some anger issues...

      November 8, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
      • rael1964

        No, it's more like intelligence issues or maybe racial issues than anger issues.

        November 8, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
        • John Edwards the Adulterer

          Oh, yeah. . . . . . . .forgot. . . . . . .if I don't agree with and/or adore the Dali Bama, then I MUST be a racist, right my little Maoist friends??

          November 8, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
      • John Edwards the Adulterer

        Problems and issues all around: Socialists, Marxists, "enemies within," takers, moochers, lying Lib dogs, the list is endless.

        November 8, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
        • rael1964

          Boy? You are referring to our black president by the plantation slur BOY and your not a racist? You're a bag of crap.

          November 8, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
  13. SGTRena

    Perhaps these same multi-million dollar mega churches should subsidize those who end up without insurance. Aren't they supposed to be in the business of charity, as opposed to my government?

    November 8, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  14. sly

    These TeaBillies HATE the poor, they hate all blacks and all hispanics.

    TeaBillies actually WANT 50 Million Americans to NOT be able to get affordable health care.

    No surprise when their leader Cruz stated "We should ship all the blacks back to Africa".

    November 8, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Sanjay

      Now Sly can you refer me to your Ted Cruz quote...because, funny thing, I just can't seem to find this

      November 8, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
    • Matt

      Everybody wants affordable Healthcare but you are too stupid to realize that Obamacare does nothing of the sort.

      November 8, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  15. Another Voice

    So these guys pat themselves on the back for giving a homeless person a sandwich and a warm blanket but refuse to speak out on behalf of the working poor that are unable to get medical care. Which is really "the least" of their brothers - the homeless guy on the street corner or the millions of working poor that are invisible because nobody wants to see them?

    As a compassionate human being, it is painful to see so much intolerance and disgust for the working poor. As a fiscal conservative, it angers me that the party that long prided itself on fiscal conservatism is recklessly eager to throw away such a large percentage of our most important resource - human potential.

    Every politician that demanded repeal instead of making an honest effort to fix the ACA should be ashamed. If they claim that they are Christian, they should be praying that Jesus really is as merciful as their preachers say, because they will have a lot to answer for.

    November 8, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  16. DustyOnes

    Red Herring. The poor and illegal aliens get free healthcare. It is written in Obamaacare. The Pastor should read it.

    November 8, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  17. bryangilchrist

    The reason why church leaders probably don't say anything is because, by law, non-profit organizations are not supposed to espouse political beliefs one way or the other.

    And this story needs to be marked as an "Opinion" because it's not news and there is no "scandal".

    November 8, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • Another Voice

      I didn't notice them staying out of politics when it came to gay marriage or abortion. Years ago, I remember my priests encouraging people to vote for those that remembered the poor (nothing specific, just in general). Law or no, religious leaders have always been involved in encouraging their followers to make morally responsible and uplifting choices in their lives, which includes voting.

      November 8, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • Byron

      Haha, since when....

      November 8, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • Byron

      Also, this is a blog entry.... It is an opinion piece...

      November 8, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  18. Kathy

    obama is so anti-church and sics the IRS on anybody who disagrees with his agenda to destroy Americans and America. Why would a pastor speak out against the destruction obama is wreaking. if you go against valerie jarrett, you are destroyed

    November 8, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • rael1964

      That's a really interest point, Kathy. Can you point me to some articles where Obama has sicc'ed the IRS on ANYONE who disagrees with his agenda? Man, I can't wait to read about that...

      November 8, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • rael1964

      Oh, and please tell me more about Obama being anti-church. I just need more reasons to hate him!

      November 8, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  19. DJones

    Talk about a deceptive and ignorant article. Are we to actually believe that it is the church's fault that there is a gap in the ACA? I thought the world was pounding the "separation of church and state" drum?

    It is also a complete lie to blame the states for this gap, that responsibility falls on the ACA(Obama Care). Consider that Obama Care was Obama's idea, not the states and it was Obama and his administration that chose where to start Obama Care. It makes no sense what-so-ever to blame the states for not raising their limits when Obama Care could just as easily have lowered theirs, especially when Obama claims that 100% of the cost would have been assumed by Obama Care anyway. If the ACA is willing to shoulder the cost then they can simply make the plan start where each states Medicaid leaves off, with no additional cost and no one getting left out.

    November 8, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • Shannon

      Thank you DJones! I was beginning to think there was no one else on the face of the earth with any common sense. Blame anyone except the "chosen one" and his administration for their fumbles and bumbles. I'm surprised George Bush's name wasn't among the blamed. How can churches be blamed for "unaffordable" health care?

      November 8, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
      • rael1964

        You all clearly have reading comprehension issues.

        November 8, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • Byron

      Seriously, did y'all even read the article....

      November 8, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  20. sly

    Gee ... I wonder why the Conservative Southern Republicans don't care about the poor.

    Gosh ... maybe because the TeaBillies hate the poor. Hate all blacks. Hate all Mexicans.

    What other group WANTS 50 million Americans to be denied health care. These guys are basically southern Nazi's, formerlly known as the KKK.

    Didn't their leader Cruz state recently: "We should ship all the blacks back to Africa". Haven't heard that since George Wallace.

    November 8, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • Keeth

      You folks are so desperate you're making up stuff and slandering people.

      November 8, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
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