09/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How the Right and the Left Destroyed the Public Option

What's the common denominator linking crummy public transport, military contractors and the public option being taken off the table in the health care reform fight? Why is a single-payer health care provider "unthinkable"? The common denominator is that the United States is in the thralls of a demented cult that combines the idea of privacy and the profit motive into what is, in fact, our civil religion. It's a crap religion.

The Cult

If the "public option" for health-care reform is off the table who's to blame? We all are -- left, right, moderate, progressive, we have glorified the notion of privacy, profit and individual space for so long that we wouldn't know a public option if one bit us in the ass.

A weird convergence of factors has resulted in United States of America being one of the only places on earth where all sense of a public space, let alone public duty, is off the table as a matter of faith. Privacy, ownership and profit are what we are about.

Examples: Roe v. Wade (whatever your view of abortion) was argued on the basis of privacy. The right to own weapons has been carried such a ludicrous point, in terms of private ownership, that we have little mercenary armies marching around in the woods calling themselves militia groups and armed to the teeth with semiautomatic high-powered military-style weapons. Our trains are 50 years behind the rest of the world's because some genius addicted to the cult of profit decided that they aren't infrastructure but just another business.

"Privacy," "choice," "profit" -- these words are the only American religious creed. Hatred and fear of the government has been both a right wing and left wing preoccupation when government seems to be in a position to curb this cult.

What went wrong?

My son commutes every day to Boston from Newburyport, Massachusetts; a train ride that in Switzerland, France, Germany or even England would take 15 to 20 minutes but here drags on for an hour and 10 minutes. Here our trains must be "profitable" to exist so there is no money to update the system. In other places they work, are updated -- and lose money. The gain is an infrastructure that allows for massive wealth creation in other sectors.

Our train system is stuck in the 19th century. Our health-care providers have been taken over by today's equivalent of the robber barons. Even our prisons are being run by private corporations. When my Marine son fought in Afghanistan and Iraq he and the other soldiers and Marines were outnumbered by the private contractors earning 10 times what our soldiers were earning for doing the same jobs and while making hundreds of millions of dollars for a privatized defense establishment.

"Christian" Heretics

What is so curious is that in this religious country of ours the same evangelicals, conservative Roman Catholics and others who are running around saying that we had a "Christian foundation" have forgotten that one of the great contributions of Christianity (going back to the fourth century) was public nonprofit hospitals and hospices. Since when are Christians against vocation? Since when does Christianity teach that profit must trump all other considerations? -- "I'm my brother's keeper, if I get paid"?

Somehow right wing evangelical Christians now seem to believe that Jesus commanded that all hospitals be run by mega corporations for profit. Somehow the right also thinks that it's normal for the state to hand over its duties to private companies for military operations, prisons, health care, public transport and all the rest. The word "infrastructure" seems to have lost its meaning along with the word "community'"as something for the common good. The common space never needs to "turn a profit" because it is the lifeblood that allows private profit. (Every small business owner about to go under because of health care costs knows this, as does my son, who wastes hours each day on a slow train!)

In fact Christianity was the modern root of the whole idea of public spaces for health care, the rule of law, even public transport and safety that started with the idea of the "king's highway." Public space is what made Western civilization possible. A common law, that applied to all, a common sense of sacred duty to others, a common road system protected by the crown and so forth.

Christianity teaches altruism and altruism is not profit-based. Check out New England's Puritan-established villages. What do you think all those "quaint" post card village greens are? Why do you think they were called the "commons"? The greens are the shared grazing land. Public space was the essential ingredient of Puritan life: church, town meeting house and common grazing land, civic work and hospital building, defense and law. And as for privacy, the community was involved in everything we now hold private.

On the secular side, public space to was also paramount. The dynamism of Western civilization, beginning with the Renaissance in Florence and other European cities, was based on an understanding of the value of public works, public space and public projects combined with private initiative. Walk the great piazzas of Italy and you will be enjoying the public spaces created by civic-minded people who were the forefathers of the Europeans who would build high-speed rail systems that work. Private fortunes were made in the context of a public sector that worked. This is no new thing or "socialism." This is what made the West the wealthy West. (The Medici bankers were no socialists and they understood the need for public spaces!)

If it's Not For-Profit it's Evil. Since When?

Now in the USA we have the worst of all possible worlds: a leftist/libertarian addiction to personal private space, in which no one is allowed to tell anyone else what they should do, combined with this weird anti-Christian "Christian" right wing notion that everything -- even trains, the post office, our infrastructure and medicine, and now even a big chunk of the military (via "contractors") -- must be run for a for-profit motive.

The left, the right, the secular community and the religious community have denied the best of their own heritage when it comes to America. The problem of not getting a public option for health-care reform relates to a philosophical shift in our culture wherein everything has to be justified on the basis of profit and/or privacy. Result: there is no concept of public space at all. Result: idiots shout "socialism" about common sense solutions to our problems that -- very ironically -- the Medici princes of Florence and the Puritans would have all agreed needed to be matters of common public space.

Until Americans -- left and right, atheist and believing -- begin to take another look at where this road of absolutist privacy combined with absolutist profit leads we'll be stuck with the health care that's a mess, trains that don't work and for-profit lunacy: deified individualism.

The Solution

The only real solution is to attack the idea that profit and privacy is sacrosanct. Privacy and profit must be once again balanced by common obligation, public space and civic mindedness trumping individual choice.

We need to get back to the idea of civic space, and public works, not just in health-care but in all sectors of our economy. It's not a question of being anti-capitalist; rather, it's a question of rediscovering a more narrowly defined capitalism that thrives because of a thriving public space. For instance, we need a single-payer health care system and we need it now.

Frank Schaeffer is the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism).