Yesterday, UrbanFaith columnist Andrew Wilkes expressed his opinion about President Obama’s decision last week not to require religious employers to pay for contraception as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Today, we add the voices of Christian thinkers Cheryl J. Sanders, Charles C. Camosy, and Lisa Sharon Harper to the discussion.
Sanders: ‘The Public Policy Priority Is Justice’
Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders
“The first rule that had to be retracted and reversed was an unfortunate miscalculation on the president’s part. I give him credit for tweaking the agreement. What I lament is something that I don’t just blame him for, but which occurs from time to time, particularly in the federal government, where there’s a misunderstanding, a misreading, of religion and people’s religious sensibilities. Some things can be legislated, but there are some beliefs and practices that people have that are grounded in faith rather than a particular notion of rights.
My ethical perspective is that the priority in public policy should be given to justice. The purpose of justice is to ensure the well being of people and to impose those restraints and requirements that give people equal access to justice and to fair treatment, because they’re not exactly the same. Sometimes those justice matters are subjective, but the outcome of justice should be the best quality of life that any individual person or group can have.
Some people make very questionable decisions about their sexuality, about child bearing, but they have a right to their own bodies and their own relationships, so it’s good for government to stay out of that. When it comes to federal funding of religious institutions, there are goods and services that go to people consistent with this notion of quality of life that are rightly funded by the government. However, the government has to be respectful of the particular moral teachings of a particular religious community that would not necessarily square with the morality of the general public.
I don’t say that’s an easy calculation to make. The government is much more comfortable funding big corporate entities like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services, even the Salvation Army, because they’re organized in a way that matches with the dominant culture’s way of doing business, whereas with black churches and smaller organizations, it’s always a problem. For African Americans, the role that religion and churches play in the society is construed differently. There’s less of a distinction between faith and public policy. That’s why the civil rights movement and many of the strongest voices advocating for legislation or for particular government initiatives are coming from religious leaders in the African American community. You don’t find that same situation in the dominant culture unless it’s something like this where there’s a rule imposed that contradicts church teaching.”
—Cheryl J. Sanders, Th.D., professor of Christian Ethics, Howard University
Camosy: ‘Perhaps Both Sides Were Disingenuous’
Dr. Charles C. Camosy
“The reason this became a serious public issue from which the administration had to backtrack was because ‘liberal’ Catholics were objecting and they were afraid they might lose significant Catholic support in important swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin. The objection of most ‘liberal’ Catholics was related to religious freedom of institutions. They don’t really see contraception (especially letting women make a decision about how to use contraception–either for health reasons or something else or both) as a morally significant issue.
‘Conservative’ Catholics, however, always objected to the mandate in a broad sense because they see especially abortifacient contraception as a very important moral issue–something which all people, regardless of religion or status as a religious employer, should be able to object to providing on the basis of conscience. Unfortunately for this point of view, in order to get “heard” by the administration and the left-leaning Catholics in the media, the line of argument had to be explicitly about the freedom of religious institutions with respect to the federal government. That makes the objections now being raised by the bishops less persuasive because it looks like the goal posts have shifted.
Something that doesn’t get talked about enough in all this is that Catholic teaching, and the U.S. bishops, consider health care to be a fundamental right. A woman can get the pill if she is taking it for what we would understand health reasons—she has an issue with her cycle, ovarian cysts/cancer, she has a condition which makes pregnancy threaten her life, etc. Why can’t a physician simply code a script for a patient in a way that treats a specific health condition? This is totally allowed under Catholic teaching. Unless, of course, the real issue is not about women’s health, but about having sex without having babies. Perhaps both ‘sides’ were disingenuous in speaking about ‘religious freedom’ and ‘women’s health’ when they actually meant something else.”
—Charles C. Camosy, Ph.D., assistant professor of Christian Ethics, Fordham University
Harper: ‘Commitment to Women Doesn’t Trump Religious Liberty’
Lisa Sharon Harper
“At the core of this issue is a debate between worldviews. These worldviews are held most dearly by the people who have the most interest in them. In one worldview, the debate is about the freedom of conscience for religious organizations, in particular hospitals and universities because other religious bodies were exempt from Obama’s ruling. It’s a legitimate concern. There were legitimate counter arguments on the other side, where you had the worldview of women and also people who are deeply invested in issues of poverty.
What I like about what I’ve seen, not only in Obama, but also in the country, is that around this issue, it’s not been a question of ideology, but a question of practicality. What will work to actually continue to protect the religious liberty of religious institutions and at the same time protect the liberty of individual women in America to access contraception? That is not only a right in America because it has to do with an individual’s body and ability to hold liberty over their own body, but also it has to do with the right to life, because we know that contraception is one of the biggest ways to help lessen the number of abortions in America. Sojourners put out a statement saying we like what we’ve seen and we agree with the overwhelming response of the religious community. Our nation is committed to standing behind the needs of women, in particular poor women. That commitment does not have to trump the American commitment to preserving religious liberty. It’s a brilliant compromise.”
—Lisa Sharon Harper, director of mobilizing, Sojourners
What do you think?
Was this a brilliant compromise, a matter of justice, or a disingenuous debate?
*Please note: Participant comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Our culture’s current brand of political strife is nothing compared to the division and hostility that prevailed in the first century. Yet, despite opposition, the Great Physician boldly demonstrated what it means to welcome and care for “the least of these.”
Last month the United State House of Representatives voted to pass health-care reform, thus affording millions of medically uninsured Americans the opportunity to secure basic health-care as a civil right. This historic legislative act is an attempt for America to become a more civil society (with regard to “the sick and poor among us”) — similar to most other first world (and some third world nations) like Canada and parts of Western Europe. During my four-year stint in England to work on my doctorate at the University of Manchester, my family and I were under the National Health Care system (NHS) whereby every citizen and resident was assigned a general practitioner in the area. Quite a paradigm shift from what we’d known in the United States.
Despite the significance of such a major legislative passage in our nation, a partisan dispute continues. The reform measures were largely supported by Democrats, the uninsured, and sympathetic others. But Republicans and some among the privileged class argue that the legislation will bankrupt America in various ways. They also resent the fact that their tax dollars will be used to help pay for the coverage of less-privileged individuals in our society.
Contention over this legislative act has sparked volatile tension and a curious rash of narcissism: seemingly ordinary citizens (protesters) have reacted with a sense of barbarism, hurling racial slurs and other derogatory epithets at members of Congress. Reports of Congressman Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri being spat upon by angry protesters are now well known. Likewise, Congressmen John Lewis of Georgia and James Clyburn of South Carolina were heckled and called “nigger” as they passed protesters outside the House chambers.
It’s enough to make one recall the violent emotion and political chaos that set the scene for Jesus’ arrest and subsequent trial before Pilate:
Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. (Matthew 27:20-30, NRSV)
Similar to modern America, the late Second Temple Judaic period (the period in which Jesus lived and ministered) was as diverse, volatile, and politically charged as our world today. Under Roman rule, heterogeneity with regard to philosophical thought and religious sentiments set the backdrop of first century Palestine. In Palestine, the Israelites maintained a sense of religious Judaic tradition. As an imperial province, new ideas were viewed with suspicion, especially if they challenged traditional thought and the status quo.
Although Judaism by no means was a unified monolith, certain fundamentals were foundational (the function of the Temple, observance of the Mosaic Law or Torah, embracing monotheism, and the expectation of a prophesied Messiah). As a result of tradition and the law, many in the society, especially the sick, were prohibited full inclusion in social-civil-religious life; this led to legal disenfranchisement and marginalization.
As recorded in the New Testament Gospels, Jesus both lived and functioned in this type society. Throughout the Gospels, he went about engaging and healing many who were sick. Jewish purification laws first outlined in the Pentateuch set social-civil-religious policy against persons considered impure: the leper, those with bodily discharge, the lame, and even the Gentiles. The acts of Jesus were contrary to the current policy. In Mark 5, Jesus interacted with a demon possessed man (who dwelled among corpses), was touched by a woman considered impure with bodily discharge, and touched the corpse of a young boy. In all three cases, Jesus enacted legislative health care (healing that went contrary to current policy), thus restoring these individuals back to full participation in the society.
As a result of his universal health-care plan, as well as his controversial declaration that he was the incarnate Son of God, Jesus was persecuted, spat upon, and mocked. James 5:14-16 sums up the kind of health-care plan that Jesus enacted:
Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective (NRSV).
Our newly passed health-care legislation is a good start and will likely help many who are in need. Nevertheless, it’s still an imperfect plan, the patchwork result of much political squabbling and strife. But the health-care plan of Jesus is something altogether different. It is comprehensive, unfailing, and truly universal.
Telling half-truths about health-care reform makes it harder for us to judge Obama’s plan based on the facts. But it also violates one of our greatest biblical precepts.
Good will is a primary element of moral conduct. This is an important idea in the thought of philosopher Immanuel Kant. A good will is good in itself because it does not depend upon whether or not the person will benefit from a particular action or not. An individual acting out of a good will considers his or her duty to act in accordance with the moral law.
Kant’s test for whether or not an action coheres to the moral law is his Categorical Imperative, which is very close to the Golden Rule that Jesus taught. The Categorical Imperative says: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” The Golden Rule says: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). So, to act from a good will is to act in accordance to one’s duty to do to others as we would be done by — to ask ourselves what kind of world we would create if everyone acted the way we do.
Sadly, many of our leaders in Congress are not acting with a good will. In advance of President Obama’s health-care reform summit, for example, at least one Republican Congress member said that the American people oppose the President’s health-care reform proposal. He is correct. A recent Rasmussen poll reports that 56% of its respondents strongly oppose President Obama’s health-care reform. However, what the Congress member does not say is that in polls where the respondents are told what the elements of the bill are, they approve of the various elements, and support for the bill goes up.
A Newsweek Poll conducted Feb. 17-18, 2010, found the following opinions of the President’s plan: opposed 49%, favor 40%, unsure 9%. After hearing about the specifics of the proposal, the numbers changed: opposed 43%, favor 48%, unsure 9%. Fifty percent of the respondents favor “a government-administered public health insurance option to compete with private plans.”
More people in the Kaiser Family Foundation Kaiser Health Tracking Poll believe their families would be better off if the President and Congress passed health-care reform (better off 34%, worse off 32%, 26% not much difference). This number goes up when asked if the country as a whole would be better off (better off 45%, worse off 34%, not much difference 12%). Thirty-two percent think that Congress should pass legislation that has already been approved while 20% think Congress should pass only those provisions where there is broad agreement. Fifty-nine percent think the delay is due to both sides playing politics.
That Congress member told the partial truth, which is still dishonest. There are items in the polls that would support Republican positions. Most people think it is important for health insurers to have the ability to sell across state lines. However, by giving only the facts of the poll that support his position, that Congress member violated the Categorical Imperative and the Golden Rule. The presumption here is that he would not want people to tell half-truths to him or that we ought not to make half-truth-telling a universal law.
What is worse, we have to spend time checking the facts of a poll rather than learning the facts of the various proposals, a combination of which may finally get this country to universal health care. And universal health care is a moral good and ought to be a legislative imperative.
Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler.
In this third and final installment of Todd Burkes’s series on the thorny political, racial, and cultural issues surrounding the health-care debate, the author dives headlong into his most controversial question yet:
Why is “socialism” such a dirty word in America? Is it really that evil?
We both watched the same scene on CNN while sitting in the crowded food court of the Nairobi airport. But while I understood perfectly the context and quickly dismissed what I was seeing, the woman sharing my table was taken aback.
“What is wrong with her?” she said of the woman on the TV screen who was shown breaking into tears at a U.S. health-care reform town hall meeting. She spoke passionately about what was happening to “her America.” All of her fears about what was happening to her America were wrapped up in her declaration of her Christian faith.
“Is she unstable or something?”
My tablemate couldn’t fathom the depth of emotion that the American woman on the television was expressing over a word that to her was simply not very controversial.
“All of this, over socialism?” she said. “What am I missing?”
Both of us being foreigners visiting in Africa, perhaps we instinctively knew this was one of those cultural differences that make international relations so difficult but that also can broaden our minds to new understanding. This subject and coffee would carry us through a portion of our long layover.
I would soon learn that she was Louise, a Swedish ethnologist who had been in Kenya working on a for-profit clean-water project. We would both soon learn that the word “socialism” means very different things to Western Europeans and Americans.
Socialism is one of the keywords most heard swirling within the fear and anger that have been uncapped by those seeking to prevent President Obama and Democratic Party leaders from reforming America’s health-care system. After the near trillion-dollar bailout of the nation’s banking system, followed by the government essentially becoming a multibillion-dollar stakeholder in General Motors, opponents of health care successfully began playing the socialism card.
And, right on cue, many people began to feel that their America, the America that waved the banner of capitalism and democracy in the world, was becoming something else: socialist.
But so what? That’s what many of my friends from Paris and other European nations are asking. Why does the word socialist evoke such an emotional response from Americans? And why do American evangelicals see opposition to socialism as a required part of their faith?
It wasn’t until I moved to France 14 years ago that I really understood that socialism was not a dirty word throughout the Western world.
Shortly after my arrival in Paris I was confronted with the reality that my views had been shaped by a particular American experience that simply was not shared by French people, no matter their political leaning, their faith perspective, or any other factor.
In France’s parliamentary government, for example, there are basically a few nationalist parties on the far right and then Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party at the mainstream right. There’s the MoDem party in the center, and then on the left are the Socialist Party and several relatively minor parties, including the Communist Party and the Green Party.
So the Socialist Party is mainstream in France, as it is in most Western European countries. The Communist Party remains important, as many remain loyal to the party that stood firm against Nazi occupation during World War II.
Christians here would line up across the political spectrum, but they tend to see the Bible through their cultural lenses, focusing a great deal on the social aspects of Christian teaching.
Understanding the Terms
In the America that shaped my understanding of the world, socialism was linked to communism, and communism was simply wrong. Communism, as we understood it, was not just unproductive and unworkable, it was also evil. Ronald Reagan even called the Soviet Union an evil empire.
Why evil? Both Soviet-bloc and Chinese Communism both were known for their repression of religion and for stifling freedom across the board. People in the Soviet bloc were literally prisoners in their own countries, unable to freely travel abroad.
This was communism as it was portrayed to us. And for many, if not most of us, this was also socialism. Many believed that socialism was a less-extreme form of communism, but that the end result was the same: people who were not free … lazy people who looked for a handout instead of working … an economic system that would not work.
So, France, for example, was socialist while the Soviet bloc was communist. But both were doomed to economic and social failure.
Now, way back in some 101-level college class, I learned that socialism was simply an economic organization designed to distribute more evenly a society’s wealth, while Communism — at least the Marxist version we all know and love — was a government form designed to force a state-run socialist system on a partially unwilling population.
So socialism should be compared to capitalism as an economic system, while Communism should be compared to Democracy as a governmental system.
This is vital to understanding that socialism is not in opposition to Democracy or freedom, as many Americans seem to believe. Anyone who lives in Western Europe, where most of the nations are relatively socialist, can attest to this. One could argue that France’s democracy is much more vibrant than America’s, with an extremely literate and well-informed population frequently taking to the streets and calling for general strikes to make its voice heard by its government.
Yet the people of this vibrant democracy have chosen to use socialism in their economic system to a much larger extent than have Americans.
I stress to a much larger extent because Americans use socialism too. We have socialized police and fire protection, socialized education, socialized retirement insurance and health care for our most vulnerable citizens.
We even have “private socialism,” which is basically how one might define any insurance plan. Everyone pays in so that those who find themselves in need (because of a hurricane, a car accident, or sickness) will not be economically ruined by the unfortunate event.
Of course, we don’t use the S-word to describe any of this.
Which Protestant Ethic?
“But that is exactly how we view socialism,” said Louise back in Nairobi.
“Perhaps it’s more normal for us to think like this,” she said. “Perhaps it is part of our Protestant ethic.
“We’re all on welfare, in a way. We all freely receive all kinds of things. So perhaps it is easier for us to imagine giving back so that others can freely receive.”
It fascinated me that to her, socialism was part of her culture’s Protestant ethic.
I had only ever heard of the Protestant ethic with the word “work” inserted in the middle.
But to Louise, the Protestant ethic was one of grace. It was based in the idea that all Swedes had been blessed greatly and that it was only natural to share the blessing.
In America, our social programs — at least the ones we notice — tend to be in the form of handouts to the poor and the vulnerable. So everyone pays, but only the needy receive. Naturally, there is a certain disdain for this from Americans, who tend to value rugged individualism and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.
Many Christians even quote often from the Gospel According to Benjamin Franklin, thinking that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible.
In majority-culture evangelical churches, passages against idleness and handouts like “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” tended to be preached and taught much more often than their relatively obscure stature might suggest.
Louise made me wonder if American evangelicals, whose gospel message stresses that God’s salvation does not come by works but through God’s grace, realize that the Protestant work ethic, and the attitudes it produces, perhaps run contrary to their doctrine.
The Bible is filled with Scriptures about the poor and exhortations for followers of God to seek justice and protection for them, and to identify with their helplessness as our true state before God.
In the book of Acts we have those two passages about life in the early church (might we call them the founding fathers of the church?), two passages rarely championed as ideals for Christians in evangelical sermons I have heard.
Acts 2:44-45 reads, “All that believed were together, and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”
And then in Acts 4:32-37: All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Could it be that the humility the Scriptures suggest should be evident in any person who understands that he or she has done nothing to merit God’s grace is being undermined by an even more fundamental belief in our individual merit?
Frankly, I found Louise’s thinking much closer to the biblical attitudes I find in Scripture than those of many of the people I have heard crying out about socialism. If you pay close attention to the protests and the protesters, you will notice a recurrent theme: Don’t take from me to give to those who won’t work and don’t deserve it.
Don’t give it to those illegal aliens and those good-for-nothing people who won’t work for it. And then, don’t support health care because it will be used to support sinners (i.e., people who don’t deserve it on a moral basis).
Many Americans tend to see socialism as a Robin Hood scheme, robbing from the rich in order to give to the poor. Western Europeans like Louise tend to see socialism as solidarity, everyone pays into the system, but everyone gets something in return.
The City Wall
Centuries ago, most European cities had walls built around them in order to protect the population from marauders and invading armies. Imagine everyone in the city having to provide work and materials for the construction of the wall. Was this an early form of socialism?
Why not a private system in which each one built his or her private wall? Obviously, this would be an impractical and ineffective way of keeping out the enemy. Pulling everyone’s resources together for a common, well-built wall made more sense than some piecemeal wall with huge gaps.
In the same way today, I pay high taxes here in France, but each month I receive a check from the government to help with the expenses for my three children, my kids will be able to go to university for free as long as they perform well enough to continue, and my health care is largely covered, even if I lose my job, change jobs, go back to school, etc.
This just makes sense to most people here. The wall works for everyone, so why not pay your part?
Louise admitted that in Sweden, as is the case in France, this concept has come under more stress now that many of those who live inside the walls of Europe are not Europeans. People have a much harder time with solidarity when it has to be done with Turks, or Africans, or Arabs — people with different skin colors, cultures, languages, and values.
But that’s another subject. Or is it?
Perhaps when the Christian woman cried and talked about losing her America, what she really was feeling had little to do with socialism and had a lot more to do with the same struggles that Louise’s socialist countrymen are struggling with in Sweden. Majority-culture Americans are perhaps feeling what if feels like to have to share space — and power and resources — with people who don’t believe like them, don’t think like them, and perhaps don’t look like them. The United States now even has a black president! Indeed, this is not the America they are used to.
I’m not talking about racism. I’m talking about a very human desire to build our wall with people like us. Barn raisings and community fundraisers, or special church offerings for hurting people … none of those things are called socialism or condemned as ungodly. But those things are usually done for people inside our wall. People like us — or people far enough away from us (like in an African or Haitian village) that we don’t have to deal with them in our everyday lives.
But in the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks his listeners — who knew they were to love their neighbors as themselves — to consider just who was their neighbor. The answer: It’s not always the neighbor who is like you.
It’s too easy and unproductive to label this inwardly turned streak of our human condition as “racism.”
But it is also too easy to slap the “socialism” and “un-American” labels on everything that we don’t like without examining what is really going on in our hearts. Once we stop worrying about bogeymen like Communism and dictatorships, we can start thinking on another level.
Followers of Christ, in particular, would do well to look less to the founding fathers as their model and instead look to the heavenly Father, who has expressed His love for them, giving to them freely, just as He loves all those people they would rather not have inside their city walls.
This may not mean that everyone will support health care. But it should lead Christians to humility and grace rather than what we are seeing all too often during this present debate.
Related Articles: Confronting Health-Care Hysteria, Part 1 and Part 2.