Evangelicals and Obamacare

Bill Evans head shot

New Testament scholars N. T. Wright (the former Anglican bishop of Durham who needs no introduction and whom I have long read with profit) and Michael Bird (an Australian who has written some intriguing things on the Apostle Paul) have recently waded into the American debate over healthcare reform here and here.  Representative is the piece by Bird, who, suggests that evangelicals elsewhere in the world look at conservative Christian opposition to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) “with a mix of disbelief and disgust.” He also opined that a national healthcare system is simply the Christian thing to do: “we should have a social concern to provide healthcare for our fellow citizens, wherever a government is elected by people with broadly Christian concerns to provide a basic level of healthcare for all.”  Then Bird threw down this gauntlet: “I want to challenge my American evangelicals [sic] friends to consider whether your views of healthcare are truly biblical, and to consider whether you have been blinded by a culture of hyper-individualism, economic rationalism, placing faith in market forces.”

My friend Anthony Bradley has taken issue with Bird on Facebook to good effect, and Mike Kruger has taken on Wright here, but there is, I think, more to be said.

I do think it is at least interesting how some from outside the USA with, it would seem, no detailed familiarity with the specific provisions of the Affordable Care Act take it upon themselves to speak with apodictic certainty about the “Christian position” on this question.  Is there perhaps something about having a terminal degree in New Testament that qualifies one to pontificate on the topic of healthcare reform?  Apparently not, since Mike Kruger also has his Ph.D. in New Testament, and he is unimpressed.

I agree with Kruger that such pronouncements from the evangelical left involve the triumph of unexamined assumption over argument.  Of course the Bible teaches the progressive statist economic agenda, so the thinking seems to be.  After all, it’s so . . . progressive and compassionate, and Jesus was the very picture of compassion.  And it makes some people feel so . . . superior to those benighted, troglodytic, retrograde conservatives who keep asking inconvenient questions driven, no doubt, by dark and selfish motives!

In fact, the larger debate in the USA is not about whether there should be a safety net for the truly needy.  Americans—right, left, and center—agree that there should be.  It is more about whether Obamacare is good law that provides a balance of coverage and value, is economically viable for the nation as a whole, and will slow the rate of health-care inflation. Given the fact that nobody who voted for the bloated legislation (all Democrats, no Republicans in the House of Representatives) actually read it, it is not surprising that a host of problems have come to light (see, e.g., the thoughtful and informed articles by policy analyst and National Affairs editor Yuval Levin on this larger topic here and here and here).

The human tragedy resulting from this frantic effort by the progressive left to impose Obamacare on the nation is already substantial, as healthcare policies people like and need are cancelled by providers because they don’t meet the precise requirements of the new law.  Many have lost full-time employment as companies cut positions because of the economic burden of Obamacare to employers, and the situation is only likely to get worse.  It is also, I think, fair to ask whether the Obamacare policies that are now causing cancer patients to lose their health coverage represent the sort of “justice” that left-wing Evangelicals are demanding.   Unfortunately, those in the grip of social reformist fervor are often oblivious to the unintended consequences of the policies they champion.

And we can’t bracket politics from this either.  These debates are taking place in a context where the current administration is vigorously expanding the scope of entitlement programs in order to ensure that as many people as possible have an economic motive to vote Democratic. In other words, large-scale dependency on the federal government is exactly what the progressive left wants.  And they have been astonishingly successful.  Last year during the election I wrote:

Equally disturbing is the trend toward more dependence on government during the Obama years, as chronicled by the 2012 Index of Dependence upon Government.  According to an author of the report, the index rose by 8.1% in 2011 as more than 67 million Americans now receive support from the government and around 70 percent of the federal budget goes to entitlement programs.  Food Stamp usage is at an all-time high.  Even more striking is the fact that now around half of the Americans not claimed as dependents pay no federal income tax—a stunning figure that speaks volumes about the direction of federal policy.

To return to the key issue of this post, my sense is that conservative Christian objections to Obamacare in particular, and to the expansion of government in general, are driven not only by the unfortunate policy specifics, but also by more general concerns that are fundamentally and legitimately theological.  More specifically, such opposition is funded by real if often inchoate convictions about theological anthropology, theology proper, and ecclesiology.

First, there is the undeniable fact that the expansion of the welfare state undermines individual responsibility.  Christian conservatives know from Scripture and experience that human beings generally behave self-centeredly and tend to prioritize short-term gratification unless there are normative and institutional structures in place that provide discipline and incentive to do otherwise.  Moreover, conservatives know from experience and common sense that when government subsidizes behavior the nation gets more of that behavior.  It was precisely this recognition that lay at the heart of the successful welfare reform in the 1990s.

Second, there is the problem of secular, statist idolatry.   The modern welfare state is the Leviathan that puts itself in the place of God as that which meets cradle-to-the-grave needs of people. In fact, there is now a host of sociological evidence indicating that the decline of Christianity in the West can be correlated rather precisely with the expansion of government.

Third, there is the fact that the “therapeutocracy” (to use social theorist Jürgen Habermas’s memorable term) of the modern welfare state has little tolerance for faith perspectives that oppose its edicts or compete with it for the allegiance of the populace.  Thus it seeks to undercut the mediating structures (churches and voluntary societies) that Tocqueville so eloquently recognized as essential to the preservation of genuine democracy.  How else are we to understand the way that the Obama administration has persistently been picking unnecessary fights with people of faith, whether it be the efforts to marginalize Christians in the military, the bizarre arguments of the Obama administration in a recent court case (Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) that the free-exercise clause First Amendment does not protect a religious organization’s right to choose its own leaders, or the contraceptive mandate of Obamacare?

I’ll agree that we need to have a good and substantive discussion about healthcare reform.  But sentimental soundbites from the Evangelical left about “care for the poor” do not contribute much to that endeavor.