Monday, August 17, 2009

Universalism, Partialism, and Rage Over Health Care

The issue of health care is really heating up in our society. It appears to be the make or break test of the new administration. It's a huge political struggle for power, but of course it is not primarily about politics for 47 million people with no health insurance. It is about how to pay the bills.

In the past few weeks, the stress level has clearly increased to a boiling point around this hot issue. People are yelling at each other, spreading false information, and intentionally trying to create chaos at public meetings. One of the tragic dimensions of our democracy is that such negative tactics often work.

I don't want to reduce this national discussion to a single issue, because there are multiple concerns in the health care debate—concerns about freedom of choice, finances, private versus public plans, and universal coverage. These issues all merit further discussion. But I want to invite you to be aware of how the element of religion provides another dimension of the debate, one that is often in the background, unspoken.

One of the two religious traditions that form the historical background of the religious community I serve is called Universalism. Universalism is a particular branch of Protestantism that has traditionally taught that God will eventually save everyone; no one will be condemned to eternal punishment. There are similarities between this religious argument and the current argument that everyone should have health care. The underlying sentiment is that everyone has value and is worthy of being cared for in a loving way. No one should be left out of the circle of care.

The Universalists used to call the people on the other side of the theological argument Partialists, because according to the traditional doctrine, only a part of humanity would be saved. I would suggest that we, as a society, are historically Partialists; we are unconsciously comfortable with the idea that only part of humanity will be cared for and the other part will be left out.

One dimension of what is going on behind the scenes in this intense struggle over health care is a revival of the old argument between Universalists and Partialists. In this new incarnation of an old conflict, the Universalist argument is now being recast as socialism, which is a kind of heresy in America, much like Universalism was a heresy within Christianity.

This religious undercurrent in the health care debate is one of the reasons that the argument is so intense and emotional. It is not just health care that is at stake, but for some folks, it is the whole meaning of life as they understand it. This religious underpinning of the arguments is not the whole story, of course, but it is part of the story, and it helps to explain the extraordinary level of upset in the air.

As events unfold, I invite you to reflect on how religious beliefs have a subtle effect on social issues. This is a time of transformation for America, a time when we are reevaluating our understanding of our lives in community. Both sides see this reality clearly, hence the highly charged atmosphere. Let us hope that we, as a people, can find a way to care for each other without losing our civility and decency in the process.

Let me know your take on this difficult time as well.


  1. I would suggest that there is a segmnet of our society that is 'consciously' "comfortable with the idea that only part of humanity will be cared for...." It fits in with a feeling of elitism when there is nothing else to warrant being elite. This segment is many times the loudest members in the discussion, but they also may be quietly gaming the system for the discomfort of the "other part."

  2. jdsavoyard,
    I agree that there are people who are consciously and intentionally divisive. Part of what I am doing on this blog is making it clear that I disagree with them. But I also think it is helpful to see how they exist in a larger cultural context that makes their position seem plausible. I think we have to disagree with them individually but also take a stand against the belief systems that they look to for credibility. Thanks for your comment.

  3. i always try to remember that despite our differences, we are all human. and as humans we all have the same needs. the abundance of our human brain provides us with SO many strategies to fill our needs, that we find ourselves arguing over whose strategy will fill the need we all have.

    this is what pains me about health care. we all NEED and DESERVE an opportunity to receive quality healthcare. and yet some of us have been taught (incorrectly) that in order to get what you need, someone else must go without.

    where did we learn this? sometimes from religion. perhaps from economic experiments in capitalism. maybe just from a dysfunctional family.

    our world has a lot of healing to do. and i see people on all sides of this arguement who are frightened. we humans feel fear when we envision inaccesibility to healthcare.

    in the gospels, john says that the opposite of love is not hate, but FEAR. the free-lovin' hippie in me says that love could fix this all- cure all our fears. and i think it is true. it just may not happen in the next few months. :)

    jen mcdaniel- insured but still having a hard time getting access to affordable, quality healthcare.

  4. jen mcdaniel,
    I am grateful that you are lifting up the feeling dimension of this challenge. I appreciate your observation that we all have a basic human need for health care. I think that is a guiding truth as we search for solutions.
    Fear is a powerful force and it is really in the air right now. I am trying to call attention to certain ways that we have looked at things that seem to justify that fear, and other possible ways to look at things that give strength to the power of love. I want to affirm that in the long run love will win. I hear that affirmation in your comment as well. Thanks for your insights.