I recently received the statement signed by “47 religious leaders” titled “A Matter of Health … A Matter of Wholeness.” Not being a “religious leader” but just an insignificant Baptist layperson tucked away in the mountains of western North Carolina, I of course was not invited to sign the document.
Those who did were a “who’s who” of mainline denominational and ecumenical figures, plus a few Catholics and Jews, and one Muslim. Interestingly, no one connected with the religious right was on the list.
It was one of those marvelous collections of platitudes with which almost anyone to the left of Rush Limbaugh could agree. Obviously it was a “compromise” hammered out to be as inclusive as possible. Apparently, its authors hoped to influence the debate on health care reform with this hardly offensive affirmation of moral principles.
The document acknowledged the seriousness of the challenge, with more than 45 million people lacking health coverage altogether and rising unemployment threatening many more with loss of protection. As a result, we are compelled by our respective sacred texts — Hebrew Scriptures, New Testament, Quran — to speak out on behalf of the most vulnerable members of our society.
That means making comprehensive and compassionate health care reform an urgent priority and guaranteeing that people living in poverty, as well as children and the aged, can be assured of the fullness of life that is central to the holy vision of a beloved and peaceful community.
It then called for affordable care for families and individuals in times of illness or accident and preventative care to safeguard health and well-being. They should be assured that coverage would not be canceled in the case of illness or changed employment circumstances. They should be given the dignity of selecting their own caregivers.
The statement concludes by praying, “each in our own custom,” for discernment, boldness, clarity and leadership in each segment of our society so we may find the resolve for health care reform worthy of our land. The vision we pursue is toward the common good — the prospect of high-quality, affordable health care for everyone — and this is a measure of our wholeness as a nation.
How could anyone quarrel with such a beautiful statement, especially when those who have endorsed are numbered among the religious leadership of our country? And that is the problem: It does not really address the concrete issues that have caused the problems we now face.
There is no mention of a “public option” or a “single payer” system like Medicare for people under 65 that would negotiate lower drug prices from the pharmaceutical companies and force insurance companies to reduce their costs and end cherry-picking clients in order to compete with more efficient public sector possibilities.
The signatories are caving into President Obama’s “centrist” approach that really does not address the burning issue that we must stand up to insurance companies, drug firms, hospitals and other health care profiteers. By taking the public option “off the table,” the negotiators for health care reform essentially yielded to those right-wing elements who want little or no health care change and surrendered the one really effective force that might actually achieve the desired change. As long as Congress gives priority to profits over care, so as to mollify the health care interests that provide much of the financing for the re-election of senators and representatives, then the change that occurs will be merely window dressing.
What we need is a “religious community” that will act “prophetically” to demand the change we really need, not a compromised program that will attract only minimal opposition from the right. What we have here are bland generalities that will offend no one, a “lowest common denominator consensus,” to quote Rabbi Michael Lerner, chair of the Interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives. He suggests in his Internet commentary on the document that what we see here is the principle of “keep your prophetic ideas to yourself and never expose the way that fundamental principles are being abandoned for the sake of having power.”
It may seem “unrealistic” to go against the stream of health care reform now being advanced by the administration, as that might jeopardize what some regard as our newly won access to the places of power in Washington, but we as Baptist Christians need to do just that in times like these. We must stand up and be counted, just as we did on the climate change issue.
Richard V. Pierard is professor of history emeritus, Indiana State University and Gordon College, and lives in Hendersonville, N.C.