Do-or-die for health care: Religious groups weigh in

The Affordable Care Act was signed into law on March 23, 2010. Health care reform approached a make-or-break moment as President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats pushed to pass the bill that Republicans had vowed to oppose. The urgency further galvanized religious bodies and lobbies that had dedicated themselves to seeing health care reform pass — or fail.

While different religious groups had a variety of reasons for supporting or opposing the reform bill, the principal dividing line was a dispute over whether the Senate bill, which was the version the House must adopt or reject, bars taxpayer funding of abortion.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which supports affordable, universal health care for everyone, including all immigrants, led the charge against the Senate bill. The bishops preferred the House version, which they said contains sufficient safeguards against federal dollars going to fund abortions.

Other groups on the more conservative side of the religious spectrum opposed the bill no matter what its various provisions, with some believing such a reform would represent an unholy intrusion of the state into areas of health care, economics and personal freedom.

But there is also a wide range of religious leaders and groups who invested months of work into lobbying for universal health care coverage — a goal of many religious groups for decades, and they ramped up their efforts ahead of the anticipated vote. They argue it is a moral imperative to extend more affordable health coverage to more people, and the biblical language that was employed by Obama and these faith leaders reinforces the idea of health care reform as fulfilling a biblical injunction.

Whatever their point of view, religious groups became involved in the contentious health care reform debate to an unprecedented degree.

This edition of ReligionLink provides a guide to the major players and religious voices in the debate and resources for covering it.

Why it matters

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the number of uninsured increased to 46.3 million in 2008, from 45.7 million in 2007. Religious leaders see a number of moral principles involved in health care. Those who support reform say affordable access to care is a moral imperative. Religious opponents of reform fear that it will enlarge access to abortion and that it could restrict care for the most vulnerable. Since the goal of health insurance reform is to improve access to care and give it to those who don’t now have it, whatever happens will affect virtually every American.


National sources


  • Leonard J. Nelson III

    Leonard J. Nelson III is a professor at the Cumberland School of Law of Samford University and an affiliated scholar with the Lister Hill Center for Health Policy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. He is a specialist in health care law and author of the 2009 book Diagnosis Critical: The Urgent Threats Confronting Catholic Healthcare. He says Catholic bishops face a dilemma: They support greater access to health care as a matter of social justice, but increased access to health care will bring with it increased demand for a full range of reproductive health services.

  • James R. Thobaben

    James R. Thobaben, a professor of church in society at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., is author of a new volume, Health-Care Ethics: A Comprehensive Christian Resource. The work focuses on evangelical Christian views on health care policy.

    Contact: 859-858-3581.
  • Russell Moore

    Russell Moore is editor-in-chief of Christianity Today. Named in 2017 as one of Politico Magazine’s top fifty influence-makers in Washington, Moore was previously President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

  • Richard Cizik

    The Rev. Richard Cizik is president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. He seeks to bring evangelical Christians, researchers and policymakers together to work on issues such as climate change, economic justice and national security.

    The New Evangelicals were among those backing the 40 Days for Health Reform campaign.

  • Richard Land

    Richard Land is president of the nondenominational Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., and previously served for 25 years as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

    The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission performed an analysis of proposed reform by the commission, which concluded that the bill would lead to fewer health care choices and more government intrusion.

  • David Saperstein

    David Saperstein is an American rabbi, lawyer, and Jewish community leader who served as United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom from 2015 – 2017. He previously served as the director and chief legal counsel at the Union for Reform Judaism‘s Religious Action Center for more than 40 years and as a Commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.  He Is one of the founders of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network. The network seeks to build mutual trust and respect among faith leaders through civic engagement, authentic relationships, and honest dialogue leading to resilient, compassionate, and flourishing communities.

    The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. was involved in the 40 Days for Health Reform coalition.

  • Gary Dorrien

    Gary Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and is an advocate of a single-payer system, as he wrote in a July 14, 2009, article in The Christian Century titled “Health-Care Fix.”

  • Sayyid M. Syeed

    Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed is National Director for Interfaith and Community Alliances at the Islamic Society of North America.

    Syeed has taken part in a number of interfaith groups supporting health care reform. ISNA is one of the sponsors of the 40 Days for Health Reform campaign.


  • Family Research Council

    The Family Research Council is a Christian organization promoting the traditional family unit and the Judeo-Christian value system. Press contacts are J.P. Duffy or Alice Chao.

    It produced a television ad that ran in five states saying that a “government health care takeover” would pay for abortions and deny care to those who need it. FRC President Tony Perkins has been a visible and vocal opponent of current health care reform proposals.

    Contact: 866-372-6397.
  • CitizenLink

    Focus on the Family’s Action Center arm asked people to tell their representatives to exclude abortion services from health care reform. Focus also lists Family Policy Councils in many states.

  • Eagle Forum

    Eagle Forum is a socially conservative group founded in 1972 by Phyllis Schlafly dedicated to offering resources that promote conservative and religious qualities in American livelihood such as public policy, government, family integrity and private enterprise. 

  • National Association of Evangelicals

    The National Association of Evangelicals is an organization that includes 45,000 congregations from 40 member denominations, individual congregations from an additional 27 denominations, and 250 parachurch ministries and educational institutions. Its mission is to gather, strengthen and expand the evangelical community. Galen Carey is vice president for government relations.

    It wrote a July 21 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking that health reform explicitly exclude abortion.

    Contact: 202-789-1011.
  • National Right to Life Committee

    Jessica Rodgers is a spokeswoman for the National Right to Life Committee in Washington, D.C. Karen Cross is national political director.

    It expressed concern that health care reform will expand access to abortion and ration access to care.

Analysis and research

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Stuart Altman

    Stuart Altman is the Sol C. Chaikin Professor of National Health Policy at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. He is an economist whose research interests are primarily in federal and state health policy.

  • David Cutler

    David Cutler is an economics professor at Harvard University. He wrote the book Your Money or Your Life: Strong Medicine for America’s Healthcare System, which looks at issues involving access to health care.

  • Abigail Rian Evans

    Abigail Rian Evans is an adjunct professor of family medicine at the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She wrote Redeeming Marketplace Medicine: A Theology of Health Care.

  • Jonathan Gruber

    Jonathan Gruber is an economics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. He advised the Obama campaign in 2008 about health care, and The Washington Post has called him the Democratic Party’s most influential health care expert. He has testified before the Senate Finance Committee about financing health care reform.

  • Jacob S. Hacker

    Jacob S. Hacker is the Stanley B. Resor Professor of Political Science at Yale University and a Resident Fellow at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies. He edited Health at Risk: America’s Ailing Health System – and How to Heal It.

  • Mark Pauly

    Mark Pauly is the Bendheim Professor of health care management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He is an expert on medical economics, health policy and health insurance.

  • George P. Smith II

    George P. Smith II is a law professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His specialty is bioethics and health law; he has taught internationally.

In the South

  • Alabama Policy Institute

    The Alabama Policy Institute has produced a video on health care reform that warns of waits and rationing of care.

  • Larry Churchill

    Larry Churchill is a professor of medical ethics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and a professor at the graduate department of religion at the Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn. An expert on the justice and allocation of health care resources, he wrote Self-Interest and Universal Health Care: Why Well-Insured Americans Should Support Coverage for Everyone.

  • Nicole Ravenell Edwards

    Nicole Ravenell Edwards is president and CEO for the Southern Institute on Children and Families, based in South Carolina but with affiliates throughout the South. The institute is a nonprofit organization that works with business leaders to try to improve children’s quality of life, including access to health care. Ravenell is a public policy expert.

    Contact: 803-779-2607.
  • H. Tristram Engelhardt Jr.

    H. Tristram Engelhardt Jr. is a philosophy professor at Rice University in Houston and an expert on bioethics. His current research interests include rights and responsibilities in health care.

  • B. Andrew Lustig

    B. Andrew Lustig is the Holmes Rolston III Professor of Religion and Science at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C. His specialties include bioethics and religion and science. He was staff ethicist for then-Gov. Mario Cuomo’s New York State Task Force on Life and the Law.

  • Ken Thorpe

    Ken Thorpe is Robert W. Woodruff professor and chair of the health policy and management department at Emory University in Atlanta. He is an expert in health care financing, insurance and health care reform.

In the Midwest

In the West

  • Alain C. Enthoven

    Alain C. Enthoven is a professor emeritus at the Center for Health Policy/Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research at Stanford University. His research focuses on financing and delivery of health care in the United States.

  • Sara Jarrett

    Sara Jarrett is a professor of nursing at Regis University in Denver and a member of the Colorado Nurses Association – Government Affairs and Public Policy Committee. The nurses association voted in 2005 to support single-payer universal health care. Jarrett’s work focuses on health care access for the poor.

  • Dr. Arthur Kaufman

    Dr. Arthur Kaufman is vice president for community health at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center. His primary interests are in creating innovative education and service models to address health needs.

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