Blue In Green

faith + culture + other stuff

Obamacare: for Christians, the issue is the uninsured

It’s risky to claim that any government policy is worthy of support on Christian grounds. Yet that’s exactly how I feel about the Affordable Care Act. A society that does not see fit to provide essential medical care to all its citizens, regardless of ability to pay, is not a Christian one by any definition I can imagine. And the bottom line is this: millions of uninsured Americans will have insurance once the ACA is implemented in 2014. I am not saying the ACA is without risks and tradeoffs, but I embrace it as a Christian because there is simply no other realistic way that the needs of the uninsured will be met in this country.

But wait! you say. There are so many convincing, scary-sounding arguments against the ACA, many voiced by Christians. Without trying to rebut them all here, suffice it to say that opponents all fixate on the supposed harm the ACA will do to those who already have insurance: My “freedoms” are being violated! My premiums will go up! The government will decide if grandma lives or dies! Even if there were a shred of truth to these protests, the perspective is always that of the haves, not the have-nots. A Christian, though, cannot sidestep the core moral issue: what about those who don’t have medical insurance, often by no fault of their own?

It may be acceptable for non-Christians to say that the 50 million Americans without medical insurance are not their problem, or that the collective sacrifices needed to insure them are not worth the cost. But I don’t understand how a Christian can say this, not when Jesus made clear that the least fortunate were closest to God’s heart, and that the measure of a man is how he treats them.

An interview with a particle physicist and priest

Food for thought from a prominent physicist who decided to become an Anglican priest, giving him unique perspective on the relationship between faith and science. John Polkinghorne won the Templeton Prize, given for outstanding contribution in matters of religion and science, in 2002. The whole interview is here.

He describes both science and religion as means of searching for the truth, but in fundamentally different (and both essential) ways:

“Science is looking at the world as an object — as an “it”—which you can pull apart and do with what you want…You can do the same experiment over and over again until you feel sure you understand what is going on…But there are great swaths of human encounter with reality where you meet reality not just as an object but where there is a personal dimension. Unlike with the scientific experiment, no personal experience is ever going to be exactly repeated…the encounter between persons, even more the encounter with the personal reality of God, has to be based on trusting and not on testing.”

He describes a unique and important aspect of humility that comes from belief in God:

“The fundamental mistake, I think, is to believe that we are somehow beings who can do it on our own. The fundamental mistake is for creatures to think they are the creators. Doing it my way is not, I think, the recipe for a good and fulfilling life. I think we need the grace of God to help us; we are not fated to be independent in that sense. God wishes us to act freely and to embrace divine mercy freely. But God knows that we need His grace and humility in order to do that. So humility is concerned first of all with recognizing our status.”

He also addresses the futility of applying scientific standards of “proof” to religion:

“Proof, cast-iron proof, is pretty limited and not actually a very interesting category of things…What we need, I think, is beliefs that are sufficiently well-motivated for us to feel that we can commit our lives to them…”

Glenn Beck and his attack on “social justice”

Controversial FOX News personality Glenn Beck provoked an outcry by saying that “social justice” is code for Communism and Nazism, and that Christians should leave any church that mentions it. This drew a sharp response led by progressive Christian activist Jim Wallis, who called on Christians to boycott Mr. Beck’s shows. CNN has a take on the story here.

This is a touchy subject because Mr. Beck is very popular and represents the views of many Americans through the Tea Party movement. Certainly, Christians have legitimate disagreements about government’s role in addressing economic inequality, and whether the church should encourage political changes to those ends.

But Mr. Beck is clearly off-base in declaring that any church mentioning “social justice” is sympathetic to Nazism or Communism. (Being Nazi and Communist at the same time, in any case, is hard to pull off.) Hyperbolic sound-bites aside, this has raised a more fundamental question: should Christians help others through personal charity alone, or also by trying to change government policy?

My own take is that the Bible is clearly concerned not just with individual charity, but also with compassion at the level of society and government. That doesn’t mean all Christians have to support certain economic policies, but it certainly doesn’t mean we should renounce churches or hurl accusations of Nazism over it either. And aren’t Beck (who is Mormon) and his supporters also fierce advocates on other policy issues like gay marriage and educational standards? Perhaps this crusade against “social justice” isn’t a consistent Biblical stand, but a twisted argument for another heavily-politicized worldview.

Debating the faith of the Founding Fathers

Arguments about Christianity in American public life boil down to this essential question: did the Founding Fathers intend to create a “Christian nation?” If no, then government should not enact any policy favoring Christianity over any other faith. If yes, then the privileged status of Christianity should be protected and even encouraged.

Almost every topic in the “culture wars,” from gay marriage to evolution, hinges upon one’s convictions on this issue. A recent New York Times Magazine article explores one particularly influential battleground: the educational committee that determines the curriculum of Texas public schools. This committee’s power is quite specific: for example, they recently voted to include conservative congressman Newt Gingrich, but exclude liberal senator Ted Kennedy.

Reporter Russell Shorto upholds the mainstream view that the Constitution prohibits establishing Christianity as the de facto state religion. One of the most simple and telling facts: the document deliberately never mentions God. Shorto is also appropriately unconvinced by claims that the First Amendment does not actually require separation between church and state.

Yet Shorto does not entirely side with secularists either. He makes a key distinction: just because the Founders did not establish a “Christian nation” does not mean that Christianity was irrelvant to their lives and to American history. In trying to counterbalance the bias of Christian activists, secularists minimize the profound moral and historical influence of Christianity in our culture. We should acknowledge our Christian roots objectively, while understanding that they never justify the imposition of a religious agenda in a free society.

The “Conservative Bible Project”: not a hoax, apparently

Such are the extremes of the Christian far-right that it was initially hard to tell whether The Conservative Bible Project was a hoax. Surely, the idea that current Bible translations require “correction” to explain the “full free-market meaning” of Jesus’ parables must be a joke. It is even hoped that a proper “conservative” Bible translation will become a text for public school courses. This is sly self-parody from Conservapedia, the Wikipedia alternative based on the notion that knowledge itself must be kept ideologically pure. Right?

Well, apparently not. Their translation of the Gospel of Mark is already on-line and clearly meant to be taken seriously. To be fair, they don’t seem to have altered the text in quite as ludicrous a way as originally suggested. That makes you wonder, though, why they are bothering in the first place. Perhaps it is a publicity stunt after all.

The Christian environmentalist

“Let the sea roar and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy.” —Psalm 98:7,8

To many, the phrase “Christian environmentalist” is oxymoronic, the idea of preserving nature for its own sake having acquired the same radical connotations as socialism or atheism. Yet the Bible—from Eden to Noah’s ark to the Exodus to Elijah—is inseparable from the natural world and the way God exerts His glory and His discipline through it. King David, who spent many years as a desert vagabond, can attest to the fact that the closest communion with God is often found in the wilderness.

It’s not that every believer must sign up for Sierra Club membership. But the more absorbed we are in the quartz-timed routines of our climate-controlled lives, the more our souls should benefit from direct exposure to virgin Creation. David perceives that the sea, the rivers, and the mountains all extol our heavenly Father. Who would ever say the same about a strip mall or office park?

So yes, it is Christian to preserve wilderness so that everyone, especially future generations, may enjoy God’s unadulterated handiwork. It is Biblical to advocate for the environment, from the local wildlife to the global climate. True, our priorities are very different from those of extreme earth-firsters who see mankind as a pox on the planet, and every resource consumed as plunder. But the Psalmist also reminds us of our place: God created this earth, and He has privileged us to “dwell in it.” May we attain a proper sense of context and stewardship towards our environment, that we may also attain to dwell with its Creator, whose beauty and breadth are even greater by far.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” —John Muir

Francis Collins and the “conflict” of faith and science

Francis Collins, a renowned scientist best known for the successful effort to map the human genome, was just named the director of the National Institutes of Health by the Obama administration. His scientific credentials are impeccable, but there is another reason to be encouraged: he is an outspoken and articulate defender of the Christian faith.

He is particularly well-known for attempting to reconcile evolution and the Bible, espousing what known as “theistic evolution”: that natural selection itself should be understood as God’s inspired mode of creation. Evolution provided the biologic substrate, he argues, but God invested this organic matter with an ineffable spirit and sense of morality. However you may feel about this concept, Collins’ ambassadorship for both science and Christianity has been edifying for many.

Despite these attempts at bridge-building, Collins has not been without detractors. A prime example is prominent atheist Sam Harris’ recent column in the New York Times, in which he argues that Collins’ faith disqualifies him from such an important scientific post. It’s an incredibly ungracious, not to mention unfair, pronouncement. Based not on any actual deficiencies in his record, just extrapolations from previous statements of faith, Harris wants to make religion a disqualifying conflict of interest in scientific inquiry.

In most cases, fundamentalist claims that Christians are being “persecuted” or significantly discriminated against (in the United States) are overblown. If views like Sam Harris’ ever become policy-shaping prescriptions, though, they just might have a point.