Pagans and Obamacare

Pagans and Obamacare September 3, 2012

[The following is a post from The Wild Hunt archivesThe Wild Hunt is on hiatus through Labor Day weekend and will return with new posts on Tuesday, September 4th.]

Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the constitutionality of the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act, a law that overhauls America’s health care system over the next decade, and includes a controversial health insurance mandate. While universal coverage is the norm in the majority of industrialized countries, here, we’ve created a hodge-podge predominantly market-driven system that all-too-often places profits and savings above the health of its citizens. Consequently, while access to health care is often an assumed given in countries like Britain, France, or Canada, here, it has become a decades-long moral and ethical struggle. Like all moral and ethical struggles, religious leaders and groups have taken various stands on access to health care, and on this law in particular. Once the decision came down that the law would survive, at least for now, Catholics, Evangelicals, Protestants, Jews, and large religious coalitions, all weighed in with their opinion. But what about our faith community, does our diverse movement speak with one voice on this issue? What do Pagans think about access to health care, and health care reform, in the United States?

President Obama signs the Affordable Care Act into law.

Many of the leaders and prominent individuals within the modern Pagan movement I surveyed were happy that the Affordable Care Act was upheld, often with the caveat that they would prefer a single-payer system, as found in many European nations. Starhawk, co-founder of Reclaiming, and author of “The Empowerment Manual,” expressed that the ACA “is definitely an improvement over the callous and greed-ridden system we’ve got.” T. Thorn Coyle, co-founder of Solar Cross Temple, noted that “we currently live with such extreme social inequity that something like ACA does not go far enough. As long as the richest 10% of U.S. citizens control two-thirds of the wealth in the country, universal healthcare is a far better answer.” Perhaps the most succinct expression of this line of thought came from Phaedra Bonewits, a former board member of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, and widow of the popular Druid author and thinker Isaac Bonewits, who said that although she was happy with the decision, “I still wish it wasn’t about health insurance. I don’t believe we need universal health insurance, I believe we need universal health care.”

“Healthcare delivery in the USA needs to be simplified, more holistic, and more user friendly. More mental health services need to be covered as well as effective alternative therapies. There needs to be good quality, affordable healthcare for all. I hope the Affordable Care Act will help move the reform process forward but realize that it is not a panacea.”Selena Fox, Circle Sanctuary

Digging deeper, what do modern Pagan faiths believe their religions teach them about heath care, and enshrining an affordable right to it? Often, there’s been a lazy slur that pre-Christian faiths, and their modern counterparts, have no conception of charity, or larger sense of obligation to their community. The most famous expression of this erroneous belief in recent history perhaps came from Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives under President Bush, who intimated disbelief that there was a Pagan group that cared for the poor, and that only “loving hearts” were drawn to such causes. Towey later walked back those comments, but they were emblematic of a belief that Judeo-Christian traditions were somehow unique in their concern for the less fortunate. The truth is that a significant number of Pagans I polled couched their support for the ACA within the context of their spiritual beliefs. For example, Cat Chapin-Bishop, a Pagan who also participates in Quaker spirituality, sees “a dense and complicated web of obligations and services” inherent in many forms of Paganism, and that “gods favor the generous. And a just society, in Pagan terms, absolutely does have the right to require us to be generous. To an observant Pagan, hospitality is mandatory, not optional.” Turning to Starhawk, she notes that Witchcraft traditions, which are centered in the belief of wise women and cunning men, healers, should “have a special interest in assuring access to health care for all.”


Starhawk at Occupy Santa Cruz. Photo by Matt Fitt, Santa Cruz IMC.

“I believe the core value in Pagan ethics is the understanding that we are interconnected and interdependent. On that basis, health care is an important right and everyone should have access to it. My personal health is not separate from your well-being. Health is partly a matter of personal responsibility, but all of us are subject to forces beyond our control. If we suffer illness or injury or sheer bad luck, we shouldn’t be left alone to suffer the consequences unaided. We live in a more and more toxic environment, and the constant assaults on our health from pollutants and radiation and the degradation of our food supply are our collective responsibility. No one should be left alone to bear the consequences of our collective failure to protect the life-support systems around us. Rather, it is to all of our benefit to share a public responsibility for our mutual well being, because every single one of us, at some point in life, will need that help. No one gets through life unscathed, and in the end we die. If we truly accept death as part of life, with its attendant break-downs of the body and the many sorts of mischance that befall us along the way, then we do well to offer one another solidarity and succor.”Starhawk

Further, T. Thorn Coyle shared that “as a Pagan, compassion, generosity, and honor are very important to me. I want to build culture that strengthens us, but acknowledge that we need a minimum level of care built in to our social structures so that each person can contribute her best.” Christopher Penczak, co-founder of the Temple of Witchcraft, while acknowledging that there is no singular Pagan viewpoint on this issue, seemed to support this ethos of obligation and support laid out by the others, noting that his temple “looked into the possibility of purchasing a group health insurance plan for various members of the Temple of Witchcraft who expressed need.”

While a number of Pagans are vocally supportive of the ACA, there are voices of concern and dissent from this view. Since Paganism is a movement, an umbrella term for a number of distinct faiths, there is no total consensus on this issue. Some, like Lady Yeshe Rabbit, head of the Bloodroot Honey Tribe, expressed support for the aid the new law will give to the underserved, while admitting she remains “wary of anything that potentially gives the federal government more authority over my physical body, especially with the current alarming trend toward limitation of information and quality care around reproductive freedom for women that we are seeing at state and local levels.” Lady Miraselena, a Wiccan Priestess within the Temple of the Rising Phoenix in Atlanta, also supported some of the law’s provisions, while rejecting the individual mandate as a “very dangerous precedent.”

“The more power we give to one institution, the government or otherwise, the more we sacrifice our own freedom. Pagan spirituality is about journeying along a difficult personal path with both triumphs and failures. Pagan spirituality removes that single dogmatic entity; freeing us from the shackles that seek to confine us with the promise of protection. Pagan spirituality gives us the right to soar as high as we are willing to work and to fall as low as we might. Without that spiritual incentive, we are just plodding through life without really living; without the creativity of existence. For me, this wisdom informs everything.”Lady Miraselena

Perhaps most the notable Pagan opposition to the Affordable Care Acts comes from Republican congressional candidate and New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, a Theodish Heathen, who blasted the ruling saying it has given the government “the last thing they need – encouragement to add more laws, taxes and rules that make health care so expensive in the first place.”

One source I spoke to for this piece, Dr. Barbara A. McGraw, a lawyer and academic scholar who writes on the American founding, disputes the idea that the ACA and the mandate in particular is oppressive or anti-liberty, asserting that “making healthcare available to everyone, even with a supposedly freedom-limiting insurance mandate, is more conducive to the American founders’ ideal of liberty for all than a health care system run by an unrestrained insurance industry in a Darwinian “free-for-all” healthcare market that results in domination by a few at the expense of the many and people dying because of lack of care.” Still, even with those Pagans who had reservations, or idealogical/theological problems with the new law, their opposition was for the most part distinctly qualified. Their opposition mainly couched within a libertarian “high-choice” ethos, rather than from a standard partisan position, often supporting some of the most popular sections of the new law.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, striking a balance between the different positions on this new law, says that “regardless of what one’s viewpoints are on the Affordable Care Act, it is my hope that we all can find ways to innovate, communicate, and collaborate on bringing about a better healthcare system in this country.” All of the Pagans I spoke to expressed a desire for a better health care system, though there may have been disagreement on how exactly to bring that about. It is asking the question posed to us by Thorn Coyle: “What do we really value and how are these values reflected in the society we have built?” It’s clear that a great number of Pagans value a system where health care is accessible and affordable, and that we care not only about our fellow Pagans, but about the health of our fellow human beings, and the interconnected web of life on this planet. It is also clear that Pagans have a voice in the larger debates over health care, a unique and important perspective that should not be lost when society or the mainstream media searches for religious perspectives.

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18 responses to “Pagans and Obamacare”

  1. In many respects, the United States is still very much in a frontier mentality, despite being a (former) leader in several spheres in the world.

  2. I think I share Yeshe Rabbit’s view on it. Wee need it, it will help a lot of people. But the government who can give you everything, can also take everything away.

  3. “In the UK, we have the NHS, and it sucks.”

    Hmm… for a more fact based assessment of the NHS try checking out this site:-

    NHS is based on the principle of providing health care and treatment
    free at the point of delivery with the cost covered by progressive
    taxation based on relative income. This has created a situation in the
    UK where we have consistently managed to reduce infant mortality rates
    and improve life expectancy, as well as reducing inequality since the
    introduction of universal healthcare in the 40s.

    My personal
    experience of the NHS has been positive overall. The services I and my
    family have access to includes, but is not limited to (as they say):
    family doctors; emergency and routine surgery; midwifery and pediatric
    care; eye-care; as well as mental care and counseling. All of this is
    provided to me promptly and effectively.. and I do not have to worry
    about the cost.

    All of which is, of course, anecdotal, but the
    facts are that we spend a lot less per capita on health in the UK
    compared to Americans. We also have higher life expectancy and lower
    infant mortality then Americans experience.

    To clarify: Mr
    Sceadusawol’s opinion is a minority opinion in the UK, and I suspect
    that he is guilty of taking the healthcare that he has already received
    from the NHS for granted.

    I’m sorry if I sound a little grumpy,
    but it really would be wrong to let comments like this pass unchallenged
    in this discussion. The truth occasionally seems to have been something
    of a victim during the political debate that Americans have had about
    the future of health care in America.

    And the speaking the truth is definitely a pagan virtue.

  4. It is an increasing opinion. The NHS is horrendously flawed. I didn’t say that nationalised healthcare is bad, it is just that the NHS needs some serious looking at.

    As for taking my healthcare for granted… Well, I’d like to take my broken teeth for granted, but the sheer lack of local NHS dentists mean I get to enjoy the fun of having several broken teeth for several years.

    Personally, I am not a huge fan of the nationalised system as it is currently set up. There is still a tendency for over managing, and under staffing units. The bureaucratic process is terrible and we still have ‘postcode lotteries’ where local healthcare trusts have differing opinions on what service should be provided.

    All this without considering the ever increasing rate of ‘superbugs’ that come from hospitals.

    In short, the NHS sucks.

  5. I’m genuinely sorry to hear about your dental difficulties.

    Dental care, however, is not the best example of the NHS in practice as it is an exception to the principle of health care provision being free at the point of delivery with many patients paying something towards the cost of their care. More information on the cost of NHS Dentistry is available here:-

    You are right, though, to highlight dentistry as being problematic. Back in 2007 just over 2,000 dentists chose not to offer treatment on the NHS when they refused to agree to new contracts. In 2008 – no coincidence – 7 million people in England and Wales were unable to get dental treatment on the NHS over the preceding 2 years. Most of these people opted to pay for private health care; however, a significant minority chose not to get any treatment at all. From this (very) low point things have improved tremendously. By 2010 an extra 2 million patients have been able to access the NHS dental services with 96% of surveyed patients being able to get an appointment when they tried to get one.

    The Department of Health states that currently 83 per cent of respondents to the GP patient survey rate their overall experience of NHS dental services as good and 92 per cent of those who have tried to get an NHS dental appointment in the last two years were successful.

    My own experience of NHS dentistry has been good I have had no difficulties accessing care of a high quality and, as I am a recipient of the Working Tax Credit, my treatment was free.

    All of which, I know, does not help you directly…but…as you identified the delay you are facing with your dental care being due to “the sheer lack of local NHS dentists” there are 2 possible solutions:-

    1) Increase the availability of NHS dentists
    2) Use private dentistry

    The first option is apparently being implemented successfully nationally, and the second solution is open to you personally. The quality and provision of health care in the UK is not handed down from on high but subject to democratic control. If you are not happy with the way things are then you have the option of getting in touch with your local NHS Trust, lobbying your MP, or just using your vote every 5 years or so. You have options.

    How does this relate to pagan values? Well, democracy, involvement with community, caring for the ill are all historical paleo-pagan values, and these values are all demonstrated in the principles behind the NHS in the UK.

    Starhawk speaks truthfully when she says that “the core value in Pagan ethics is the understanding that we are interconnected and interdependent. On that basis, health care is an important right and everyone should have access to it. My personal health is not separate from your well-being.”

    Anyway, I wish you well, Lēoht Sceadusawol but I shall not be discussing this any further as I think we are in severe danger of hijacking this thread, which is about the provision of healthcare in America and how this relates to pagan values – not an argument about the pros and cons of the NHS.

  6. As I said, it is not the concept of nationalise healthcare that I am against so much as poor practice of it.

    This, I feel, is the important point. I used a personal experience to highlight something I feel is a pivotal issue, not to derail the discussion.

    To respond to Starhawk’s quote. Not everyone is Pagan. To legislate based on religious ideology is something we should all know to be a very bad idea.

  7. To get an idea of how bat-shit-crazy American politics are, look at Geert Wilders, who is Europe’s second most famous Right-Wing-Bogeyperson. But Wilders’ party proudly defends the Dutch “welfare state” (for example they aggressively oppose raising the retirement age). They also call for defending “traditional” Dutch values, such as gay-rights!

    I’m not as big a fan of Wilders as I used to be. But he still serves as a very educational contrast to the Romney/Ryan version of anti-social “conservatism”.

  8. Any ‘British’ politician that actually had the well-being of the country at heart would be dead meat.

  9. I have seen political commentators make the statement that European right wing politics sits just to the left of American left wing politics.

    Not been across the Atlantic, so I can’t really comment.

  10. Without “Obamacare” a young college student living at home with “pre-existing” health issues would have been dropped from health insurance and expected to find someone willing to cover hir and pay for that on hir own – in this economy. And with Obamacare since the single-payer option was dropped, thousands of dollars after insurance costs will still be needed for hir care. I could go on further, about how at the best colleges in the UK expenses are going sadly up but still cost less than in-state tuition at a US State college and what that also does to families of the middle class, who also pay the highest tax rates of anyone.
    When Gareth calls you spoiled, it’s probably because all this would seem to you rather unthinkable, an exaggeration from reality, and hard to believe, just because you have the NHS and other governmental systems kind of looking out for you. I mean you’re complaining about a couple broken teeth not getting fixed without any expectation you’ll have to pay anything for them. No offense, but perspective is not there.

  11. I never said I didn’t expect to pay. I was actually just pointing out that the system we have is seriously flawed. If I can’t get the same basic care as another person, how can that care be called universal?

  12. Alternatively, people don’t understand what I am saying.

    Which happens quite a lot (I figure this must be because I am not very good at explaining my stance.)

    My stance is not that socialised healthcare is automatically bad (the jury is out on that one). It is that the concept does not always get faithfully translated in reality.

    The best person to ask about the NHS would be an NHS nurse, and the questions to ask would include what they think of the management of the NHS.