A Faithful Way to Reform Health Care

JUST LAW AND RELIGION Michael Kessler Last Friday, Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) revealed his strategy to obstruct health care reform, … Continued


Michael Kessler

Last Friday, Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) revealed his strategy to obstruct health care reform, saying “if we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

For shame. The nation doesn’t need a Waterloo defeat. DeMint would better serve Americans if instead he worked with Obama in a modern-day, health care reform version of the Council of Nicaea.

On Monday, President Obama strongly rebuked this line of attack after quoting DeMint. “Think about that. This isn’t about me. This isn’t about politics. This is about a health care system that is breaking America’s families, breaking America’s businesses and breaking America’s economy. And we can’t afford the politics of delay and defeat when it comes to health care, not this time, not now.”

Indeed, health care reform is a policy issue that addresses one of the most fundamental levels of human dignity. For instance, Catholic social teaching has reiterated many times that just societies are those in which basic needs like health care are met for everyone. Health care is not just a charitable concern but one basic requirement of justice for every nation-state.

Pope Benedict’s newest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, urged that the “more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practice this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path — we might also call it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbour directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis.”

Fortunately, cooler heads have clarified the Republicans’ intentions. Distancing themselves from a politics of personal, Napoleonic destruction, those like Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the Senate Republican Conference chairman, said, “Every senator is entitled to his own view, but [DeMint’s is] not the view of our caucus…I prefer what Sen. [Mitch] McConnell said. This is not about winning or losing; this is about getting health care right. That’s certainly my view.”

The RNC, while calling for stall tactics to try to stop progress on the Obama version of the bill, also stated they will propose alternatives: “The Republican National Committee will engage in every activity we can to slow down this mad rush while promoting sensible alternatives that address health care costs and preserve quality.”

Even Bill Kristol’s admonition for Republicans to find every way to stop the current reform effort (“Throw the kitchen sink at the legislation now on the table, drive a stake through its heart…and kill it”) was followed with a call for a new effort in the next session of Congress on “sensible and targeted health reform in a bipartisan way.”

These Republicans claim they want reform, too, just “better” ways to approach the issue than the proposals currently in play. OK, then everyone should hold them to that promise. Of course, they didn’t act after they derailed “Hillarycare.” They also didn’t act on health care during the Bush 43 years when every branch of government was under their control. The President should take them at their word, though, and seriously bring them into the process to hash out a sensible, efficient compromise bill.

The President is trying to fix a system that everyone agrees is broken. Health care reform is essential to the long-term security and stability of all of our citizens. Without sensible reform, costs will continue to skyrocket. With wrong versions of reform, health care will diminish in quality and individual autonomy over health care will suffer. We want it all (no tax increase, premium care, low cost, universal coverage) but ultimately tough decisions will have to be made. The right bill would help maximize individual choices in seeking efficient and advanced primary care and provide a safety net for catastrophic situations. The right bill is only going to emerge if everyone is part of the process. That requires Obama to lead a bi-partisan effort. And it requires every party to willingly, and in good faith, put aside their childish and wholly self-centered interests.

That’s where the Council of Nicaea would be a better paradigm for what’s required for health care reform. Obama should take the lead from Constantine, who called the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE to put to rest deep factions that had badly splintered the Church. Most problematic was the dispute over Arianism, a significant group in the Church that denied the full divinity of Christ (Arius claimed that Christ was created by the Father as an intermediate God, standing between the First Cause and all other creatures. Those espousing what became the orthodox position claimed that Christ was of one and the same substance as God the Father, co-eternal).

Constantine brought the sides together, tried to mediate their differences, and then, when it was clear there were intractable issues, convened the Council composed of all of the bishops of Christendom. He recognized the only way to get past the split was to force the differences and then hammer out an agreement. The Nicaean Creed emerged from these debates to become the doctrinal standard for centuries to come. It espoused basic essentials of the Christian faith and tamped down–through argument and ecclesiastical sanction–certain ideas that could no longer be tolerated under the banner of Christianity. It was messy and the process was not the model of religious freedom I would normally defend. And not everyone bought into the final creed. But as an internal matter of the Church ensuring its future doctrinal stability, the Council and Creed were absolutely necessary.

That’s why, instead of another Waterloo, the country needs a Nicaean-style health care reform process. DeMint’s asinine rhetoric merely calls for the Napoleonic failure of Obama and, by extension, the failure of millions of Americans to achieve the basic security that comes with primary and catastrophic health care. That is not helpful. It will leave millions worse off than they are now. Obama, at least, has the right intention. Whether the proposals he is offering are optimal will be appropriately judged by economists and health care policy experts better situated than me. Lots of other Democrats, Republicans, and independents also have the right intentions, but disagree about the best way to carry out the reforms. Obama could lead us in the multi-party effort to hammer out a health care creed that secures a healthy future for all of our citizens. Our grandest moment as a nation could be enacting a health care proposal that emerged from a healthy, well-intentioned debate in Congress–and the nation.

On Thursday, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) confirmed that there would be no Senate action on a health care bill until after the August recess. Senator DeMint celebrated the news, and said “now is the time to work on common sense solutions that reduce the cost of health insurance and make it available to every American.” Let’s hope he agrees to help craft a bill that truly helps everyone–soon.

Dr. Michael Kessler is Assistant Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University.

By Michael Kessler | 
July 23, 2009; 5:02 PM ET

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  • Dermitt

    With all due respect, the POTUS isn’t Surgeon General. I’m not even sure who the SG is. Shows how much I know. The hospitals around here are dropping like flies and so are the people. Where do you want the bodies piled up? Gloom is my business and business is still good. Next they’ll want to take the stills over and have us boiling bourbon and stones for soup.