Do Pastors Know God’s Will on Medicaid Expansion? Seriously?

By Mark Tooley Published on May 8, 2015

Recently a group of mostly liberal Protestant clergy (but including a Catholic bishop) signed a Nashville Tennessean op-ed denouncing conservative Tennessee legislators who oppose Obamacare-facilitated Medicaid expansion in their state. The headline was: “Elected leaders show disregard for God’s word.”

Their op-ed insists these opponents “have chosen to ignore what the Bible clearly teaches.”

Here’s their scriptural evidence that God is endorsing Medicaid expansion in Tennessee:

 Throughout the Scriptures, God asks people of faith to care for our neighbors and to give special attention to those who are most vulnerable. “Care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger among you,” God commands (Deuteronomy 24:17). “Who is my neighbor?” a person asked. “The one who showed compassion,” Jesus replied (Luke 10:37). “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do to me,” says Jesus (Matthew 25:40), because all people are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). God calls, and we, as people of faith, are expected to respond — yet our leaders have chosen not to do so.

 The prophet Ezekiel denounced the leaders of ancient Israel whose failure of responsible government included the failure to provide health care: “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezekiel 34:4). You now have the choice to do what is right in the sight of the Lord and lead with compassion and humility, or to continue ignoring God’s voice.

With this evidence, they declare: “Now is the time for you, our elected leaders, to answer God’s call.” This legislation would actually “enact the will of the Lord.” Opponents or doubters, these pastors claim, are heeding their “own self-interests” instead of pursuing the plainly “moral and faithful thing to do.” The choice is clear: “Show us, and the rest of the state and world, that you care more about others than yourselves.”

This religio-political appeal by clergy is remarkable for reasons not related to the legislation itself. They offer no substantive policy arguments for the legislation. Instead, they merely quote biblical admonitions to care for the sick and needy, as if these verses reveal God’s specific will for Medicaid expansion in Tennessee. And they deride the motives of skeptics as manifestly sinister and selfish.

Tennessee’s governor thinks accepting Obamacare funds from the federal government to expand Medicaid to 280,000 people in his state is a good idea. So far the legislature disagrees, since they’re worried about long term increased costs for the state plus expanding control of medicine under Obamacare. Likely both sides, as in all political debates, are motivated by high-mindedness and self-interest. There are doubtless serious arguments on both sides.

Maybe these clergy could have intelligently added to the debate by offering substantive policy arguments for Medicaid expansion. But instead they chose implausible “Bible says” imprecations aligning themselves with God while demonizing skeptics. That many of the clergy, including Unitarian Universalist signers, don’t affirm traditional biblical authority makes their appeal seem all the more disingenuous.

Was this op-ed written by a political consultant exploiting “God talk” to sway the ostensibly fundamentalist simpletons of Tennessee? If so, such fundamentalists will unlikely be moved by Episcopal bishops and Unitarians with such thin biblical arguments.

Historic Social Gospel Protestantism tends not to treat the Bible as authoritative on theology and sex but treat it as very clear on political specifics, usually involving the expansion of government. The virgin birth and the details of Christ’s atoning death on the cross? These are divisive questions on which Christians disagree. And God, they imply, has no particular opinion on sexual relations between consenting adults or on the status of the unborn child. But He’s highly opinionated when it comes to the details of Medicaid expansion in Tennessee, and these pastors have privileged access to that opinion.

This way of thinking inverts orthodox Christian teaching, which claims authority over theology and personal morals, while acknowledging that though most political questions involve moral principles, they usually require prudential judgments, without presumptively claiming the full imprimatur of the Almighty.

There is also the issue of vocation. Does God call clergy to lobby the details of legislation as clergy? Or is that vocation primarily for lay people, especially those equipped with professional expertise?

Clergy exceeding their vocational calling and expertise typically add little that’s instructive to public discourse and instead detract from their religious institutions’ public witness. Hopefully the more reasonably minded among the Tennessee clergy who signed this op-ed will reconsider before entering another political debate for which they are not equipped and likely not divinely called.



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