"Politics: Activities associated with government." (Encarta World English Dictionary)
By Bishop Robert Hayes Jr.
I seldom use this space to address matters of politics. My entire ministry is spent trying to bring people together; I don’t seek to create discord with topics that can leave people feeling separated and angry at each other. I’d rather spend my time and precious space in these newspapers on promoting the Kingdom of God and sharing words of faith, hope, and love, as contained in the Gospels.
Politics tend to divide us. Surely in this country each of us has the right to voice an opinion on any subject and every action of government—people have died to defend that right of free speech. But when I don’t believe as you believe, when you think your way is the only way to solve problems, we can become divided.
Yet an issue has come up that is so volatile I believe I must address it in this space today.
The U.S. Congress has been embroiled in a debate about health care reform. You know how heated and controversial this subject has become throughout the nation. Several weeks ago, a health care bill was signed by the U.S. president.
Upon passage of the bill in the House of Representatives, Rep. Nancy Pelosi spoke to Congress in her role as Speaker of the House. Her comments included, "The United Methodist Church supports this legislation."
United Methodists from all over America responded in a variety of ways when she said that. Some were delighted to hear our Church was apparently giving its support to the legislation, while others were dismayed. Many began asking questions of the denomination’s leadership. Some of you have contacted your pastors, district superintendents, myself, and other leaders of the Church in Oklahoma.
Who authorized such a statement? What bishop or committee gave permission to say that? What’s going on within The United Methodist Church?
Your questions are certainly legitimate. You have a right to know what our denomination speaks about this issue.
Thus I want to use this controversy as a teaching moment. I want to help all United Methodists—regardless of your stance on the subject—understand what the Church says about health care.
The General Conference
The General Conference is the only entity that speaks on behalf of our denomination. There is no one person or one agency authorized to issue statements on behalf of the Church. The General Conference most recently met in 2008 and will meet again in 2012.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline and The Book of Resolutions contain our Constitution, Doctrine, General Rules, Social Principles, and other vital information that governs our denomination. These two books are printed every four years, after the session of the General Conference.
To understand our Church’s stance on health care and other issues, you must begin with these two books.
At the 2008 General Conference, a Theological and Historical Statement on health care was approved. It states: "The United Methodist Church is committed to health care for all in the United States and therefore advocates for a comprehensive health care delivery system that includes access for all, quality care, and effective management of costs." (Book of Resolutions, pg. 352)
A statement about health care in the Discipline includes a Biblical reference: "In Ezekiel 34:4a, God points out the failures of the leadership of Israel to care for the weak: ‘You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured.’ As a result all suffer. Like police and fire protection, health care is best funded through the government’s ability to tax each person equitably and directly fund the provider entities … We believe it is a government responsibility to provide all citizens with health care." (Book of Discipline, pgs. 117-118)
These make clear that the Church strongly endorses health care for all citizens, but not specific legislation. This stance was put into writing decades ago. U.S. political debate about health care goes back 100 years, to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Even earlier, United Methodists believed that providing health care to others is an important duty of Christians. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, developed ways to offer medical services at no cost to the poor in London.
Bishop Janice Huie of the Texas Conference recently wrote, "The General Board of Church & Society is the agency that has the authority to advocate (for) public policy consistent with the values and statements adopted by the General Conference and found in the Book of Discipline. It is my understanding that Speaker Pelosi’s statement actually referenced advocacy from the General Board of Church & Society on behalf of health care." (Cross Connection, the Texas Conference newspaper, April 2)
Bishop Huie, who also has served as president of the Church’s Council of Bishops, explained, "Over the years, The United Methodist Church, acting through the General Board of Church & Society and its predecessor bodies, has been involved in a number of issues" that were controversial at the time. Among those: child labor legislation, temperance legislation, civil rights legislation, disability legislation, anti-gambling legislation, and anti-pornography legislation.
The preface to our Social Principles, contained in the Discipline, says it well: "The United Methodist Church has a long history of concern for social justice. Its members have often taken forthright positions on controversial issues involving Christian principles."
Huie also points to a posting by Paul Brown, a graduate student at Duke University, on the UMC Facebook site: "Sisters and brothers, our unity is grounded in Jesus Christ—not in the details of health care reform. As a church that includes both Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush as members, we are free to disagree on various social issues, but we remain united in one Lord, one faith, and one baptism."
May it be so.