Bad Religion Leaves Big Bruises: When Christians Threaten Health Care Reform

Late last week, as extreme right-wing shock troops swarmed over the Capitol, I was laid very low with a food-borne microbe and required some emergency medical care. My attending ER nurse, a kindly pro, told me that he cannot afford to retire after 30 stressful years with Kaiser Permanente because—like so many others ready and willing to retire—he needs the insurance! We quickly agreed that achieving comprehensive health care reform would be a big win-win for everyone of every age in this wildly unequal society.

But this is by no means obvious to huge numbers of anxious Americans. They have a zero sum view of changing the health care system to cover everyone, to bar insurers from charging women higher premiums, and to prevent them from screening out or dropping people for preexisting conditions. They think that if these changes are made, their existing coverage will be diminished or degraded. That’s what a zero sum mentality means: the gains for some, in this case mainly for the poor and uninsured, must necessarily result in losses for others.

Neoliberal economists can always be dredged up to lend a veneer of respectability to this view, but a religiously-informed ethical sensibility rebels strongly against it—especially in the case of health care. “We are one body, one blood,” is a common liturgical expression in my own Christian tradition. For Jews there are few more significant scriptural passages than Isaiah 58, where one’s own healing and blessing are said by God to be intricately bound up with the healing and care of others in bodily need.

Why then are so many American Christians so devoutly opposed to even very modest steps toward affordable and universal health care coverage? (I do not speak of the adherents of other faiths. In contrast to the behavior of American Christians, for example, nearly 80 percent of American Jews continue to “earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans,” in the famous and funny phrase attributed to Milton Himmelfarb a half century ago.)

This is a question that has haunted me for a long time. The reluctant conclusion I draw is that these are Ayn Rand Christians, never touched by the spirit of the Christ whose ministry was emphatically defined from the start by his compassion for the sick and for his healing of the multitudes who came to him with all manner of diseases. Jesus did not seem to think that it was taking anything away from the already-healthy to restore the health of the physically and psychologically afflicted. He did not operate from a zero sum mentality nor from a neoliberal economics of scarcity. In his economy of radical abundance—one version of what Lewis Hyde calls the “gift economy”—the more health you give, the more health you get.

We are one body. And when a member of that body denigrates or deprives another member, particularly a poorer member, Christ is crucified yet again and the spirit of Christ is absent. Or as St. Paul put it in sternly rebuking a class-obsessed community in Corinth:

The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect… If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (I Corinthians 12.22-23, 26)

That’s the way it’s supposed to be even now for Christian people. But the Ayn Rand types with their “Kill the Bill” rhetoric never got that message, apparently.

Then there are the patriarchal Christians: those leaders who continue to believe that women are morally, even ontologically, inferior, and who vividly demonstrate that conviction by excluding women from sacramental leadership and by seeking to control women’s bodies and women’s choices in various ways. Ironically, these patriarchal Christians (many, but not all of them Roman Catholic clergy) reject the possessive individualism of the mostly Protestant Ayn Rand types. They retain a strong sense that social progress is about us advancing together, advancing communally, and not about me feathering my private nest. Yet they managed to land a telling blow against progressive health reform last week—a bit of poison-pill sabotage in the form of the Stupak Amendment, which garnered 240 votes in the House, 64 of them from Democrats.

What Stupak is about politically has been capably reported here by Sarah Posner and others. It will represent a massive setback for women if it is enacted into law. In my view the real devilment is that getting it included in the House bill now gives the Catholic bishops and their non-Catholic patriarchal friends an undeserved moral high ground as the bill moves toward conference committee and eventually to the President’s desk. Because who would dare to stand in the way of providing coverage to the great majority of the currently uninsured over such a trifle as requiring insurance companies to drop existing coverage of abortion services if they want to stay in business? What kind of narrow obstructionist would make any kind of fuss over telling American women that they will now have to purchase a special rider if they want abortion services included in the private insurance plans they pay for with their own money?

As with the Ayn Rand types, my question about misogynist Christians is just how Christian are they, really? I do not ask this facetiously. I am no church historian, but I do know that leading scholars are now in considerable agreement that women played very significant leadership roles as disciples, apostles, and teachers during Christianity’s radical early life. The Romans despised the Jesus movement in no small measure for precisely this: they did not properly subjugate their women! Then, as the Empire turned up the heat—sometimes literally—on the Jesus people, the movement began to accommodate itself to imperial values, eventually in the fourth century becoming the supreme defender and enforcer of patriarchy as the religion of empire and no longer a resistance movement against empire and its values.

As women leaders were re-subjugated within the Church, so were the memories of women’s leadership excised from the Church’s official record—from what eventually became the New Testament. No surprise there: in every imperial creed, official history must be made to support the current power reality. Some tantalizing subversive bits were left in, however, and from these fragments and from other texts that were excluded from the canon or entirely suppressed, biblical scholars were eventually able to reconstruct what the radical early movement looked like.

Here again is St. Paul (no great friend of women, himself, we should note) from the very early days when baptism was the great equalizer and also a great enemy of patriarchy:

For in Christ you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female: for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3: 26-28)

As before, the “one” language is striking, only this time not so much in terms of wealth and class as in terms of ethnicity, caste, and gender. But just as today’s Ayn Rand Christians conveniently dropped—or never heard—one part of the “one” message, so too have today’s misogynist Christian clerics, some of them still defenders of a long-vanished Empire, dropped or never heard the other part.

This all may seem arcane and boring, but I believe it has everything to do with the current travails facing progressive health care reform. I see two powerful but (to my mind) quite errant forms of Christianity, both running with their heads down against progressive health reform from different directions and both leaving big nasty bruises in the body of what remains.

Forgive the note of bitterness, but my word to American Christians who show more devotion to John Locke than to Jesus in respect to their “I’ve got mine” ideology: We’ll see you in Hell with your good buddy, Dives. And to the patriarchal types who told Speaker Pelosi late last week that they could not support any legislation giving them less than total victory on the abortion issue: Why not be man enough to just come out and say it? You have never liked women, you fear women, and now you would even sink the chance of providing coverage for 36 million currently uninsured persons—including many of the children and immigrants you claim to love—rather than accept a carefully-negotiated compromise on women’s reproductive health.

With Christians like these, who needs other enemies? And will anyone wonder why, with each new poll or census, more Americans will be marking “none” or “atheist” or “anything but Christian” on the religion section?

peterlaarman@gmail.com'

Peter Laarman is a United Church of Christ minister and activist who recently retired as executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles. He remains involved in numerous justice struggles, in particular a campaign known as Justice Not Jails that calls upon faith communities to critique and combat the system of racialized mass incarceration often referred to as The New Jim Crow.