The large sign held by a protester outside the Supreme Court last week declared: “OBAMACARE IS UNAMERICAN.”
After a few seconds of disgust – time enough to put myself in a more reflective gear – I found myself agreeing with the protester, or at least seriously entertaining the possibility he was right.
I’m pretty certain that hasn’t always been the case, but I’ll defer to the American historians on the matter of what our abiding national character actually has been over 236 years.
It does seem to me that a strong case can be made that for about a half century – 50-year period in the middle of the 20th century – there was a significant alteration in the national identity from what had immediately preceded it.
The standard for defining what is and isn’t American changed in the early 1930s from a kind of fierce and reckless individualism to a more compassionate and caring communalism.
That continued for five decades irrespective of whether a Republican or Democrat was in the White House.
But almost as if the lifeline of that modification in national character had run its course, the nation seemed to revert back to its default position in the early 1980s.
The country could only sustain the exception to its genetic identity for so long and then had to reclaim its dominant strains of DNA – the very rampant individualism that had just about destroyed the country and its citizens earlier.
To be sure, some features of the alternation continued for the rest of the 20th century and the first decade of the new millennium – Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and a number of policies and programs that gave at-risk children, women, the poor, and racial-ethnic and sexual minorities a shot at the so-called American dream.
But all of these became increasingly subject to criticism and attack for a variety of reasons. And underlying them all was the theme of their being “un-American.”
Now we can see, I’m contending, that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was an attempt to reintroduce that exceptional strain back into our national life, not only to solidify and strengthen the policies and programs of that earlier era but also to build upon them in ways that had been unfulfilled in the period of consensus communalism.
The Affordable Care Act of 2010 signally represents that attempt to reclaim the recessive gene of communalism back into the nation’s life and identity.
Not a bold attempt by any means since its proponents had to employ a policy position advocated earlier by the political right to achieve greater (not universal) health coverage for Americans.
That health insurance system remains employer-based and favors the competitive health insurance industry, with the mandate that every individual must subscribe or pay a penalty.
Now it is clear that the dominant genes are having their way again, not just with the suspicions expressed recently by a majority of members of the Supreme Court but, maybe even more important, by the majority of the electorate who continue to oppose the legislation by a fairly large margin.
And what is shared by these majorities on the court and in the electorate?
A deep commitment to individualism and a revulsion of anything that smacks of communalism, of mutual care and responsibility for one another, for a sense of the inclusive (or near-inclusive) common good.
It would be better, these majorities seem to be saying, to go back to having millions and millions of Americans uninsured and thus subject to unnecessary illness and death.
As far as I can tell, no counter-proposal has yet been offered by the opponents of the reform legislation that would provide an alternate to the existing health care system – except, of course, those who advocate for a single-payer system.
Given, that is, the opportunity to make people healthy and to avoid death – whether by means of the Affordable Care Act or some other set of policies with similar outcomes – these majorities are choosing to let millions of people suffer and die.
That may be an authentic, albeit cruel, stance of American individualism. But precisely in that sense it also explains why “OBAMACARE IS UNAMERICAN.”
I can’t speak for other religious traditions, but surely this poses a dilemma for Christians, and especially in a week when we engage in the observance of the killing of Jesus and wrestle with the possibility of retaining a health care system that tolerates massive illness and death.
The two narratives are intimately connected because just before his death Jesus told his followers (Matthew 25:31-46) that it wasn’t just a matter of nations feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, attending to the imprisoned and caring for the sick that would make those nations eternally blessed (that is, eternally productive and generative).
No, it was also that those nations that didn’t feed, welcome, clothe, attend to and care for the most vulnerable would be eternally cursed – that is, would be made impotent and lifeless.
For nations to feed, welcome, clothe, attend to and care for those at risk, he said, was to do so to him (not “as if” to him, but actually to do so to him).
And for nations to fail to engage in these life-giving acts was also to fail to do them to him.
The conclusion is inescapable: to allow, to permit, to let people be killed when there is the opportunity to give them life is to be a part of killing Jesus.
In this Holy Week, U.S. disciples of Jesus – as part of “we the People” – have to decide still again the fate of our nation.
Will we be a part of having our nation be life-giving or death-dealing? And will we ourselves be life-givers or killers?
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.