N.T. Wright Interview: Why Left, Right & Lewis Get it Wrong

N.T. Wright Interview: Why Left, Right & Lewis Get it Wrong February 1, 2013

Over at Read the Spirit, is a great interview with N.T. Wright about his book How God Became King, where he makes a number of points about the polarization of American politics and chimes in on the healthcare debate. I really, really liked this remark:

In your country, for example, there seem to be Christian political voices saying that you shouldn’t have a national healthcare system. To us, in Britain, this is virtually unthinkable. Every other developed country from Norway to New Zealand has healthcare for all of its citizens. We don’t understand all of this opposition to it over here in the U.S. And, we should remember: In the ancient world, there wasn’t any healthcare system. It was the Christians, very early on, who introduced the idea that we should care for people beyond the circle of our own kin. Christians taught that we should care for the poor and disadvantaged. Christians eventually organized hospitals. To hear people standing up in your political debate and saying—“If you are followers of Jesus, you must reject universal healthcare coverage!”—and that’s unthinkable to us. Those of us who are Christians in other parts of the world are saying: We can’t understand this political language. It’s not our value in our countries. It’s not even in keeping with traditional Christian teaching on caring for others. We can’t understand what we are hearing from some of your politicians on this point. Yet, over here, some Christians are saying that it’s part of the list of boxes we all should check off to keep in line.

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  • Nathan Duffy

    “We can’t understand..” – he got this much right.

    My, my, what pretentious, condescending, breathtaking hubris. Wright is a studied expert in caricature and strawmaning of ideological opponents, which is on vivid display here. Yes, of course American conservatives want more sick and dead people. That’s it exactly. It’s not that we think market-based solutions actually improve quality of care, innovation in medicine, and availability.

    Of course, there are counter-arguments, but you have to actually make them and engage with the position your opponents actually have.

  • Richard Fellows

    Nathan, if the system in the U.S. works, why is life expectancy there 2.6 years less than it is here in Canada? In any case, a national health care system does not prevent people from using private health care services if they so choose. Furthermore, “market based solutions” are perfectly compatible with a national health care system that is free at the point of use, so I think you have set up a false dichotomy.

    Also, Wright did not imply that American conservatives “want more sick and dead people”. He merely pointed out that their approach is contrary to Christian teaching.

    • Are you comparing life expectancy of the same demographic slice of population? The health care system is not the only factor.

      Its also interesting that many of those countries still have some kind of explicit Christian component to their societies. Nobody on the secular left frames this as “As a christian nation, it is imperative for us to care for the sick as a governmental function”.

      if we did, we might not have absurdities like abortion coverage being mandated. Are there catholic hospitals in the UK? Are they compelled to provide abortion? If we have universal coverage in the US, I’m sure they would.

    • JDK


      Whether a nation’s health care system is universal or not is only one variable that determines life expectancy. For example, Denmark’s life expectancy is not too much higher than life expectancy of the United States. Denmark has universal coverage. Is that slight difference in life expectancy due to the healthcare system? Japan has higher life expectancy than Canada, why don’t you compare Canada to Japan? Is it the health system alone? Or do lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise play a bigger factor?

      I agree that market based solution are compatible with universal coverage. Switzerland is a great example of that. You are correct that some do setup a false dichotomy. However, I think you over simplified your case that higher life expectancy in Canada shows that the US healthcare system doesn’t work.

      • Richard Fellows

        The U.S. has worse health outcomes than almost every other wealthy nation, even though its citizens spend huge amounts of money on health. Take a look at the statistics at http://www.gapminder.org. Western europe, including Denmark spends about half as much on health care per person as the U.S.
        Supporters of the U.S. health care system need to explain the statistics.

        • JDK


          Your life expectancy example was a gross over simplification of a complex issue. There are many inputs that go into the overall health of a nation that are unrelated to whether a system is single payer or a mixture of public/private.. Additionally, you have to adjust for traffic accidents, homicides, and other factors. I can point you to empirical studies by Dr. Scott Atlas at the Hoover Institution of Stanford has done a lot of great work in this area.

          Are there flaws in the US system? Most definitely, but there are a lot of oversimplifications in this whole debate.

          Another example people use is the infant mortality rate. The US calculates this differently than other countries. The rate has been given an example of how the US healthcare system is terrible.

    • Joe Rigney


      Which Bible verse mandates that we outsource the care of our loved ones and its payment to Caesar? Or given our current administration’s love of baby-killing, perhaps we’d really be outsourcing care to King Herod?

      And I thought I was explicitly forbidden to render things that belong to God and bear his image (like my family) to Caesar?

      I can embrace the biblical teaching that *I* and *We* (the church) have a responsibility to care for the sick and poor. And it’s precisely because I care for people that I don’t want to turn responsibility for their care over to wicked men and their bureaucracies.

  • Jonathan Biggar

    The huge disconnect here is twofold: Wright gives the game away when he keeps using the word “unthinkable”. It means he isn’t seriously trying to think through their position–he is dismissing it purely on an emotional basis.

    He also comes off rather smug and self-congratulatory, seeming not to have ever considered that advocating the use of coercive state power to force others to provide health care is inconsistent with the “christian values” he thinks he’s showing, and does not credit to him as meeting Christ’s call for PERSONAL involvement in caring for others.

    • Great reply. It seems that Christians of a more socialist persuasion aren’t even trying to understand where American conservative Christians are coming from. The debate then reduces to condescending remarks on one side and annoyance on the other, which doesn’t get us anywhere.

    • Richard Fellows

      This comment, like many of the comments on this post, speculates on what Wright may or may not have considered, instead of engaging with what he has actually said.
      In the U.S. there seems to be a deep suspicion of the state. I find this odd. Why fund education, for example, using “coercive state power”, as you call it, but not health care?
      State-funded health care does not prevent anyone from “personal involvement in caring for others”. This is another false dichotomy.

  • Scott F

    ” It was the Christians, very early on, who introduced the idea that we should care for people beyond the circle of our own kin”

    Yeah. That’s why Jesus hearers couldn’t understand him when he instructed them to give their alms in secret. “Alms? What are alms?” As if Christian’s invented compassion.

    And I am supposed to take Wright seriously?

  • I also think Wright is misreading the actual claims of Christians on this. What is resisted is probably not universal health care as such but 1) a change in the relation of government to citizen 2) viewing the state as all powerful provide of social goods.

    I also wonder about how people in all these modern countries view provision of these things to large numbers of foreign immigrants. All of these countries are less diverse demographically than the USA. Its one thing to care beyond ones kin, another thing to care for others beyond “ourselves and our posterity”

    • Patrick

      This is the error many Christians make, IMO. “WE” is the church. It is not a secular modernized version of Caesar. There is no biblical warrant for Christians to desire Caesar does God’s or our role, IMO.

      I love Bishop Wright ,but, the secular Caesar is not we. That’s them.

      IF you think someone needs health insurance, pay it for them, don’t beat everyone else over the head,including non Christians by using the force of Caesar to see to it.

      That is not God’s paradigm , He doesn’t force folks to follow His lead.

  • Maybe Wright could understand it better if he realized that the system of government in the USA *IS* like an imperial system, or is at least plausibly viewed that way. Where the people of the state of Mississippi or Colorado, for instance, look at some of the things Washington mandates (“you must have abortion”, or “you must lock up potheads”) that they do the way a colony would see the actions of an imperial power.

    We could have universal coverage of some kind WITHIN a state, and there may be MUCH LESS christian opposition. All the right-wing Catholic subsidiaritans (like Paul Ryan) would be happier at least

  • “We don’t understand all of this opposition to it over here in the U.S.” This seems characteristic of Wright: he constantly “doesn’t understand” Biblically-faithful Christians to the right (no pun) of him.

    Of course, understanding requires listening; and listening requires humility; and humility requires thinking you might yet have something you need to be taught.

    So maybe there’s the problem.

  • Ron

    It’s amazing to me that Rev. Dr. Wright who has had such remarkably astute things to say on the ancient Christian critique of empire and, on that basis, has criticized power-grubbing modern examples of empire should think it unChristian of me to not want decisions about my health care being made by some government bureaucrat. Why does Professor Wright worship the state on this particular issue? Who’s confusing church and state now?

  • Ray Hooker

    Nathan, I think the hubris is on the side of dismissing the comments by N T Wright…. or at least in need of listening. For the most part, those who I engage with among friends or others vehemently opposing the health care solution are often ignorant of the details or facts involved. They are fueled by exaggerations and driven by what.. the belief without proof that this is not Christian and that free market is the only ethical approach. I recognize that there are complexities that need to be discussed, but that is not what is happening and most conservatives I know are responding with simplistic devotion to their principles.