Health-care reform is an economic, political and medical issue. But On Faith panelist and evangelical leader Jim Wallis says it’s also a “deeply theological issue, a Biblical issue and a moral issue.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
I’ll leave the biblical and theological mandate for universal health care to Jim Wallis, although it does seem reasonable that the Jesus of the gospels would not have bothered to heal the sick unless he believed that health care was a right. (Of course, a practicioner of right-wing religion might argue that Jesus didn’t heal all of the sick, so modern Christian insurers are free to exclude people with pre-existing conditions.)
As an atheist, I certainly agree that health care is a serious moral as well as social issue–and I resent attempts to claim a special religious status on this issue. The truth is that neither liberal secular nor liberal religious forces in our society have stepped up and fought for health care as a moral imperative in a way that has effectively countered the irrational right-wingers, like Sarah Palin, who have taken over this debate. All one sees and hears on television and the Internet is the rage of the vindictive right, which is using its lies about health care reform to attempt a nullification of the 2008 election.
There is, of course, plenty of room for debate about specific aspects of health care reform, but the ranks of the rampant right are opposed to paying for universal coverage, period. They don’t believe that health care is a right, and that don’t care how many millions cannot afford private insurance or suddenly find that their policies are canceled if they develop a serious, expensive illness.
And here’s the point: the right is using “downright evil” (to borrow Palin’s memorable phrase) tactics in its anti-reform battle. How disgusting it was to hear Palin use her Down Syndrome baby as an example of someone who would be likely put to death for being “unproductive” if government plays a bigger role in medicine. Palin’s baby, when he grows up, will receive Social Security disability–funded by the federal government that the lapsed governor of Alaska so loathes. And you know what? Sister Sarah will accept that money on behalf of her son. Without government–at the local, state, and national level–children with special needs would not have a prayer (you may excuse the expression coming from an atheist) of a decent education or health care unless they have rich parents.
One horrible effect of this immoral right-wing pressure has already manifested itself in the dropping of a proposal to allow Medicare to reimburse doctors for sessions with patients who want to discuss their end-of-life wishes. One of the reasons why end-of-life care is so expensive is that doctors frequently do not even know what their patients’ wishes are. In a 2006 poll by the Pew Research Center, only 20 percent of Americans over 65 said a doctor should always do “everything possible” to save a patient’s life. Approximately 69 percent disagreed. More communication between patients and doctors would surely result in more people’s wishes being followed–and that would be an unequivocally good thing.
The idea that government health care is bad medicine has been proved wrong by Medicare, which provides people over 65 with choices and a level of care that children and young adults do not have. The signs, “Keep Government Out of Medicare,” are the real proof of the utter ignorance that drives the anti-health care reform crazies. These kind of people would have (and did) oppose Medicare in 1965.
Opponents of universal health care are not only morally wrong but antirational. A coalition of secular and religious forces could raise a mighty voice on this issue, and I don’t know why it hasn’t happened. I have been very discouraged to read that the grass roots organizations that did so much to elect Obama have not responded in the same way when asked to contribute to health care reform. I think we need a huge march on Washington, with secular and religious voices united on health care as a right, not a privilege, resembling the march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King in 1963. Let atheists stand up with religious people and preach what Robert Green Ingersoll, the “Great Agnostic” of the 19th century, called “the greatest gospel that can be preached–the gospel of humanity.”
Finally, we (and by “we,” I mean anyone who is disgusted by the sight of thousands of people being obliged to line up in California for a free clinic that provides basic care like childhood vaccinations) should stop pretending that opposition to health care reform is all about health care. It isn’t. It is about an unreconciled minority that does not accept the legitimacy of an African-American president and is using every low tactic to achieve its goals by torpedoing attempts to improve health care. Just look at the posters, some with Obama wearing a Hitler mustache and some with Obama under the hammer-and-sickle. If these people get their way, it will be a failure for both secular and religious Americans who believe in a country that offers everyone the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” You certainly cannot pursue happiness, and you’re not likely to live very long, if your insurance company cancels your policy because you are diagnosed with cancer. Or because you have a Down Syndrome baby.
One reason I don’t believe in God is that if he existed, I just feel certain that he would inflict some really, really uncomfortable (not fatal–I’ve never liked the Passover tale of the plagues or the slaying of the Egyptian first-born) ailment on the screamers at town hall meetings. Something like poison ivy. No, not bad enough. Poison ivy plus a flu severe enough to make them seek medical attention. And then they’d have to wait, say, five or six hours to see their doctor, since physicians pack in too many patients .because insurance companies reimburse them for high-tech procedures, not talking with patients and treating ordinary miseries of the flesh. Yes, if there were a deity, he’d definitely spread around some nasty bacteria at the town halls. And he’d spare the too-polite proponents of reform. This fantasy god wouldn’t kill anyone but would just make a few wretched specimens of humanity feel like they were dying. Just for a while. Just enough to give them a touch of empathy for, say, parents who can’t afford medical care for a child with cancer.
But since this deity is only a myth, it’s the moral duty of both secularists and people of faith to preach that gospel of humanity. And some hard amoral facts would only add to the moral message. One of those facts is that we all pay for the uninsured, because they can only obtain needed medical care in emergency rooms. And when they do see a doctor, they are often very sick because whatever ails them was not identified at an early stage. We already have health care “rationing” of the worst kind–rationing based not on the seriousness of a disease but on ability to pay. This is not only a battle between good and evil, but between knowledge and ignorance.