When I heard these words at mass a few weeks ago, my heart soared, because it was the perfect lead-in for a sermon about the urgency of health care reform, based upon Christian notions of distributive justice and social solidarity seeking our collective good. The punch line won’t surprise you — Not a mention of health care. Why aren’t progressives of faith, whether in the pulpit or in the well of Congress, not employing every persuasive tool to advance healthcare reform as an imperative not only for the least among us but for us all?
Evoking religious values has long been effective in achieving social transformation. This tradition of social reformers, clergy and politicians joining together, and invoking faith to obtain fundamental change experienced its apex during the abolition, anti-Vietnam, and civil rights movements. Progressives abandoned the device of transcendent vision almost simultaneous with Conservatives adopting this successful script of shared values and worldview based upon God’s will. The religious right employs Christianity to resist protections against anti-discrimination laws — the Christian Coalition is currently mobilizing on a bill that would give gays and transsexuals federal protection in the workplace — and to support war — President George Bush famously explained to foreign leaders that God told him to invade Iraq and Afghanistan.
Televangelists employ prophetic language to preach against social evils, which are, in their view, largely perpetrated by, well, Democrats. But the prophetic vision also embraces “a vision of a more equitable society characterized by the virtues of solidarity and compassion and of justice inspired by the love of God and neighbor.” (Lisa Sowle Cahill) Why don’t we hear our elected representatives cry that “respect for life” and “human dignity” compel universal access to healthcare?
The left has ceded public policy grounded in faith to the right. It can’t be because nobody on the left prays. A Pew Survey reports that 84% of respondents self-identify affiliation with a specific religious denomination. I interpret that as meaning that progressives go to church and temple too. A Census Bureau 2001 American Religious Identification Study concluded that 76.7% of the U.S. adult population of 208 million is Christian. Democratic presidential candidates emphasize their faith (Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter) when they run, but as soon as they take office they revert to dry policy arguments for social goals that meet with passionately poetical threats of sin and damnation from the right. Are Democrats unable to invoke a competing interpretation of faith to inspire outrage that 50 million people living in the United States are uninsured? Such a position could find more persuasive biblical support than the position that “government takeover” of healthcare is unchristian. Progressives were likewise paralyzed in the “death panel” debate, with no politician effectively arguing that the over-medicalization of death seemed an ironic position for people of faith who aspire to an after-life with God.
Many Progressives of faith are organizing to support health care, but Democratic politicians have left behind the rich tradition of invoking faith to achieve social reform. Nobody even has to use the word God — like Susan Dentzer of Health Affairs, we can simply demand a debate about whether our system is ethical and just.