Left, Right, and Christ: Our Common Ground

By Anna Quinn

[This post is part of a conversation hosted at the Patheos Book Club on the new book, Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, by Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes.]

So while the Lord tarries, Christians in America are to prosper our country, help make it a better place in every respect: more just, more equitable, more merciful, more wise, more beautiful, more fruitful, more flourishing in every way that God desires human communities to flourish. As we have the mind of Christ through whom the world was made, Christians should stand out in our understanding of what that flourishing looks like and how to get there.

“Our Common Ground” from Left, Right, and Christ

Remember the ‘90s “What Would Jesus Do” trend? Kids wore “WWJD” rubber bracelets to inspire “good behavior,” but you wondered at their spiritual depth if wearing the equivalent of a string around their finger helped them follow God. In many ways, Lisa Sharon Harper’s reasoning and policies remind me of those rubber bracelets. The sentiments are very compelling, and she seems more gospel-centered than her co-author, D. C. Innes. At first while reading this book I found myself questioning many of my presuppositions. Maybe, I thought, being a good Christian does require that we surrender our liberties to the government to create a better place for everyone. Maybe the top income earners should pay most of their income in taxes. Maybe our government should not defend our country by force. Then I reread her chapters more thoughtfully and realized that I disagree with her underlying theological assumptions.

Harper writes compellingly about God’s shalom and uses the Creation story to illustrate how man was to live in “forcefully good” relationships with all around him—God’s creation, his fellow man, and God himself.  She says that in God’s kingdom both liberty and justice lay down their arms in pursuit of shalom, the Hebrew word for peace. All Christians yearn for shalom, for God’s kingdom to come, but in the meantime we live in a fallen world. Although Harper acknowledges the fall, her goal for government is to create shalom. However, true shalom will only exist when Christ returns.

Expecting government to create shalom is expecting government to create utopia, and history shows us that utopias become nightmares. Living in a fallen world, we must expect sin, corruption, death, and decay, even in our government. We must build constructs to guard against them. Sinful leaders will try to oppress others; people will work for their own gain; people will not work if they know a handout is coming their way. Government must reflect those realities.

In II Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul warns against idleness and says, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’” The Bible acknowledges that in our sinful nature we tend to rely on others instead of caring for ourselves. Of course, the Bible also instructs us to care for the poor. There is an ongoing tension of knowing when someone is capable of working and when he is truly in need. Large government programs cannot discern between the two, and they open the door for abuse.

Harper uses the concept of shalom to guide her public policy ideas–from rejecting capitalism to embracing universal health care. She does not give substantive arguments for how or why her ideas would actually work in the arena. Do these policies improve people’s lives in a fallen world? History and current events seem to argue otherwise (e.g. the collapsing European social welfare state).

Harper (rightly) thinks Jesus would want health care for everyone.  Her simplistic answer is to have the government require health care for all. Her health care essay gives a nice history of attempts leading to “universal health care, “ culminating in the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Since it is good for everyone to have health care, “we must call for universal health care that protects and cultivates the image of God in all of us.”

Harper does not provide evidence for why government-run health care will better protect the image of God in all us. One of conservatives’ many fears is that the government will not be caring for people as individuals, God’s image-bearers, but will view them as costs to be cut. Harper does not review the health system in Canada or the National Health Service in Britain. She ignores the flood of patients, like D.C. Innes’ father, who don’t “qualify” for surgeries that they would receive routinely if they lived in the United States, and so cross the border to find them. In a real debate, it is necessary to address the concern that we would end up with a two-tiered health system, where only the very elite has access to quality health care and the vast majority receives minimal care. Even her tragic example of a young woman who dies of lupus is flawed.

Harper tells the tragic story of Nikki White, a young Tennessean who was kicked off the TennCare rolls due to state budget cuts and died as a result of her untreated disease. She lost her insurance, despite her state’s attempt at universal coverage. Should we really assume that a federal program would never face similar cuts?

As I am married to a Tennessee physician, TennCare is not unfamiliar to me. TennCare was enacted in 1994 as the state’s health care provision instead of Medicaid. Current Medicaid recipients were enrolled in a TennCare’s managed health care programs in an effort to control costs and enlarge eligibility. Enrollment grew rapidly initially, and although enrollment was then restricted to about 1.4 million people within the space of a decade the cost of the program went from $2.64 billion to more than $8.5 billion. When services are advertised as “free,” people see no problem in over-using them. As a result, the “free” care resulted in a huge expense to the state and the promised “savings” never materialized. Upon analysis, about 55% of TennCare enrollees were previously uninsured. The other 45% were previously insured, but businesses chose the more cost-effective option of moving their employees to the state roll. In addition, TennCare paid less than regular insurance companies, so many doctors either refused to take it or limited the percentage of their patients who carried it, thus reducing access to care. In 2003 an independent consulting firm deemed the program financially unsustainable and as a result many changes were made such as trimming the rolls and cutting benefits.

TennCare is under threat again today. With the budget crisis in Washington, the program may face loss of federal matching funds, which will devastate many Tennessee hospitals. ““What makes this a little bit scarier is that these decisions are being made by 12 people that we don’t know and I can’t talk to,” Balser (Dean of the School of Medicine at Vanderbilt) said. “That makes this a little bit more anxiety-provoking.” If it is scary to have funding decided by a small committee hundreds of miles away, imagine what it will be like to have a small Washington committee running the entire nation’s healthcare? If we cannot afford such measures at the state level, do we really think we can afford them at the national one?

TennCare is a state-run version of “ObamaCare,” but government health care on a state level proved unsustainable and could not save Nikki White. Why does her example lead us to believe that federal-run government health care will be good for us? No one denies that the health care system needs reforming, and D.C. Innes suggests several alternatives. Other reforms are occurring even now with the knowledge that change must come, regardless of the Supreme Court decision next June.

Within those discussions, it is important to remember that our common beliefs about Christ, sin, and redemption also lead to common goals. Liberals and conservatives alike want excellent health care for all. Liberal and conservative Christians want to save the lives of unborn babies. They both want to protect God’s creation. Unfortunately, they both think that the other’s means to these ends will wreak disaster. In arguing a position, it’s important to remember that the intent at the heart is the same—even if the other is viewed as woefully wrong. This understanding should give some measure of grace to the other side, even if that grace is, at times, strained. Overall, Harper and Innes do a remarkable job of representing both sides of the argument gracefully.

Harper’s approach does challenge her conservative brethren in many aspects. She constantly points to the gospel, to being willing to die to self and to treat others as more important than yourself. Those intrinsically Christian ideas do live in tension with American individualistic values. Yet there is a great difference in laying down our rights as Christians to serve others and laying them down by force to serve a government. I would argue that living in a free society where we are able to pursue good works and flourish gives us the freedom to most bless others. Within that freedom, should we constantly care for the weak and protect the oppressed? Absolutely. Do we often fail? Certainly. Is it good to have people like Harper, constantly pointing us to the kingdom of God? Yes, and I welcome the debate that Left, Right, and Christ will generate.

Visit the Patheos Book Club on Left, Right & Christ for more conversation on the book, as well as an excerpt and a Q&A with the authors.

Anna Quinn employs her Vanderbilt University degree writing book reviews and cultural articles for the e-zine Six Seeds.tv. She is also a regular contributor to the new Patheos Faith & Family blog, What She Said.




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