This column has one overarching goal: to demonstrate that religion has a legitimate and critical role to play in the public square of ideas and issues in our contemporary society.
Of course it is a slippery slope when discussing policies, both domestic and foreign, in terms of defining perspectives of how religions approach issues on moral or spiritual grounds versus on strictly political grounds.
Health care insurance is one of those thorny issues which cannot escape the religious community. Deciding the structure of health insurance as Congress struggles with changes to the Affordable Care Act gets us back to the fundamental questions of religion — dignity and the quality of life for our citizens. Health insurance points to the heart of such questions as “who shall live and who shall die?” Discussions about the allocation of resources from the federal government or, in the case of Medicaid, to the states, makes society take a stand regarding the question of whether America considers health insurance a fundamental human right or a privilege.
The political establishment cannot seem to find a consensus on this question.
Religions do have a vested interest in answering these questions because the religious community is not only looking at the capacity of our nation’s resources as a determining factor in structuring health insurance. The religious community bases its responses on its own sacred texts and each religion’s values and culture. The issue, for example, of protecting the poor is especially connected to a long-standing stream of beliefs and theology about our obligations to help the poor and, in the case of health care today, provide them with adequate health insurance.
Another issue is the current debate on either eliminating or modifying the current policy of providing health insurance regardless of pre-existing conditions. This topic also goes to the heart of responding to the question, “What is the value of a human life?”
There are disagreements between religious groups over such issues as providing funds for birth control or reproductive procedures for women. Yet, despite obvious differences, there is common ground for various religious groups to work together to protect those who are the most vulnerable, such as the poor, seniors, and the disabled.
My own perspective on health insurance originates from two Biblical sources.
The first is from Genesis 1:27: “God created human beings in the divine image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
The second verse is from Leviticus 19:1: “You shall be holy for I the Eternal your God am holy.”
Both verses answer the previous questions I raised. Human life is sacred, and we as a society have a responsibility to create governance and laws that respect the sacred character of human life. It is both an individual and communal mandate that the Torah prescribes to protect and defend human life. I don’t know of any of the Abrahamic faith traditions which do not hold fast to these kinds of values.
The religious community faces its own challenges regarding whether to speak out on health care insurance.
Many want to ignore these kinds of burning issues and sit down in our houses of worship to pray the liturgy, listen to the sermon and then socialize afterward without worrying about what is going on in the outside world. Whether we are talking about health insurance, tax reform or genocide around the world, particularly in Syria, don’t the voices of clergy and their parishioners have a duty to be part of the political process if public policies offend or, on the other hand, give credence to a person’s value and belief system?
American history has demonstrated how clergy and their co-religionists have advocated their positions on every social and economic issues since our nation’s founding.
Religious leaders weighed in on the slavery issue, on war and peace and child labor laws, Social Security and Medicare, to name a few. America has always considered itself a religious nation and with that proclamation comes a responsibility to speak out and to make this country fulfill the best side of itself and its national ethos. Isn’t this moral imperative for the religious community to speak out a hallmark of American values?
My prayer is that our nation’s elected officials who will make the final decision on health care will think about their own religious values as they take their crucial votes. Will they vote to give less to the citizens than what this nation gives to them since their own health insurance is provided by the people?
If the budget reflects the values of our nation, will their decision to downgrade the right to health insurance to the option of “access to health insurance” reflect the Judeo-Christian heritage we proudly herald as Americans?
Is that what American exceptionalism is all about?