The Error Driven Life: Rick Warren Spouts Misinformation About Health Care

Pastor Rick Warren seems to think he’s qualified to address just about any issue. He’s not. In fact, he’s often remarkably uninformed.

Remember Rick Warren? This mega-church pastor (whom I once referred to as “Jerry Falwell in a Hawaiian shirt” during a cable news interview) has been working hard to make himself a national figure, with mixed results.

Back in 2008, Warren, who leads Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and authored the best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life, hosted a forum during which he interviewed presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain on their views on how religion and public policy ought to interact. Warren was subsequently invited to offer a prayer during Obama’s first inauguration and promptly alienated lots of Americans by including references to Jesus.

Warren likes to portray himself as non-partisan, but he’s really just another in a long line of Religious Right preachers who have plagued our nation over the years. In an attempt to get back into the media, he has joined his right-wing fundamentalist pals in attacking Obama.

In 2012, Warren attempted to replicate the 2008 political forum, but neither Obama nor former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney seemed interested, so that was that. Lately he has been talking about hosting a major conference on “religious liberty,” but do far it’s just that – talk.

Like a lot of theocracy-minded pastors Americans United has dealt with over the years, Warren seems to think he’s qualified to address just about any issue. He’s not. In fact, he’s often remarkably uninformed. (Remember his infamous tweet implying that the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting was linked to evolution?)

At a recent forum at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Warren asserted that churches do a better job of providing health care than government.

“The audacity of the government telling the church how to do health care,” Warren said. “We’ve been doing it 2,000 years longer than any government,” Warren remarked.

Of course, many churches are involved in health care. The Catholic Church, Baptist bodies, Seventh-day Adventists and Jewish groups run hospitals, among others.

But these institutions could not exist without government aid. Religious hospitals often receive direct government support and of course are reimbursed for the patients they see under Medicare and Medicaid.

Warren played up a program his church sponsors in Rwanda that includes a health care component. There is a reason why church groups provide health care in poor, war-ravaged countries like Rwanda: There’s often no other option.

If Warren thinks a network of clinics run by well-intentioned doctors can substitute for America’s modern network of hospitals and medical specialists, he’s sadly mistaken.

Warren is also confused over the issue of birth control. He has been a prominent critic of Obama’s efforts to make sure that all Americans have access to safe and effective contraceptives, even if they work for religiously affiliated institutions.

“It’s not like contraceptives are hard to get; you can get them free anywhere,” Warren said. “Why force someone who has a conviction against it….That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to Warren because he appears to be disconnected from reality. First, under Obama’s plan all houses of worship are totally exempt. They don’t have to provide birth control to their employees.

Religiously affiliated nonprofits (hospitals, colleges, etc.) also are largely exempt from the contraceptive mandate. Obama has put forth a plan in which employees at these institutions will access contraceptives through a separate insurance plan paid for by the insurer.

Only for-profit corporations and businesses are required to pay directly for insurance plans that include birth control. AU and other groups argue that this mandate makes sense, since these companies are not in the business of promoting religion. (See this recent AU friend-of-the-court brief for more information.)

In each case, the decision of whether to use birth control rests with the employee. How does that private choice affect someone else’s?

Secondly, what’s the business about birth control being “free anywhere”? Warren may be referring here to condoms, which some universities and public health clinics make available at no cost to young people to encourage responsible sexual behavior.

It’s not like there’s a facility like this on every street corner, and even if there were, condoms are only one form of birth control. Many Americans rely on other methods, and I’m not aware of any kiosks out there eagerly passing out IUDs, diaphragms, Depro-Provera, cervical caps and birth control pills. These devices and medicines are not free. (Planned Parenthood estimates that the cost of birth control pills ranges from $20-$50 per month. Diaphragms cost $15-$75, but a medical exam is required first at an additional cost.)

Obama wants to make certain birth control is covered because it’s an important aspect of medical care. Insurance companies are expected to embrace the plan because it will reduce unwanted pregnancies, and they’ll save money in the long run. (This approach, by the way, could also lower the abortion rate – something Warren and his Religious Right cronies should support.)

Georgetown is a major university and one that’s held in high regard. I’m sure that the university sponsors forums like this to inform the public of important issues. It’s a shame that the school in this case dropped the ball by relying on Warren, who is so remarkably ill-informed.

P.S. Monday is Presidents' Day, and "The Wall of Separation" will be on hiatus.