In the last few months, I have begun to explore an approach to Christian engagement in American politics that is less faithful to popular political ideologies and more faithful to the concrete people in America who desperately need to hear the news of Jesus’ resurrection. The same people, I believe, we – as Christians who find ourselves in the United States – are called to serve.
This last month, however, we sadly saw yet another exercise in ideological fervor disconnected from reality. In an effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (ACA), specific members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives refused to vote for a budget that didn’t take all funding out of the ACA, an act that would nullify the law. When the leadership of the Senate made it clear that no changes to the ACA would be made through the budget, Congress found itself at an impasse, no budget was passed, and the United States government shut down.
While watching these events unfold, I repeatedly wondered, “What is the Christian response to this situation?” After pondering this for quite some time, I began to realize that any Christian response to the shutdown is tied to a Christian response to the ACA. And when I realized this, I became saddened, because nearly every response to the ACA, including the responses of many Christian leaders, has been rooted in untruth.
Let me be upfront in saying that I am, and have been for a long time, a supporter of the ACA. This does not mean, however, that I think this law is perfect. Nor does this mean that I believe this law will fix all of the problems it was intended to solve. What it means is that, of all the realistic options available, I think this law the best available and believe its implementation will, eventually, through years and years of amendments and reforms, base the United States health insurance system on a more sustainable model.
I say that I was a supporter of this law for a long time because the framework for the ACA began long before the career of President Obama. I was too young to be aware of it when the Individual Mandate, the law’s centerpiece and most controversial provision, was first presented by the Heritage Foundation, a very conservative think-tank, in the mid-early 90s as the Republican alternative to President Clinton’s initial Health Reform proposal. No, I first became aware of the framework for the law when, in 2005, I read a small book entitled “The Radical Center.” This book offered pragmatic, commonsense solutions to policy problems. The book worked hard to avoid ideology and politics and tried to find practical solutions to long-standing problems.
Then, during the Democratic Presidential primary of 2008, when Hillary Clinton embraced a similar framework for Health Insurance Reform and was attacked from the left for supporting a centrist, conservative-based proposal, I was encouraged to see a major party candidate touting a proposal firmly rooted in the pragmatic center of American politics.
During the health care debates of 2009, after President Obama had been elected, two major proposals for Health Insurance Reform began gaining steam in Congress, one in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives. I was working for a Democratic member of the House who supported the “public option,” a more liberal proposal that would create a government-run option for health insurance to compete with private insurance companies, thereby controlling cost. The more conservative plan coming out of the Senate, though, reflected the same law developed by the Heritage Foundation, espoused in the book “The Radical Center” and attacked by left-leaning health reform advocates in 2008 for being too conservative.
Throughout this process, President Obama remained conspicuously aloof, not providing much guidance to Congress, as the Health Insurance Reform debates continued. The Senate eventually passed its more conservative proposal, sent it over to the House of Representatives and waited for the House to act.
Shortly thereafter, long-time Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy passed away and Republican Scott Brown won Senator Kennedy’s seat; Democrats in the Senate lost their 60th vote. This meant that Republicans could, and would, block any Health Reform bill. So, if the House made any changes to the law passed by the Senate, the votes were not there in the Senate to pass the law.
Now, Congress faced a decision. Either the House of Representatives could pass the more conservative law that came out of the Senate as it was sent to them, or the entire process would end, no bill would be passed and Health Insurance Reform would be dead. America would stay with the haphazard patchwork of the “system” then in place.
As we all know, the House passed the Senate bill, and the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” became the law of the land. Then, when the Supreme Court upheld the Individual Mandate on a 5-4 decision, with the George W. Bush appointee and Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts providing the deciding vote, the law was thoroughly woven into our legislative fabric.
I recount this history not to be boring or provide a civics lesson, but in order to show that very little said about “Obamacare” is accurate. Even the name “Obamacare” is rooted in an inaccurate perception, the perception that President Obama prescribed significant portions of the bill, touted the framework of the bill before it became law or really had anything substantively to do with its development. This law was, in reality, developed by a handful of conservative and moderate Democratic Senators like Max Baucus of Montana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Then, a conservative Catholic and pro-life Democratic Representative in the House named Bart Stupak provided finishing touches.
Given this, the name “Obamacare” makes little sense. President Obama simply accepted, along with House Democrats, that this bill was the only viable option, and so signed it into law.
Furthermore, under no definition of “liberal government take-over” is this law a “liberal government take-over.” Indeed, rather than having the government take over health insurance, the law solidifies the private health insurance industry and strengthens the place of private health insurance companies, which is why the health insurance lobby was behind the bill. So, any assertion that this law represents a “government take-over” of a private industry is simply not rooted in reality.
Only under the loosest definition of “liberal” can this law be called “.iberal.” As recounted above, the original framework was developed as a Conservative response to the much more complicated Health Insurance Reform proposal presented by President Clinton. Then, the law became a centrist, pragmatic approach to Health Reform, a moderate alternative to the more liberal bill being passed around in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. It wasn’t until President Obama signed the bill into law that it became known as “liberal,” a designation more related to the signer of the bill than the content therein.
What many forget is that the law that sparked the town hall fracas in the summer of 2009 was actually the much more liberal bill proposing a public option and championed by the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives. It was not the bill that would be known as “Obamacare” and would become the law of the land. That bill was still being crafted by, primarily, Senator Max Baucus of Montana.
Finally, to say that the Individual Mandate, the centerpiece of the ACA upheld by the Supreme Court, is “unconstitutional” is simply not true. The Individual Mandate, which requires all American citizens to purchase health insurance, has passed every test by which the United States Government determines whether or not a law is constitutional. One can express dislike for the Individual Mandate or believe it an imposition. But, to say the Individual Mandate is “unconstitutional” represents demagoguery of the worst sort.
I say all this because any Christian response to the ACA must be rooted in truth. It must be rooted in reality and cannot be rooted in falsehood. And, make no mistake, nearly everything said about the ACA, by both supporters and opponents, is rooted in falsehood.
I am not saying that all Christians must like this law. Nor am I saying that all Christians must support this law. What I am saying is that, in order to either support or oppose this law, Christians must know what the law says, what it does, and how it came to be. If these basic facts are not known (and they are most definitely not known, even by many members of Congress), then the Christian is not actually supporting or opposing this law, but is simply engaging in the same kind of ideological, hyperbolic debates currently raging throughout the United States.
Christians are not called to perpetuate untruths, even if they fit our preferred political ideology. Christians are called to be truth-tellers, regardless of whether or not the truth serves our political agenda or fits our ideology. And, in this, we are called to seek the truth, to search out the truth, and to root our political approach in concrete realities.
The ACA will need work. It will need amendments, changes and many tweaks. It is not perfect and never will be. My prayer is that, instead of opposing it out-of-hand, Christians would work to make the law the best it can be, to accentuate the positive aspects of it (and they are there) and help alter that which needs to be altered in a productive, truthful manner.
Jonathan Saur is a candidate for ministry in Los Ranchos Presbytery. He lives in San Juan Capistrano, CA.