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What The Flap Over Health Care Tells Us About American Religion

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The ruling by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson that the health care law is unconstitutional may ultimately lead to the law's demise, or it could turn out to be a bump in the road.

Either way, the continued flap over the health care law and the efforts to bring it down speak volumes about the state of religion in America. It tells us much about the state of American Christianity in particular, since that is this country's dominant faith. But it speaks even more clearly about the state of the Christian Right since so much opposition to the health care law comes from those quarters.

Christian Right advocates have seldom based their opposition in the sort of legal considerations that prompted Judge Vinson to rule the law unconstitutional. Rather, they typically advance the ideological argument that the federal government has no business making laws about health care at all. And that is the claim we will assess here.

We begin with the teachings of Jesus, for his message was clear.

He told his followers to care for the poor. In fact, providing for those he called "the least of these" was perhaps his highest priority. He didn't say how to get that job done. He just said, Do it.

But in this richest nation on earth, where 75 percent of its people claim to be Christian, the poor -- even the working poor -- routinely fall through the cracks. One would think that Christians in this country would utilize "any means necessary" to make sure that no one in this country is homeless or starving or naked or without basic healthcare.

It is true that many Christians, as individuals, are profoundly generous. That is beyond dispute. But if the job is too big for individuals, one would think those Christians would turn to their congregations. And they often do that, too. But if the job is too big for their congregations, one would think those Christians would turn to other agencies, including the one agency that has the ability to abolish poverty altogether: the federal government.

Indeed, one would think that the 75 percent of the nation's population that claims to follow Jesus would rejoice when the government creates a tool to provide healthcare for virtually all the nation's poor. And one would think that those same Christians would rise up in furious protest and righteous indignation when some politicians attempt to sabotage that tool -- and thereby sabotage the nation's poor.

But that seldom happens. In fact, many Christians denounce the health care law as a tool of the devil and support its repeal.

In light of what Jesus taught, I find that position puzzling.

In recent weeks, however, some Christians -- especially those aligned with the Christian Right -- have responded to my editorials that have advocated for the nation's poor. And their responses have helped me understand their position a little better.

What their letters reveal is the way they read the Bible through the lens of individualism and limited government and sacrifice the principles of Jesus on the altar of conservative economic ideology. No one has better framed the ideology that drives these Christians than Bradley Thompson, Executive Director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism at Clemson University. Thompson flatly rejects the themes that stand at the heart of biblical religion.

"Altruism teaches," Thompson said, "that selfishness is the ultimate form of evil and that selflessness is the highest moral good. It teaches that man's greatest moral duty is to sacrifice one's self to the needs of others."

That, of course, is exactly what Jesus taught but also what Thompson rejects. Thompson therefore blasts President Obama who called on Americans to "reaffirm the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper." The idea that "I am my brother's keeper" means "in practice," Thompson claims, "[that] the hardworking must be sacrificed to the lazy. In other words, the best and the worst should be sacrificed to the lowest common denominator."

For Thompson, the struggle between the ideals of altruism -- which happen to be the ideals of biblical religion -- and the ideals of free-market conservatism define the "epic battle" of our age.

Thompson is right about that epic battle.

But as that battles rages, one would think that Christians would consistently line up on the side of the biblical vision that "I am my brother's and my sister's keeper." But that is often not the case.

In fact, when Christians read the Bible through the lens of American individualism, limited government, and free-market conservatism, there is no way they can acknowledge what the Bible teaches about social justice and compassion for the poor.

A man who responded to one of my editorials, for example, complained, "No where does the Lord, or his Son, Jesus Christ, say that government should take care of the poor and downtrodden."

Another wrote, "You keep mentioning 'justice, justice, justice,' by which you really mean 'social justice' or the government using its political power to create a welfare state."

And still another wrote, "Never did Christ advocate or command that we go out and form secular governments to take care of social needs, using other people's tax dollars." Based on that premise, she offered this rebuke: "That you believe you are doing the work of God when you are advancing the cause of socialism is very sad and very wrong."

And virtually all the people who took issue with my editorials agreed that the poor and the unemployed are lazy people who simply don't want to work. One, for example, wrote, "You mention various scriptures about helping the poor, but you never mention 2 Thessalonians 3:10," a passage that reads, "For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat."

Another put an even finer point on the principle that those who refuse to work should not eat, taking aim especially at "able bodied males." "The [Bible's] specific directions for helping people permanently," she said, "were limited to widows and orphans, never able bodied males, who were considered infidels if they ... didn't support their families."

Do these people actually believe that the masses of poor and unemployed in America really don't want to work?

What puzzles me most about the Christian Right is this: they are more than willing to use tax dollars to kill our nation's enemies, but they reject the use of tax dollars to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and provide health care for those in greatest need.

Many years ago, in the context of American slavery, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass drew a stark comparison between two kinds of religion. "Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ," he said, "I recognize the widest possible difference -- so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked."

"I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ," he continued. "I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity."

Some 100 years later, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King raised similar questions about Christians in the American South. "I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states," he said. "On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at her beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward ... [And] over and over again I have found myself asking, 'What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?'"

King continued: "Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave the clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when tired, bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"

We must raise similar questions today about those Christians who say to their government, "You may use my tax dollars to kill and destroy, but you may not use my tax dollars to feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, or provide health care for those in greatest need." Indeed, the contrast Frederick Douglass drew between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ still rings depressingly true.

But there is hope. For Jesus never asked his followers to embrace limited government or free-market capitalism. But he did ask his followers to care for the poor. That injunction resounds today as loudly and clearly as it did some twenty centuries ago.

The only question is this: how will America's Christians respond?

Richard T. Hughes is Distinguished Professor of Religion and Director of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College and the author of Christian America and the Kingdom of God.

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