Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Maybe God Doesn't Want America to Have Universal Health Care

The hottest issue in American society is health care. Millions of Americans are intensely concerned about what will happen in the next few months as our government struggles to act. As almost everyone knows, the United States is the only industrialized democracy in the world that does not have universal health care. Every other major democratic state has figured out a way to solve this basic problem. Why should America alone be different?

Believe it or not, part of the answer has to do with religion. This may sound strange, but it's true. We Americans live in one of the most religious countries in the world. Despite our growing religious diversity, one of the strongest traditions in our heritage is still the Calvinism of the first pilgrims who settled New England. That old Calvinist tradition taught that God has divided the human race into the saved and the damned — those who are going to spend eternity in bliss and those who will spend it in eternal punishment. According to this Calvinist world view, there is no possibility of ever changing this harsh reality; there are cosmic winners and cosmic losers in life, and that is just the way it is. I contend that our social policies tend to follow this same pattern.

Although there are certainly many other religious points of view in our culture, and even within Christianity itself, this old myth of the ultimate division of the human family, expressed in many forms, runs very deep in the American psyche. Ours is a culture that has repeatedly divided people into the ins and the outs. Slavery and the near genocide of native Americans are obvious examples. Both of these tragedies were supported by Biblical arguments. We hear echoes of this old theology over and over again, even in the 21st century. We hear them whenever anyone proposes a program that tries to solve a social problem for all of us. Deep in our culture is a lingering belief that God does not see things in this universal way.

According to this old belief, God sees the human race as eternally divided into those destined for heaven and those destined for hell. If that is true, then trying to make life work for everyone can never succeed, because it goes against that great cosmic plan. Even to argue for universal solutions is maligned as socialism, a horror too great to imagine. Why? Because, according to this view, universal solutions go against the very will of God; it is inevitable that some will be blessed and others cursed.

In our current health care debate, we hear this argument coming repeatedly from the conservative side of the spectrum. Many Americans are strangely willing to accept 48 million people with no health insurance, and millions of others with inadequate insurance. Such a view, which accepts the suffering of millions of people as inevitable and insoluble, can legitimately be called Hellth Care.

Why would otherwise intelligent and decent people take such a harsh position? Because it fits with a religious world view, clearly linked with conservative politics, that teaches that the final destiny of humanity is separation, not reconciliation; division, not unity. This linkage between politics and religious dogma is not usually discussed openly, of course, and it may even be unconscious for many participants, but it is not that hard to connect the dots.

There are, fortunately, religious alternatives to the model of the saved and the damned, both Christian alternatives and alternatives in other faiths. My perception is that these alternatives are on the ascendancy. Countless thoughtful Christians have abandoned the threatening and divisive rhetoric of damnation and have chosen (wisely, I think) to anchor their faith in the transforming power of love that forms the core of Jesus' timeless message.

Outside of Christianity, there are Eastern, mystical, humanist, New Age, nature-centered and other traditions that emphasize the unity of all life, not its ultimate division into saved and unsaved. These paths teach interdependence, compassion for all, and communal salvation. They see us as all in the same boat together, not fighting against each other for the scarce life boats (or insurance policies) in which only the few will survive. These world views lead to social policies that are inclusive, not exclusive.

As the health care debate unfolds, we can hear these two different world views expressed over and over again. Some will talk of universal access; others will talk of why this will never work. Some will talk of compassion; others will talk of harsh realities. Some will talk of all Americans; others will appeal to those who deserve and those who don't. Underneath this discussion lies an unconscious world of religious myth and belief. In one world, the human family is eternally and painfully separated into heaven and hell; in the other view, all of humanity shares a common destiny, a future in which all of us share in the bounty of life.

It is my view that the old hell-dominated view, the myth of separation, has run its course and is currently falling apart. The health care debate serves as a powerful example of how American society is actually changing course, from a land where only some are entitled to the benefits of life to a land where, ever so gradually and with great difficulty, all of us (even women, GLBT folk, people of color, the poor and those of other faiths) will eventually reach the promised land. Do you find such a vision inspiring? Let me know your thoughts.


  1. I was horrified at this title and read the article a couple of times before responding! Brilliant thoughts, as always. I agree that healthcare, and so many other things happening in this country at this point in history, are serving as equalizers. "We" is becoming all of us, and not those with the strongest lobbiest or the most money or cache or the biggest church. Thanks for blogging!

  2. A very inspiring and informative blog. I will be looking forward to reading additional blogs, especially during the summer months when I go into withdrawl because I am unable to hear Michael's sermons on sunday. Having said that, if I find out how to work the comment as section, I will not be anonymous

  3. I'm glad you think so Michel. So many examples exist of those who would continue the separation and divisiveness. It's hard to look beyond them some days. Thanks!

  4. Michael, thanks for the post. Yes, the vision of more inclusive social policies is definitely inspiring to me. I hope you’re right when you say our society is changing course.

    Unfortunately, as carayogamama commented, some days it seems like the focus is still on divisiveness, especially on the cable news networks. Maybe the same explanation applies: the old heaven/hell mindset leads many politicians and pundits to frame everything as “us” vs. “them.” Enough of that! I’m ready for some compassion. As for universal health care, somehow we’ve got to find a way.

  5. Today's pseudo-secular term for the "saved" seems to be "real Americans."

  6. This is an interesting way of looking at many of the social struggles in American history. Sometimes it's been very subtle but in recent years there's been a really obvious lack of concern for the "have-nots", those who aren't of the elect. i think it's pretty obvious that the previous administration pulled its policy makers from the religious groups which believe they are the elect. i think there are Christian communities which not only seek to bridge the divides between people but interpret the very divide as HELL, the age-old sin of making myself as God and then devising schemes to define everyone else. This is instead of heeding Christ's words, "when i was naked you clothed me..." What do you think are the forces which can cause people to turn toward a different way of thinking of their brothers & sisters?

  7. Why I enjoy the sermons of the author of this piece. Jut as pundit Pat Buchanan strongly argues on all his TV programs that our country was discovered, governed by the writings of the rules under our Constitution by white men, 108 out of of 110 Supreme Court judicature being white men in the history of our country and thus people of color especially a woman should not sit on our higest court, corporate control of our country due to the courts saying a corporation is a person thus historicaly controlled by white men CEOs, religions who won't allow clergy or Sunday School teachers to be females - this treatise has merit. As Sen Session of AL has a hard time telling Pres Obama and Justice Thomas apart when he see them together, why wouldn't one believe in total control by white men and our white puritanial founding fathers of America not allowing the haves and the have nots from equal health care under God's will? God is white himself in all the paintings which we were exposed to as children and now as adults, thus considered as gospel, aha?

  8. Your words are also being read and appreciated all the way over here in Serbia, Michael. I can hear your voice as I read and it is very comforting indeed. Thank you for sharing this.

  9. Michael,
    What a wonderful blog. Yes I believe we are changing -ever so slightly--

    Thanks for sharing this it is great to hear your voice in your words. Hay, by the way, Blogger has a way to record your voice for your blog.......check out this help site from blogger: http://www.google.com/support/blogger/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=86337

    Tracy Stober

  10. Judy Rosella Edwards,
    I am sorry I horrified you with the title. I wanted to give expression to a belief that may usually live beneath the surface.

  11. carayogamama and bookgurl,
    I agree that there are days when we don't see positive movement. But there are good signs, especially if one looks over the long term. One example might be the movement from slavery to an African American president.

  12. Regina, Tracy the tree and Anonymous,
    Thanks for your support. Hope you keep reading.

  13. RGM,
    Even though we appreciate many white guys, we know that everyone has to be fully in the game. We are making progress toward that day. Slowly, but it's happening.

  14. Marie,
    This is a great question, namely what forces move us in the right direction? The short answer is the force of love, but that answer needs a great deal of embellishment. We each need to follow the path of love, although that path will look different depending on our tradition, ethnic heritage and life experience. I will work on a more complete answer and post it at some point.

  15. Anonymous,
    I agree that "real American" can be a code word for "saved". It's good to begin to decode the codes and see how they work. Then we become more conscious.

  16. Yes I do I'm a UU.

    Sorry for the tension (and atrocious rhyme) but there it is,

    and the beat goes on.