Among the Intellectualoids

Religiously Defending Obamacare

The religious left comes through for the president and his holy cause in this hour of need.

By 3.29.12

According to the New York Times, several weeks ago the White House hosted several dozen pro-Obamacare groups to plot public relations during the U.S. Supreme Court hearings this week about its constitutionality. Mobilizing visible religious support evidently was deemed crucial. The historic United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, conveniently across the street from the court, was the natural choice as headquarters for the campaign and "prayer vigil."

So liberal religious groups have been demonstrating and providing photo ops across three days outside the U.S. Supreme Court, periodically ducking into the 90-year-old Methodist Building for a chapel service or radio interviews.

Operating under the banner of "Faithful Reform in Health Care" is the usual phalanx of Mainline Protestants, liberal Catholic orders, a smattering of Jewish and Unitarian groups, plus the Islamic Society of North America. One of the more interesting developments of the last decade is how some U.S. Muslim groups have politically aligned with ardent feminists, pro-choicers, and same-sex union advocates. Evidently praying for Big Government is religiously unifying.

"It's the official position of the United Methodist Church that health care is a human right," announced United Methodist lobbyist Jim Winkler at a rally outside the court this week. He was surrounded by placards declaring: "People of Faith for Health Care." Over his shoulder stood the Rev. Bob Edgar, former Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania, former chief of the National Council of Churches, ordained United Methodist minister, and now head of the liberal advocacy group Common Cause. "It is a governmental responsibility to provide citizens with health care," Winkler further intoned. Obamacare is "desperately needed by ordinary Americans," he insisted. "We believe the Supreme Court and the decision it makes is a reflection of the moral and ethical character of our people."

For the Religious Left over the last 40 years, it has become standard fare to mystically enshroud every proposed enlargement of the state with divine imperative. As Sojourners activist Jim Wallis often likes to repeat, "[Federal] budgets are moral documents." That budgets may actually become immoral if they spend too much or intrude where government should not tread is rarely considered by the true believers. That soaring medical costs, the ostensible crisis mandating Obamacare, might themselves result from well-intentioned but unwise federal intrusions is also not considered. As under the apparatchiks of the old Soviet Union, the failures of centralization demand ever more centralization.

Obamacare's supporters are understandably distressed by the flak from religious groups over the contraceptive/abortifacient mandate. So this week's rally of religious groups is somewhat of a palliative for that controversy. The liberal Center for American Progress explained that the Obamacare prayer vigil showcases an "alternative faith-based narrative," in which "religious leaders argue that affordable health care is consistent with scriptural injunctions to provide basic human rights protections for all."

To what extent the Religious Left actually represents many church goers is questionable. Even most active members of the most liberal Mainline Protestant denominations still mostly vote Republican. But the signage and religious talk at least make the cause appear attuned to America's innately religious spirit.

On the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on the night of Obamacare's passage, Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her televised speech specifically thanked the United Methodist Church for its support. It's doubtful that denominational officials actually mobilized many constituents. But citing a church helped make the coalition for Obamacare sound more diverse beyond the usual labor unions and welfare lobbies.

The Catholic bishops are virtually at war with Obamacare's contraceptive/abortifacient mandate. So it was helpful for the pro-Obamacare demonstration outside the court this week to include a supportive nun. "In the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus challenges us to reach out and care for the vulnerable, respond to the needs of the victim, and bind up their wounds," explained Sister Simone Campbell of Network Lobby, a "social justice" advocacy group. She cited "working-poor families" as Obamacare's chief beneficiaries. And she highlighted the usual class resentments: "Wealth inequality is exacerbated by the lack of affordable, quality health care in our nation."

Another United Methodist lobbyist at the rally promised: "We will keep on keeping on," since her denomination has "said that health care is a moral imperative for years, and we will continue to care about [it] until this country covers every single person with health care." Unbeknownst to virtually all 7.5 million members in the U.S., the United Methodist Church as a matter of policy actually favors a Canadian style, single payer health care system. So for liberal church elites, supporting Obamacare's sufferance of private insurance must be a painful compromise of the true purity of social justice.

Contrastingly, Barrett Duke, who represents the 16 million member Southern Baptist Convention in Washington, D.C., recently explained why his communion opposes Obamacare: "We believe it will make health care worse for the vast majority of Americans as government bureaucrats step between patients and their doctors." He cited "poorer care for Americans as government bureaucrats dictate how insurance companies use their available resources to provide health services." And he warned that "limited health care dollars will lead to rationed health care, which has occurred in every other nation that has decided to take over its health care system." Noting inevitably higher insurance costs for employers, he predicted "millions of Americans will lose the health care they currently have."

Such realism about human frailty, common sense to orthodox people of faith who admit the world is fallen, is unacceptable to the idealists and utopians demonstrating before the Supreme Court. For them, God's Kingdom can be built through politics and legislation. The Methodist Prohibitonists who built the Methodist Building on Capitol Hill were largely orthodox and certainly believed humanity was sinful. But their boundless confidence that laws could reform human nature foreshadowed the Religious Left's confusion today. Maybe the Supreme Court will show more discernment than the ostensibly spiritual activists waving placards outside.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.