Taking a different path, Hispanic evangelicals support Obamacare
By: Paige Winfield Cunningham
December 22, 2013 01:07 PM EST
Under the big evangelical tent where tens of millions of Americans worship, Hispanic churches are embracing Obamacare despite the concerns about religious freedom that have tarnished the law for many of their fellow believers.
Pastors have encouraged support since enrollment for health coverage began in October. Their take is that the law’s positives outweigh its negatives, especially for the one in three Hispanics without insurance, the highest uninsured rate of any racial or ethnic group. Many of the uninsured are eligible for major new health benefits plus subsidies to help them afford coverage.
On the eve of the first sign-up deadline Monday, church leaders are still working hard to get out the word about how much the Hispanic community will gain. Some draw parallels between the suffering the law is intended to ameliorate and the church’s core mission.
“Jesus was a healer,” noted Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. “The health care law can be improved, but I think in its present form it does more good than harm to Latinos around the country.”
Given the robust growth of evangelicalism within the nation’s Hispanic population – 13 percent of adults now identify themselves as evangelical – this slice of support could be potent.
Yet embrace of the health law puts Hispanic evangelicals at odds with other evangelicals as well as religious conservatives across denominations. They have opposed Obamacare primarily because of its provision requiring businesses to cover contraceptives in employee health plans, including the morning-after pill.
Unlike the Catholic Church, evangelicals do not oppose contraception per se. But they contend that the mandate violates the individual religious values of many employers – the constitutional issue that in fact will be argued before the Supreme Court next spring.
Although the contraceptive requirement may cause many evangelical Hispanics discomfort, they seem to have made their peace. “Our commitment has always been to strike a balance between religious liberty and individual liberty,” Salguero said.
In doing so, they’ve aligned with the mainline congregations that have been at the center of most of the Obama administration’s faith outreach. That months-long effort has included online seminars, meetings in churches nationwide, mailings and even special tutorials for missionaries on the specifics of the complex health law.
NLEC, which has about 3,000 member churches, has mounted its own outreach through webinars and pastor trainings and still has events planned in January in Orlando, Las Vegas, Chicago and Puerto Rico. Other programs have been organized at more of a grass-roots level.
The law is “a start,” said Abraham Hernandez, northeast vice president for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He believes Obamacare’s expanded benefits will advance a key conference principle. “If Hispanics in the nation can have access to health care, it indeed preserves life. We believe that access to health care is very critical,” he said.
Hernandez, who also serves as associate pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Connecticut, has long worked for greater health access and other reforms in his state. This fall, a group of religious leaders he helped to mobilize organized dozens of Obamacare question-and-answer sessions in churches. They targeted the major population centers of Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport, where most Hispanics in Connecticut live.
Rhona Cohen, a local health care advocate, led trainings in about 15 churches around the state on behalf of the group. Churches are a great place to do outreach, she said, because people tend to talk more freely about the law.
“I’ve found that people are willing to be a little more open about their concerns, because these are communities of folks who come together regularly and work together regularly and also have a focus on their own community within the church…so they already are sort of creating a culture of care,” she said.
She’s found that evangelicals express the same principal concern about Obamacare as other Hispanics — namely, whether they’ll be able to afford the coverage offered to them. Rarely does she hear the contraception mandate raised.
“Yes, there are broader theological questions the pastors bring to the conversation, but the laity on the whole are worried about economics,” she said.
Hernandez and other Hispanic evangelical leaders say they have been careful to acknowledge the issue of religious beliefs. But they’ve also stressed the law’s overall benefits. “To know that people who are below the 400 percent poverty level will get help…it’s a significant number,” Hernandez said. “Folks will have a subsidy that can at least help them go see a doctor.”
Salguero said his goal is always to give people a full, accurate picture.
“If we’re doing our job right as pastors in churches, we’re presenting the Affordable Care Act as it is with its strengths and weaknesses and people can make a decision,” he said. “As evangelicals, we need to explain it to the best of our ability.”