Interview with Marcia Pally
By John Blake, CNN
June 28, 2012
CNN) – He was a healer, a provider of universal health care, a man of compassion who treated those with preexisting medical conditions.We don’t know what Jesus thought about the individual mandate or buying broccoli. But we do know how the New Testament describes him. The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus physically healing the most vulnerable and despised people in his society.
References to Jesus, of course, didn’t make into the recent U.S. Supreme Court’s hearings on the constitutionality of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Yet there is a moral dimension to this epic legal debate: How should the nation help its “least of these,” an estimated 50 million Americans who can’t afford health insurance, as well as those who could go broke or die because they can’t afford medical care?
Christians are as divided about this question as others. Many cite Jesus, but come up with completely different conclusions.
Trust God or government?
Tom Prichard, a Lutheran and president of the Minnesota Family Council, said it’s ultimately about faith. Who do we trust – God or government? He opposes “Obamacare” because he has more faith in the market and people, than government. “Here Jesus’ words come to mind about not worrying and trusting God to meet our basic needs,” Prichard wrote in an online post warning about the dangers of “government run health care.” “Or if we believe it all depends on us, we’ll look to government.”
When reached at his Minnesota office,Prichard elaborated: He said the nation should empower families and individuals to make health-care decisions. If families can’t afford health insurance, private and public entities like churches and nonprofits should step in, he said. “We all have the same goal,”Prichard said. “We want all people to have health care, even people who can’t afford it. I would argue that having the government be the primary vehicle for providing it is not going to get us to that goal. It’s going to make the situation worse.”
Carl Raschke, a religious studies professor at the University of Denver, evoked Jesus’ words about Rome and taxation. Raschke cited the New Testament passage when Jesus, after being asked if Jews should pay taxes to Rome, said that people should “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Jesus was against strictly political or economic solutions because he thought they were too easy when it comes to the real challenges of human life, Raschke said.
“Writing checks won’t solve social problems,” Raschke said. “One has to get involved. If we see someone in need, we just don’t throw a dollar at him or her. You get to know them, you offer yourself, and ask what you can do for them.”
Helping the Good Samaritans of our day
There are some Christians, though, who say that charity isn’t enough to solve the nation’s health care problems. An estimated 32 million Americans could lose health insurance if “Obamacare” is struck down, including children who can stay on their parents’ insurance until they are 26 and seniors who get help paying for their drug prescriptions. Most observers say health care costs would continue to rise. Some people believe the health care situation in America would be scandalous to Jesus because he was a prophet concerned about social justice.
Steven Kraftchick, a religious scholar, said Jesus comes out of the tradition of Jewish prophets who preached that the health of a society could be measured by how well they took care of “its widows and orphans,” those who had the least power. Kraftchick said there’s a famous story in the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus heals such a person. He was the man who called himself Legion. He might have been called homeless and mentally ill. The man roamed a graveyard, so tormented that even chains could not hold him and everyone feared him, Mark wrote.
Jesus healed the man not only physically, but socially as well, according to Mark. The man returned to his community with a sense of dignity, said Kraftchick, a professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. “A move toward universal health care would be fitting with the prophetic traditions,” Kraftchick said. “When you read the New Testament and look at the signs of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, it’s always connected to being physically healed.”
Yet Marcia Pally, an authority on evangelicals, said many evangelicals are wary of government doing the healing. Their reasons go back centuries.
Many are the descendants of people who fled Europe because of religious persecution by state churches. They fought a revolution against a government in England. And they settled a frontier, where the virtue of self-reliance was critical, said Pally, author of “The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good.”
Suspicion of government is part of their historical and religious experience, said Pally, who is also a multicultural professor at Fordham University in New York.
Those attitudes, though, may be changing. Pally said she spent six years traveling across America to interview evangelicals. She discovered that a new generation of evangelists now believes that certain issues are too big and complex to be addressed by charity.
“Some note that charity is very good at the moment of emergency relief but it doesn’t change anything unless structures that keep people poor, sick or deny their access to health insurance are changed,” she said.
No matter what the Supreme Court decides, the legal debate will continue. If more Americans go broke or die because they do not have health insurance, more Americans may ask, what would Jesus do?
But don’t expect any easy answers from the Bible, said Raschke, the religious studies professor at the University of Denver. “People are always looking for support from the Bible for American political positions,” Rashke said. “Would Jesus be against abortion, or would he support a woman’s right to choose? It’s almost become a standard joke in the theological world that you quote Jesus in American politics to support your political views.
“The teachings of Jesus do not fit into the views of any political party.”