If we ask the wrong question, our answer won’t matter. Many ask the wrong question about how to resolve the conflict between religion and science. The useful question is more nuanced: how do we embody our most mature faith and the most relevant science to inform the health of whole people? Good question. But you have to see somebody do it to understand the answer.
Last week about 200 people asking that question gathered in Rocky Mount, North Carolina for the Eighth Annual John W. Hatch FaithHealth Lecture. And to celebrate Dr. Hatch’s 95th birthday. Not many black men live to be 95, so we should have a party for every one that does and think about how they did so. John began by picking his parents and grandparents wisely. They were fierce for him, believed that he should be a professor (his grandmother even considered his goal of Governor). Just as important, was inculcating him from his earliest age that his life intelligence, energy, courage and heart belong to the people God so loves—all of them. Good pick, John.
Two weeks ago THE American Public Health Association Caucus on Faith and the Public Health honored Dr. John Hatch as the first recipient of the Flame Award, given for a lifetime of keeping the flame of justice, mercy and healing alive in a hard-hearted world. We did that in Atlanta by Zoom, but Barbara Baylor, the chair of the caucus and a student of Dr. Hatch, came to Rocky Mount to give him the award in person.
The interwoven fields of public health and faith have been embodied in many significant lives in the past several hundred years as public health science has emerged.
For example, in 1737, James McCune Smith became the first African American to earn a medical degree, awarded by the University of Glasgow in Scotland. The local schools didn’t admit him, so his church connections found the way. A gifted orator and writer and social entrepreneur, he was also a mathematician. He used his statical analysis to take down Senator John C. Calhoun who was citing the US census to show that poor health of slaves reflected their inferior stock and poor behavior. Dr. Smith’s widely published scientific article showed that comparative data on free slaves and poor whites to had identical outcomes.
A binary star as our North Star—mature faith, relevant science, John Hatch embodies the most relevant science of all, the one that sets people and communities free by undergirding their own power. I’m sure he learned this science from his family example. But as I thought of him, I picked up my precious copy of “Closing the Gap” published in 1987 by Oxford Press. This CDC Conference was the idea of Jimmy Carter and Bill Foege who convened the hundreds of scientists to figure out how many years of premature death could be prevented based on what we already know. There is a lot of confusion about what we already know. Said Carter in the introduction: “This is particularly true for an issue as complex as health. Too often, Americans are confronted by messages about health that leave us with little or no hope…. Frequently, there is no mention of what I as an individual, or what we as a society, can do to arrest this relentless onslaught on our health.” The answer is about what John’s grandmother would have said:
“Approximately two-thirds of all reported deaths can be delayed, which means that 1.2 million lives and 8.4 million years of life can be preserved each year.” That next three decades dramatically increased our preventive knowledge as well as some relatively minor increases in curative science.
But science without hands, feet and heart doesn’t move from the lab to the streets. That takes mature faith, the kind that lets the science flow through generous lives to where it is needed most. Like that of John Hatch.
Shortly after their landmark report on Closing the Gap, Bill and Jimmy convened another meeting of several hundred diverse faith leaders to see if they could grasp the urgent moral moment posed by the prevention science. They also created the Interfaith Health Program with major funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as well as some from Templeton Foundation. And they hired me. I quickly learned about John Hatch, who knew every bit of this science and carried it with his body into the toughest places that needed it the very most. This included Mississippi, where he and Jack Geiger created the first (or arguably second) community health center that is still more radical than most of the 3,000 that followed. And he came to the University of North Carolina and continued his landmark work with the 1,600 churches of General Baptist State Convention.
When I say “embody” science and faith, what kind of body do I mean? Whose bodies are best suited—let us say designed by God—to be the ideal carriers of this science that could prevent two-thirds of all unnecessary and thus, scandalous, death. Who did God put in the world for that purpose, to save, dare I say, it? Well, your body and mine, of course, just as well as John’s. Why can’t you and I be as brave, smart and fierce?
But I think there is an even better body designed for this mature faith and relevant science. That is the social body of the church, synagogue, masjid, temple or wherever people gather to be made whole and sent out again. That’s the body that formed John. And that is the body designed to carry the science the world needs. We were, of course meeting in just one such body, the Impact Center and Tabernacle, embodying the saving science and faith in a tough town in a tough part of a tough state.
The science that saves us—at least 2/3rds of us—is for the world God so loves. It is hard to monetize and turned into money by healthcare organizations, even those trying to use value-based contracts to do so. It won’t put hundreds of billions in the basement or pay big bucks to interventional physicians or those who organize the organizations who so successfully monetize other branches of science. The science that fits mature faith perfectly is that of mercy-making, justice-doing and love that teaches people and communities that God has made a world in which 2/3rds of their suffering is within their control. This science is considered the lowest in the academic hierarchy with a tiny fraction of NIH funding. But it is the highest of all sciences because it liberates, releases and sends out the whole body of faith.
That science is relevant once it finds the right body to carry it to the streets.
The John W. Hatch FaithHealth Lecture is coordinated by Anita Holmes with support from the FaithHealth Division of Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist. Cosponsors include the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, the General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gillings School of Global Public Health, Caucus on Public Health and the Faith Community of the American Public Health Association, Community-Campus Partnerships for Health and the National Association of Community Health Associations.