The Nation's Pulse

Can the Religious Left Protect Obamacare?

Not if it's remembered there are faith-based reasons to oppose growing government authority over health care.

By 1.20.11

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During the 2009-2010 debates over Obamacare, the old-time Religious Left was an enthusiastic cheerleader, preferring the public option, but settling for the final outcome. Like many Obamacare supporters, the mostly Mainline Protestant elites of the old Religious Left hope Obamacare incrementally will lead to a government controlled single-payer system. British style health care has been a cherished aspiration for liberal church elites for much of the last century.

Then Speaker Nancy Pelosi, on the evening of Obamacare's passage, specifically thanked the United Methodist Church for its support. It's unlikely that denomination's Capitol Hill based lobby office actually generated mass support. But Mainline church elites, though seldom speaking for most church members, can still offer a façade of religious respectability for liberal policy initiatives. More revealing during the 2009-2010 Obamacare debates was the new Evangelical Left's support for Obamacare, while carefully pivoting around abortion funding. Evangelical Left elites share the old Religious Left's statism, but must appeal for support from still socially conservative evangelicals.

In December 2009, as Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson was about to cave on a compromise that would facilitate abortion, about three dozen mostly Evangelical Left pastors and activists urged accommodation. "We believe that with this direction, Congress is closer than ever to reforming an unjust healthcare system that for too long has cost too much while delivering too little," they declared, accepting the argument that Obamacare's purported expansion of health care would "very likely" reduce abortions. Signers included Florida megachurch pastor and National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) board member Joel Hunter, Christianity Today editor and NAE board member David Neff, and immigration activist and NAE board member Samuel Rodriguez. Others were Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action and Emerging Church guru Brian McLaren, along with NAE's controversial former spokesman Richard Cizik. David Gushee of Mercer University and Glenn Stassen of Fuller Seminary, also prominent Evangelical Left voices. Unsurprisingly, Sojourners chief Jim Wallis was reportedly also a signer.

Virtually this same crowd rehashed their appeal to Congress for Obamacare in March 2010, only this time David Neff and Samuel Rodriguez apparently did not join. "As Christians committed to a consistent ethic of life, and deeply concerned with the health and well-being of all people, we want to see health care reform enacted," the signers insisted. "Our nation has a rare and historic opportunity to expand coverage to tens of millions of people, make coverage more affordable for all families, and crack down on many of the most harmful practices of the health insurance industry." They implicitly criticized pro-life groups, which included the Roman Catholic bishops, for not accepting the Ben Nelson compromise on abortion. "We are writing because of our concern about the lack of clear and accurate information regarding abortion provisions in the health care reform bill passed by the Senate on December 24, 2009," the signers implored, insisting the Senate version would uphold "longstanding restrictions on federal funding of abortion," while offering "new and important supports for vulnerable pregnant women." 

Purportedly the Evangelical Left represents a new generation of believers less wed to social conservatism and more committed to endless expansion of the federal welfare and regulatory state, especially on health care and the environment. But there seems to be no overall shift of evangelicals to the left, as reflected in 2010 election polling and the Tea Party's popularity among evangelicals. So will the Evangelical Left as ardently defend Obamacare from repeal as it urged its original enactment?

The old Religious Left is predictably already out front in defending Obamacare from the new Congress's aspiring repealers. On January 18, the Episcopal Church's Washington office rallied its supporters with an email alert. "Because of the health care reform law, millions of Americans who lacked access to affordable health insurance or who had trouble finding affordable policies now are eligible to receive and purchase coverage," the Episcopal office declared. "Now is not the time to remove the benefits and protections upon which hardworking Americans now depend during these difficult economic times. During this crucial phase of implementation of the law, the American people will not be served well by the uncertainty that repeal would bring to our health care system." Not typically concerned about deficit spending, the Episcopal office included the talking point that Obamacare's repeal would increase the deficit.

An email alert from the larger United Methodist lobby office on Capitol Hill echoed the same pro-Obamacare talking points, but more passionately than did the staid Episcopalians. Evidently without fear of exaggeration, the Methodist alert claimed that "Well over 100 million Americans of working age have medical problems that prompt insurance companies to either reject them outright or charge them outrageous sums to provide coverage." Among other claims, it also asserted Obamacare's repeal would leave "no safety net for poor people" and would eliminate Obamacare's "provisions [that] increase efficiency and reduce waste."

The Methodist appeal defended Obamacare by citing a higher authority. "The prophet Ezekiel denounced the leader of ancient Israel whose failure of responsible government included failure to provide health care: 'You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them' (Ezekiel 34:4, NRSV)." The Methodist lobbyist warned: "May we heed the words of the prophets." So apparently the Lord brought down judgment on the ancient Hebrews because they lacked their own version of Obamacare. According to the Religious Left, God always favors Big Government because it is more efficient and more compassionate. This version of the deity apparently has no knowledge of the findings of social science over the last half century.

Meanwhile, the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has published its own brief email alert, urging support for repealing Obamacare. "Under the reform rammed through the previous Congress, we can expect federal funding of abortion, massive cuts to Medicare and Medicare Advantage, heavy taxes on individuals and businesses, higher premiums, and strong government control that will inevitably lead to a decline in patient care," wrote Richard Land. "Now is the time to begin the process of turning back this harmful law before more damage is done." Land more plausibly represents his constituency than do the United Methodist and Episcopal offices. He also cited not just abortion and end of life issues but the inevitable "decline in patient care" under government control. 

In 2009-2010, many evangelicals and other conservative religionists focused on abortion without presenting faith-based arguments for opposing growing government authority over health care. In the debates over Obamacare's repeal, religious conservatives will need to persuasively show that traditional Christianity's understanding of fallen human nature warns against unlimited central authority over any area of human life, least of all one so personal as health care. The expansion of state power almost always fuels secularization and reduced influence for families, religious institutions, and other private actors more attuned to personal needs and far less politicized than distant, unchallenged bureaucrats. Why would American evangelicals or other believers want the U.S. to resemble more secular Canada or Great Britain? 

Debates over Obamacare may helpfully inspire religious conservatives to expand beyond traditional and justifiable concerns about abortion and other social issues, as the Evangelical Left advocates. But this expansion of scope will not replicate the Religious Left's facile and discredited equation of Big Government with godliness. Instead, it will rediscover Christianity's own vital historic role in limiting state power in defense of liberty. 

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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.