Faith in Public Health

Rev. Lee Ann Pomrenke argues that the fear of being called “too political” is holding back faith communities from advocating effectively on matters of public health that should certainly be their concern. This is a powerful call to faith communities to reclaim at home the essential work that many congregations are already supporting internationally.

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Death is a great place to start. More and more of my clergy colleagues have been initiating end-of-life discussions in the faith communities they lead, because everybody knows: we do funerals.

The voice of people of faith should not, however, trail off on matters of public health. Timing is one concern; we must, for example, have sensitive conversations well before a crisis is at hand or related legislation is on the table. First, though, it is important for people of faith to claim their authority to speak from their faith about many matters relating to the health and well-being of all God’s children.

End-of-life decisions are a prime example of how faithful questioning benefits everyone. Because physicians are bound by their oath (and also by the pressures of malpractice insurance) to prolong life, it often falls to patients and their families to ask exactly what would be accomplished through medical interventions, and to bring their own values into those conversations. While medical professionals in our midst can help us understand what is meant by terms such as “quality of life,” clergy, who are authorized to talk about death, can help people dealing with health issues think about hard ethical questions.

Are we, for example, making faithful use of resources by prolonging life for a few additional days in the ICU at exorbitant expense? Does extreme medical intervention set families up for needless additional emotional trauma by prolonging life with the help of technology and then leaving them to agonize over when the mechanisms that are breathing for their loved one should be turned off?

The existence of medical technology does not define the meaning of using it, so patients and family members often turn to faith communities for such meaning. As a pastor, I find that we are often the best equipped to sort through together how we live in our physical bodies, foster and maintain our relationships before death is imminent, and how we use and direct our financial resources in ways consistent with our deeply-held beliefs. Whether we recognize them as such, these are public health conversations, and the advice I provide is often bathed in the values of my faith tradition.

The problem, of course, is that advocating for public health changes is perceived as entering the realm of the political, even though clergy cannot endorse candidates or campaigns, a practice still prohibited by the Johnson Amendment (despite a recent attempt to repeal it as part of the tax overhaul plan). In congregations that are some shade of purple, there is nothing that shuts down conversation more quickly than the accusation that a topic is “too political.”

This is a convenient method of steering clear of potential interpersonal conflict in a congregation with members of differing political persuasions. But, when doing so, people of faith are actually backing away from the command to love thy neighbor. Politicians may frame end-of-life conversations as “death panels” or argue over whether healthcare is a right, but this political maneuvering does not ask what our holy texts, tradition, or theology say about how we value human life. If faith communities do not voice those perspectives, who will? 

People of faith who are uneasy about religion’s involvement in public health policy discussions should perhaps ask themselves whether they may already support church-based public health efforts abroad. Hospitals and clinics such as Selian Lutheran Hospital in Arusha, Tanzania, provide the premier care in their region with substantial support from churches and people of faith in the United States. Few congregations have qualms about supporting their first HIV/AIDS hospice department in Tanzania, based on public health being “too political.”

And yet, closer to home, different diseases are killing us rapidly. Will we allow our churches to talk about our own devastating, preventable diseases, such as affluenza, detachment from our food sources and the ways they are produced, or isolation (contributing to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse)? We cannot stand in the midst of these epidemics and faithfully “stick to spiritual matters” just because some of the contributing factors might be controversial.

Medical professionals can advise in our midst about the health risks and how to eat, exercise, connect with, and support each other better. People of faith must define the urgency and meaning that compels us to act to save and improve the lives of members of our families of faith, and all of God’s children. We must do public health for the sake of our faith communities, not despite them.

Yes, clergy do funerals. But these end-of-life conversations should be just the beginning of addressing public health in our faith communities. Our sacred texts call us to remember that we are but dust and will return to dust—but they certainly have something to say about how we live as well.

Humans are, as the Psalmist declares, fearfully and wonderfully made! If we, in faith communities, indeed credit a Creator for making us who we are, then we have a natural opening to talk about how we ought to care for our minds and bodies, and even for those who feed us.

How we eat, drink, exercise, and take care of our bodies are all—fortunately or unfortunately—related to those necessary end-of-life conversations. It is uncomfortable, perhaps (but no more so than talking about death), to talk about how much we move (or don’t) during the day, our habits of consumption, and the foods and substances we use and where they come from. Yes, it flies in the face of individual consumer choices, but we are accountable for how and by whom our food is raised and harvested, people of faith.

Churches are among the few establishments that have not completely lost the right to talk about the community impact of decisions, and so although your salt intake or blood pressure may indeed be none of my business, our faith community is invested in your well-being, and we must risk having the conversation.

 

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