Saturday, June 20, 2009

The spiritual side of health care

On June 14, 2009 on Face the Nation the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell (Republican, Kentucky) said to the host, Bob Schieffer, that most Republicans would oppose any plan that included government-backed health insurance. (More details about his interview can be found on a Face the Nation blog posting.)

This seems to be another case where the Republican Party stands in opposition to the spiritual foundations that guide most people in the United States. According to Rabbi Akiba, the most important teaching in the Torah is the injunction in Leviticus 19:18 to love one's neighbor as oneself. Jesus took this teaching to heart, and it became a summary of the most important teaching in Christianity. Similar teachings can be found in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Confucianism. It is also found in the traditions of many North American native peoples. It would be hard to deny that in the United States, a country in which religious faith and practice is central to the lives of the majority of citizens, that tending to the needs of the sick, the poor, the weak and the downtrodden is at the very core of what most Americans profess. Why is it not at the core of the values professed by Republicans?

I can only offer an amateurish response to my own question. For as long as I can remember (which is a span of time going back to the late 1940s), Republicans have been identified as the party most concerned with fighting what they perceive as enemies of American values. In the 1950s, the principal focus of Republican concern was communism. Communism was routinely depicted as anti-Christian and atheistic. It was an easy, albeit fallacious, step from that premise to the conclusion that anything communists favor must be in some way contrary to the basis teachings of Christianity. On the principle that any friend of my enemy is my enemy, and any enemy of my enemy is my friend, anti-Communists (both Democrats and Republicans) came to see labor unions as a threat not only to the American way of life but to the core values of Christianity. Not only organizations that sought to improve the working conditions of paid workers, but organizations that sought any kind of economic justice, or any other kind of justice, came to be regarded with suspicion. People working for the abolition of racial segregation, or for international peace, or for nuclear disarmament all came to be seen as enemies of the state. People seeking racial equality or gender equality could be (and were) dismissed as Communist sympathizers seeking to undermine the core foundations of the American way of life. Those who sought to maintain the systematic injustices against which labor unions and other social activists fought, on the other hand, were depicted as the pillars of American democracy. Those who opposed racial equality and gender equality and most other forms of social justice were those who had something to lose if justice were to prevail. Those who had something to lose were the wealthy and the powerful, not only individuals who were wealthy and powerful but corporations. What they had to lose was their material wealth. And so it came to be that many Americans, in the name of standing against godless Communism, came to stand for the very forces that were least interested in fighting for the sick, the poor, the weak and the downtrodden. In the name of defending Christianity, many (perhaps even the majority) of Americans ended up supporting the principal forces working against the realization of Christian social values.

The same skewed logic that drove the anti-Communist fervor of the McCarthy era and the Cold War era continues to drive the policies favored by Senator McConnell. Rather than working tirelessly for programs that would bring affordable and efficient health-care to the millions of people who now cannot afford the artificially high prices of medical care in the United States, McConnell and his fellow Republicans work tirelessly not for the sick and the weak individuals who require compassionate care but for the powerful insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies that have made a lucrative commercial enterprise of health care and that have, in so doing, driven medical and pharmaceutical costs higher in the United States than in any industrialized nation. Americans pay far more for significantly inferior health care than do Canadians, Europeans, Japanese and Israelis. Many Americans get no health care at all, not even of the inferior kind available in the USA, because they simply cannot afford it. Many Americans who do get the health care they need face financial ruin as a result of getting the care they need. This is hardly what one would expect of a nation run according to Christian (or Buddhist or Confucian or Hindu or Islamic or Jewish) religious principles. It is what one would expect of a nation run according to callous materialistic values pursued in utter contempt of spiritual values of any kind. It would be difficult to find a more godless nation on this planet than the United States of America as it has evolved under the influence of powerful politicians claiming to be operating on Christian family values.

Turning anti-spiritual nations around has traditionally been the work of prophets. Prophets are rarely loved by the generations that they seek to heal. As recently as 2004, the American Friends Service Committee, which has worked for prison reform and more justice in immigration policy and more humane policies in governmental relations with native Americans, was declared a “criminally extremist organization” by the Denver police department. Other organizations founded by Quakers and other religious communities—organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Friends Committee on National Legislation—are under constant surveillance by the FBI and Homeland Security. Acting in accordance with the Christian principle of loving one's neighbor as oneself, and actually trying to do something to lessen one's neighbor's suffering, is regarded as criminal conduct by many of the politicians who claim most loudly to be defending the Christian heritage of this country.

It is time to call their bluff. It is time to make them ashamed of their hypocrisy. We live in a time that has been brought to ruin by those in pursuit of profits. We live in a time that can be brought back to harmony by listening to prophets.