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Health, disease, theology and politics

20 August 2009

A few days ago I wrote in a blog post about theological objections to a phrase I had read on someone’s blog — “universal health care is theft”. It sparked off one of the biggest exchanges of comments this blog has had, though many of the comments seemed to miss the point entirely. But the response has convinced me that the phrase is far more evil than I originally thought it was, and that it reveals and promotes a profoundly anti-Christian mindset.

In my earlier post I quoted from St John Chrysostom’s sermons on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, in which he seemed to make a pretty good case for saying that the lack of universal health care is theft.

The thing that struck me most strongly about it was that the people who sought to defend the idea that “universal health care is theft” tried to justify the rich man’s treatment of Lazarus by referring to abstract notions such as “liberty” and “justice”,  and, as one said,

To those in a modern European tradition such as white South Africans, including Christians across the theological spectrum from that kind of country, socialism’s a given and libertarianism seems like scary science fiction despite its roots both in English common law and the European ‘Enlightenment’ (with a nod to Salamanca for pioneering free-market economics).

It it is the “roots in the European Enlightenment” part that perhaps needs to be examined more closely. Here’s something on that from an article posted in another blog: Glocal Christianity: Energy Healing: A Christian Theological Appraisal:

This swing towards holistic or complementary medicine in the closing decades of the twentieth century has coincided with the shift into postmodemity. Postmodernity represents a major shift in ideas in Western thinking. Major shifts in the way people understand themselves and civilizations develop have occurred down the centuries. Medieval Europe, for example, was a feudal society. It capsized with the advent of both the Renaissance and Reformation. These twin movements departed from the structures and basic assumptions of medieval society, and gave rise to new political, philosophical and theological frameworks.

In the eighteenth century another innovation in thought occurred which was known as the Enlightenment. Our modem era emerged from the Enlightenment, which had undergirding it an anti-supernatural bias. The emphasis was placed on finding absolute certainty in knowledge through human reason and science. The assumptions of the Enlightenment world have now collapsed as being unworkable, and it is being replaced by a new mindset, which at present is called postmodern.

In the postmodern framework we can discern two principal features. First, postmodernity represents a critique of the inadequacies of the Enlightenment agenda to find absolute certainty in reason and science. Second, it stands for a fresh way of understanding life in the context of an emerging global civilization. The bias against the spiritual, which characterized the modern world, is winnowing away. One of the major spiritual expressions of postmodern thought in the West is new age.

Now I do not believe that everything that can be labelled as postmodern is good. What postmodernity has achieved is showing that the modern worldview (shaped by the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment) is not the only way of looking at things, and that when dealing with people of a different culture or worldview, one needs to examine one’s own presuppositions and not assume that everyone else shares them. Modernity is not necessarily always a bad way of looking at things. It is helped us to make great advances in our knowledge of the natural sciences, for example. But it remains a human construct, and a human way of looking at things. As Nicholas Berdyaev, the Orthodox religious philosopher, puts it

A naively realistic distortion of the world is always based upon confusion, the constructions of the mind enter into it. This compusorily perceptible world which is the only real world for prosaic workaday experience, and the only ‘objective’ world, is a creation of man, it expresses the direction in which his mind tends to move. When the ordinary everyday person naively says: ‘I regard as real only what I can perceive with the senses’ he is, by so saying, and without being aware of the fact, regarding the reality of the world as dependent upon himself. And that is why philosophical empiricism was a form of idealism. Naive realism is subjectivism at its worst (Berdyaev 1957:6).

So just because libertarian ideas have emerged from the European Enlightenment they are not necessarily good, nor are they necessarily compatible with the Christian faith, which preceded modernity by several centuries. It seems to me that what has emerged from this discussion is a question of the source of one’s values. Does one get them from the gospel of the Kingdom, or from the libertarian ideology?

It seems to me, from the way people have argued on this issue, that for some people at least, libertarianism has become an ideology that is used as the chief, if not the sole criterion of good and evil. And this makes libertarianism an ideology at least as dangerous as Marxism-Leninism, and of a similar kind, one that seeks to subject man to the power of economics and money.

To quote Berdyaev again

It was the industrialist capitalist period which subjected man to the power of economics and money, and it does not become its adepts to teach communists the evangelical truth that man does not live by bread alone. The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbours, for everybody, is a spiritual and religious question. Man does not live by bread alone, but he does live by bread and there should be bread for all. Society should be so organized that there is bread for all, and then it is that the spiritual question will present itself before men in all its depth. It is not permissible to base a struggle for spiritual interests and for a spiritual renaissance on the fact that for a considerable part of humanity bread will not be guaranteed. Such cynicism as this justly evokes an atheistic reaction and the denial of spirit. Christians ought to be permeated with a sense of the religious importance of the elementary needs of men, the vast masses of men, and not to despise these needs from the point of view of an exalted spirituality.

The apologists for libertarianism, however, do not do this from the point of view of an exalted spirituality, but rather from the point of view of an exalted materialism. In this case, one could substitute “healthcare” for “bread” in Berdyaev’s statement, which links it just as strongly to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

I have some sympathy for libetarianism, at least in theory. Politically, I would describe myself as a liberal, and libertarianism is basically liberalism on steroids. Libertarianism takes liberal ideas and pushes them to their logical, and sometimes illogical conclusion. And while I’m in favour of political liberalism, I’m not so much in favour of economic liberalism (nowadays often called neoliberalism), whereas libertarians seem to combine both political and economic liberalism and push them to extemes.

However, it is not so much the extremism I object to, as the tendency to substitute simplistic slogans for thought, and then to defend these slogans from the point of view of a rigid ideology. This is the disease of “political correctness”, and differs little from the Marxist variety in form, even if it does differ in content. “Universal healthcare is theft” is one such simplistic slogan. Those who have tried to defend it have set compassion and liberty in opposition to one another, and imply that liberty is more important than compassion. I think this is ideological and idolatrous, since since it is setting up one good as the only good, and setting it in opposition to all other good. It is loving the idea of liberty more than liberty itself, and turning that idea into a tyrant.

C.S. Lewis describes this process well in his novel Out of the silent planet, when the Oyarsa (planetary ruler) of Malacandra comments on Ransom’s imperialist vision

I see now how the lord of the silent world has bent you. The are laws that all hnau know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of those is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little blind Oyarsa in your brain. And now you can do nothing but obey it, though if we ask you why it is a law you can give no other reason for it than for all the other and greater laws which it drives you to disobey.

So the love of liberty, which is something all intelligent beings (hnau in Lewis’s novel) know becomes a little blind Oyarsa, setting itself up in opposition to every other good.

Anargyri: The Unmercenary Doctors SS Cosmas & Damian

Anargyri: The Unmercenary Doctors SS Cosmas & Damian

It has been said that at the root of the statement that “universal health care is theft” is the libertarian belief that taxes are theft. This would be more convincing, however, if those who claim to be libertarians objected just as strongly to streets and bridges paid for out of taxes. Why  do they seem to have it in for the sick? Why do they seem to turn healthcare into a zero-sum game, so that “liberty” for one is in inverse proportion to healthcare for another, a sort of  “You must be sick so I can be free” attitude? While one can debate about the desirability of taxes, and what sort of things can be paid for out of taxes and so on, in the Christian faith there is no teaching that  taxation is wrong in principle. There is, however, a very clear teaching in favour of compassion, especially for the sick.

In this my concern is not so much with practical politics as with ethical principles. I feel much as G.K. Chesterton when he wrote

When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: “Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is.” Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not so much concerned about the General Election. As a babe I leapt up on my mother’s knee at the mere mention of it. No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud. As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals. (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

I am not concerned here with practical politics, to praise or condemn any particular health policy of any particular government of any particular state. I am concerned with the vision of univeral healthcare, though in any particular case the reality may be a fraud. Those who have argued for the truth of the statement “universal heath care is theft” have done so on the basis of libertarian principles, and not Christian ones. They have mentioned propositions and policies and politicians that I have never heard of who agitated for or against contraception or something. But they all carefully evaded any discussion of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and ignore the example of the anargyri.

So they have managed to convince me, more strongly than ever before, that libertarianism is a seductive and absolutist ideology that cannot be reconciled with the Christian faith.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 August 2009 6:52 pm

    To the extent any philosophical commitments transcend Christian commitments they are in error.

    I have been repeating a phrase often (as I was quite the Classical Liberal not too long ago, but no longer) “capitalism is an excellent tool.” I mean by this that it is a tool for the arete of man. If it ceases to be such, or isn’t the appropriate tool in a given context (economic incentives alone lead to vices in naturally communal spaces like the environment) then it should be exchanged for the appropriate tool.

    Philosophy should serve people; not people, philosophy.

    • 20 August 2009 8:51 pm


      And, like the Sabbath, economic powers were made for man, not man for the economic powers.

      Capitalism (unlike Marxism) did not start off as an ideological system. It grew out of certain historical circumstances. Recognising that, as Christians we can see how we can behave ethically within the system, and if will not allow us to behave ethically in certain circumstances, then change it accordingly.

      But later people like Ayn Rand gave it an ideology, and made it normative, with the clear implication that if our lives and behaviour were not governed by the capitalist ideal, then we would have to change them. The Christian faith must bow down to and make way for the system created by the capitalist ideologues. And at that point Christians must refuse to do so.

  2. 20 August 2009 9:00 pm

    Steve, you have captured the point I’ve been learning to make in these last few years. But I wonder, when Adam Smith first said we could harness private vice for the public good the infected blow was struck, only now showing signs of sepsis.

  3. 21 August 2009 12:27 am

    “Those who have argued for the truth of the statement “universal heath care is theft” have done so on the basis of libertarian principles, and not Christian ones.”

    Maybe here.

    Where I went to school, Milton was god. Not the poet. Friedman.

    As a quasi-Quaker (very conservative in many ways, like yourself), sociometrician, poverty law practitioner, with enough graduate theology to gag myself – I say that the real lament is a lament for the bankruptcy of any theology to translate into any theometrics, to offer a heterodox alternative to Friedman’s libertarian formulae.

    Even Norte Dame jettisoned heterodox econometrics (including mixing theometrics – applied empirical theology – to economics), because Norte Dame is selling out to neoclassical economics.

    Friedman’s libertarian econometric of rational choice is insinuated into consumer theology itself.

    Consumers we are.

    Buying a theology of choice.

    Obama, our next religious salesman.

    As if Jesus “fashioned” a whip to cleanse the Temple, but sold it for a better offer.

    I’ve argued it further here:

    I don’t have the answers.

    But I cannot believe that God is Mute and Stupider than the theological rhetoric on both sides, and than the economic irrelevance of theology.

    A few atheist posters on my blog say it proves that God is dead. In any real way …

  4. 21 August 2009 8:01 am

    Civilizations rise and fall as do theories which good men use to serve them and evil men use to dominate them.

    God remains.

    I just don’t see the weakness of the theories about God’s plan for such things as anything to do with God.

  5. Steve permalink
    28 August 2009 12:25 pm

    Just got to this post so forgive me if I speak out of turn here Steve.

    It is said that the Citizens of Malta, (the smallest European Union State) enjoy what is perhaps the “best” healthcare system in the Union. Funded by national insurance (NI) contributions which currently run at around 10 per cent of gross salary, healthcare is freely available to all citizens including pensioners and the unemployed.

    It has long been believed here, that equitable Healthcare policy underpins social cohesion – a good thing of course; but there are downsides that can be weighed in scales.

    It leads to a people that are overly dependent on cures that treat symptoms (and sometimes not even that). The corollary to this, is a people whose spiritual identity is convoluted.

    I once heard a Roman Catholic priest say that inheritance issues are the bane of Maltese society. Originator brand hypnotics (like Valium) which are available free of charge are liberally used to calm people down prior to sleeping (they are known as “kalmanti” here).

    There are more quantifiable costs too. Government have recently completed a large (even by US standards) and well equipped hospital that costs millions of euros a day to run. Bear in mind that Malta’s population is around 415,000, about the same as a medium sized city in any other part of the developed world.

    On a final note. The naming committee (no doubt influenced by the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception) decided to name this hospital Mater Dei. I would have thought that the name Santo Spirito, would have been more appropriate.

    Still standing today, but no longer functioning as a hospital it was largely staffed by Jews,and later Conversi (Jews who “converted” to Christianity after the Alhambra decree of 1492), and other Christian medical practitioners.

    What’s in a name we might ask? Well, more of that later. This is neither the time nor the place for that.


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