In America, Christianity Ain’t What It Used To Be

If you want to understand how America got this way, reading Chris Lehmann’s book The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity and the Unmaking of the American Dream might help. This is from a review by Barrett Swanson at Dissent:

Though few contemporary Christians would likely admit it, many of the American colonies were built upon the idea of redistribution. Those dour Puritans who first populated the territories of New England were not lured by the promise of windfall profits. Nor had they endured months of seasickness and disease for the chance to start a small business. Instead, they were hopeless utopians, runaway apostates of the established church who yearned to embrace a higher manner of being, one founded upon a system of communitarian ethics.

John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, sketched the tenets of this new society in a sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity,” which he delivered in 1630 while on board a British ship headed across the Atlantic. A gusty ode to American exceptionalism, the homily christened the new continent “The City Upon a Hill,” a metaphor that Ronald Reagan would make a watchword for Republicans some three-hundred-and-fifty years later. But in Winthrop’s eyes what gave the New World its luster were the egalitarian principles of the Protestant gospel, central among them the commitment to redistributing wealth on the basis of individual need. “We must be willing,” Winthrop said, “to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the sakes of others’ necessities . . . we must bear one another’s burdens.”

It is stupefying to consider how, over the course of four centuries, American Christianity would forsake these humble sentiments for the telegenic hucksterism of preachers like Joel Osteen. This Pentecostal quack with a garish smile doesn’t tout the spiritual benefits of communal interdependence. Nor does he acknowledge the ethical requirements of the Christian social contract. Instead, like so many stewards of the “prosperity gospel,” Osteen thinks individual wealth is a hallmark of Christian virtue and urges his followers to reach inside themselves to unlock their hidden potential…. “It doesn’t please God for us to drag through life feeling like miserable failures,” Osteen warns. “God wants you to succeed; He created you to live abundantly.”

How we got from Winthrop to Osteen is the subject of Chris Lehmann’s new book, The Money Cult. Lehmann is interested in how the communitarian spirit of mainline Protestantism was eventually tarnished by the logic of private enterprise. But in the end what he discovers is that, far from being pious victims of a rapacious economic system, mainline churches were very much complicit in “the gradual sanctification of the market.” In fact, throughout the history of the United States, Christian theology was routinely contorted to fit within the narrow priorities of capitalism.

One of the reasons Christianity caught on in the Roman world was that it functioned as a mutual aid society. Helping one’s fellow Christians made a difference in people’s lives, because Rome wasn’t big on universal healthcare or unemployment insurance. But neither was 17th century England. So it makes sense that redistribution (something along the lines of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”) was a guiding principle for the Christians who founded Plymouth Colony.

Today, of course, our fellow citizens who call the U.S. a “Christian” nation think that “redistribution” is a dirty word. A headline in The Washington Post earlier this month noted that “the debate over the Affordable Care Act is really a debate over wealth redistribution”. From Karen Tumulty’s article:

Redistribution of wealth — one of the most radioactive subjects in American politics — has moved from being a subtext in the national debate over health care to being the core of it….

[There is] a bedrock philosophical and ideological question that has always been in the background of any argument about the government’s role in health care: What is the minimum that society should provide for its poorest, most vulnerable citizens, and how much should be taken from the rich and powerful to do it?

…There [are] many ways that Obamacare [redistributes] the burden of medical costs — from the sick to the healthy, with provisions such as the one denying insurers the ability to refuse coverage to people with preexisting conditions; from the old to the young, with a mandate that everyone have coverage or pay a penalty; from the rich to the poor, with an array of new taxes.

It’s almost as if right-wing opponents of the ACA don’t understand what insurance, including health insurance, is. Tumulty quotes economic historian Bruce Bartlett:

“Republicans argue that redistribution is inherently immoral without acknowledging that the very nature of insurance is redistributive. You’re taking money from people whose houses don’t burn down to give it to the people whose houses do burn down.”

As far as I know, Jesus never talked about health insurance and neither did the Puritans. But Christianity in its pure form is clearly pro-redistribution. Any preacher or politician who says otherwise shouldn’t claim to follow Jesus.

If you’re interested in reading more about Christianity as it’s frequently practiced today, I recommend a long article from 2014 by the journalist Kurt Eichenwald. It’s called “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin”: 

…With politicians, social leaders and even some clergy invoking a book they seem to have never read and whose phrases they don’t understand, America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy.

The Bible is not the book many American fundamentalists and political opportunists think it is, or more precisely, what they want it to be. Their lack of knowledge about the Bible is well-established. A Pew Research poll in 2010 found that evangelicals ranked only a smidgen higher than atheists in familiarity with the New Testament and Jesus’s teachings. “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it,’’ wrote … pollsters and researchers whose work focused on religion in the United States. The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, found in 2012 that evangelicals accepted the attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees—religious leaders depicted throughout the New Testament as opposing Christ and his message—more than they accepted the teachings of Jesus.

No doubt, Paul Ryan would beg to differ. But who sounds more like Jesus? Was it Ryan when he said the healthy shouldn’t be taxed to help the sick, or John Winthrop when he said “we must bear one another’s burdens”? Here’s a hint from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10:  

“One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

“You’re On Your Own”

Every now and then, you might find yourself wondering “What’s the deal with these people?” Why are four Republican Congressmen sponsoring a bill that would abolish the Environmental Protection Agency? Why does the President think financial advisers should be free to give advice that favors themselves, not their clients? Why did a wealthy relative of mine strongly resent paying taxes for public schools?

Paul Waldman, writing in The Washington Post, nicely explains the guiding principle behind actions and attitudes like these:

President [D]rump is not an ideologue — not because he’s open-minded, but because he has little in the way of particular beliefs about policy. He does, however, have impulses, inclinations and prejudices. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), on the other hand, is an ideologue, as are many if not most of his compatriots in Congress.

Put that Congress and this White House together, and you get a Republican government with a clear and coherent ideology, one you can sum up in a short declarative statement:

You’re on your own.

This is the driving principle behind nearly everything the Republicans are trying to do in domestic affairs…

He then offers examples. They make very interesting reading if you’ve been trying to understand how people like Drump and Ryan manage to consistently choose the wrong side of every issue.

On the Bright Side, ACA-Wise

There is only one sure thing when it comes to predicting what President Donnie will do. He’ll always do what he thinks will serve his interests. It might not actually serve his interests, but he will believe it does. Otherwise he wouldn’t do it. That’s because he doesn’t have an altruistic gene or self-sacrificing neural pathway in his body. Not one. He is 100% self-centered and selfish. 

The possibly good news is that Donnie has promised not to cut Medicare and Medicaid (and Social Security):

trump-msg

Plus, there’s this:

…T***p told the Wall Street Journal he would consider keeping two of [the ACA’s] most popular provisions — one that allows adult children to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans, and another that would forbid insurance companies from refusing to cover “pre-existing conditions.”

“I like those very much,” the newspaper quoted Trump as saying [on Nov. 11th].

Furthermore, although he has parroted the standard Republican line about quickly repealing the Affordable Care Act, he’s said it should immediately be replaced with something “terrific”. In his case, of course, “terrific” usually means either expensive or fraudulent, but let’s assume he wants the ACA replacement to be popular. It’s true that he’s so mendacious, ignorant and/or stupid that he recently said it will take about a week to design and approve a terrific replacement, but put that aside too. Perhaps he sees an opportunity to feed his narcissism by doing something that will make most of America admire him (as unlikely as that will ever be). 

It shouldn’t have been a surprise, therefore, that Donnie told “The Washington Post” yesterday that he will shortly unveil a plan that offers “insurance for everybody”!

(By the way, before I forget, whoever is responsible for childishly defacing that picture up there from Donnie’s Twitter account is going to be in big, big trouble on January 20th.)

Of course, given that the President-elect’s entire career outside reality TV has been based on telling suckers what they want to hear, his promises are less than worthless. But at least we know that protecting Medicare and Medicaid; limiting the ruthlessness of insurance companies; and making sure we all have health insurance are ideas he’s heard of.

There are a few other reasons for a tiny bit of extremely cautious optimism:

(1) Most of us don’t want the ACA repealed and nobody wants to lose what they already have, so there has been a huge negative response to the Republican “plans”, with websites like Faces of the ACA , articles like “Without Obamacare, I’ll Get Sicker, Faster, Until I Die” and “Here’s What One Cancer Survivor Wants You To Know About Obamacare” and constant reminders that it’s “Time to Turn Up the Heat: Senate Staffers Are Complaining About the Avalanche of Angry Calls”. The anti-ACA repeal movement is also getting support (some of it lukewarm) from unlikely sources, including Republican governors, hospital administrators, insurance companies and the American Medical Association. 

(2) The House of Representatives almost always follows its leader, the odious Paul Ryan, but the Senate is much less predictable. Even in the House, the most reactionary Republicans sometimes vote against their leader because a proposed piece of legislation doesn’t harm enough people. In fact, recent history shows that Republicans find it much easier to agree on what they’re against than on what they’re for. On top of that, nobody knows how  Pres. Donnie will react to legislation that doesn’t obviously satisfy his greed or narcissism. For a helpful summary of the procedural hurdles Congressional Republicans are up against, see “Everything Republicans Will Have To Do To Actually Repeal and Replace Obamacare” (subtitle: “It Won’t Be Easy”). 

(3) It’s been reported that there is more opposition to “Obamacare” than to the Affordable Care Act. The more people learn what the ACA actually does, the more they like it. So, once President Obama becomes a fond memory, and despite well-funded Republican efforts to confuse the issue, it’s possible that support for the ACA will increase. Andy Slavitt, the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, prepared a list of everyone who will be negatively affected by repeal of the ACA (without, of course, a terrific replacement):

c2k_w0xwqaad8d4

And let’s not forget this bit of good news:

c2esrmzusaadfg9-1

Will spreading the good news about the ACA and bad news about its repeal have an effect on the right-wing ideologues in Congress and the orange person in the White House? We don’t know, but it’s worth a try.

One last thought for now. One of the phrases that comes up in arguments about our healthcare system is “socialized medicine”. It’s used to attack the idea that the government should control or bear responsibility for healthcare. When you think about it, however, it’s clear that healthcare does have a very strong social aspect. If we don’t want poor people dying in the streets or dread diseases spreading through the population, we need society, including the government, to make sure people get medical treatment. This is why people who arrive at emergency rooms at the edge of death get medical treatment, even if they don’t have a health insurance card or a suitcase full of cash.

The idea that healthcare is a social good fits nicely with the standard Democratic view that “we are all in this together”. Most of us don’t want to live in a dog eat dog world. 

Republicans, however, lean toward the “every man for himself” or “not my brother’s keeper” model. That’s not all bad. Almost everyone puts themselves, their family and their friends ahead of strangers. But in the Republicans’ case, that fundamental attitude easily translates into less for the poor and sick and more for the rich and healthy. That’s the underlying message behind Paul Ryan’s recent statement that he favors “high risk pools” for people with “pre-existing conditions”. He was answering a question from a cancer patient whose life was saved by the ACA:

So we, obviously, want to have a system where they can get affordable coverage without going bankrupt because they get sick. But, we can do that without destroying the rest of the healthcare system for everybody else. That’s the point I’m trying to make. What we should have done was fix what was broken in health care without breaking what was working in healthcare, and that’s what, unfortunately, Obamacare did. So, by financing state high-risk pools to guarantee people get affordable coverage when they have a pre-existing condition, like yourself, what you’re doing is, you’re dramatically lowering the price of insurance for everybody else [PoliticsUSA].

Doing this won’t work, of course, unless those unlucky sick people are wealthy enough to pay sky-high premiums, the government (meaning the rest of us) pays their bills or they simply give up, drop out of the insurance market and take their chances. That’s how “high risk pools”, also known as “insurance ghettos”, have always worked, i.e. failed, in the past.

A closing comment from the PoliticsUSA site:

… Ryan thinks cancer patients and other pre-existing conditions are ruining healthcare for everyone else…The true evil in [Ryan’s] plan is that by separating out the high-risk patients from everyone else, Ryan … can keep costs down by underfunding the pool for people who need healthcare the most…

That’s the attitude we’re up against. The news isn’t all bad, but it’s not going to be easy.

This Week’s Selective Political Roundup

Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine presents two brief accounts of Republican hypocrisy (there’s a little-known but important fact: Republican politicians are required to solemnly recite a Hypocritical Oath before receiving any financial support from the party).

First, Congressman Paul Ryan has said that he wants to simplify the tax code and isn’t especially interested in cutting taxes for the wealthy.  When asked why he didn’t support a proposal made by a Republican congressman a few years ago that would have done exactly that, namely, eliminate loopholes and deductions without favoring one group of taxpayers over another, he’s unable to come up with an answer. All he can say is that it’s “ridiculous” to worry about which taxpayers would benefit the most from tax reform. It must, therefore, be mere coincidence that the reforms he favors would disproportionately benefit the wealthy (“No Tax Reforms Unless Rich People Get Paid“).

Second, Republican Senators who previously claimed it’s against the rules or common practice to confirm a Supreme Court nominee in the last year of a President’s term are now saying this last-year restriction only applies if Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders) wins in November. If one of the Democrats is elected President, it will be perfectly fine to approve Obama’s nominee this year. Their fear, of course, is that President Clinton or Sanders would nominate someone more liberal than Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee. Thus, “the people” should have a role in deciding who gets on the Supreme Court, but the people who vote in November should only have a role if they elect a Republican President. Otherwise, the people who elected Obama in 2012 should have their say after all. Yes, they do indeed swear a Hypocritical Oath (“[Republicans] Demand Supreme Court Vacancy Be Filled by Next President, Unless That President Is Hillary Clinton“).

Meanwhile, Matthew Yglesias of Vox says “There’s a Big Problem with Sanders’s Free College Plan“. “Free college” has been one of Senator Sanders’s most popular positions. According to the campaign’s site:

The Sanders plan would make tuition free at public colleges and universities throughout the country…The cost of this … plan is fully paid for by imposing a tax of a fraction of a percent on Wall Street speculators [i.e. on transactions in the stock and bond markets].

Yglesias, however, provides a link to a more detailed “Summary of Sen. Sanders’ College for All Act” on his Senate webpage: 

This legislation would provide $47 billion per year to states to eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities.

Today, total tuition at public colleges and universities amounts to about $70 billion per year. Under the College for All Act, the federal government would cover 67% of this cost, while the states would be responsible for the remaining 33% of the cost.

To qualify for federal funding, states must meet a number of requirements designed to protect students, ensure quality, and reduce ballooning costs. States will need to maintain spending on their higher education systems, on academic instruction, and on need-based financial aid. In addition, colleges and universities must reduce their reliance on low-paid adjunct faculty.

As Yglesias points out, Sanders is relying on the states, including those that refused to accept Federal money in order to expand Medicaid coverage for the poor, to spend more money on education, even though the same states, usually run by Republican governors and legislators, have been cutting their education budgets. In addition, the public colleges and universities in those states would have to institute other reforms in order for their states to qualify for Federal matching grants.

Free college sounds great, and Senator Sanders has a reputation for brutal honesty, but he isn’t telling his supporters the truth about how difficult it would be to abolish college tuition. In Yglesias’s words: “what Sanders has is a plan for tuition-free college in Vermont and, if he’s lucky, California, but not for the United States of America”.

Lastly, two political science professors have an interesting article in the New York Times called “Clinton’s Bold Vision, Hidden in Plain Sight?“. They argue that Hillary Clinton is a throwback to the days when pragmatic Democrats and Republicans worked together to achieve great things: 

Mrs. Clinton has put forth an ambitious and broadly popular policy agenda: family and medical leave, continued financial reform, improvements in the Affordable Care Act, investments in infrastructure and scientific research, measures to tackle global warming and improve air and water quality, and so on….

A few decades ago, Mrs. Clinton would have been seen as a common political type: an evidence-oriented pragmatist committed to using public authority to solve big problems…. In the middle decades of the 20th century, this pragmatic problem-solving mentality had a prominent place in both parties. Some issues were deeply divisive: labor rights and national health insurance, for example, and civil rights. Nonetheless, a bipartisan governing coalition that included leaders from both business and labor proved remarkably willing to endorse and improve the mixed economy to promote prosperity.

More important, the major policies that this coalition devised deserve credit for some of the greatest achievements of American society, including the nation’s once decisive lead in science and education, its creation of a continent-spanning market linked by transportation and communications, and its pioneering creation of product and environmental regulations that added immensely to Americans’ health and quality of life…. Americans’ income per capita doubled and then more than doubled again, with the gains broadly distributed for most of the era….

Mrs. Clinton is heir to an enormously successful bipartisan governing tradition. Yet this tradition has been disowned by the Republican Party and has lost allure within a significant segment of the Democratic Party; it also runs sharply against the grain of current public sentiments about government and politicians….

In the context of widespread amnesia about what has made America prosper, pragmatism has come to be seen as lacking a clear compass rather than (in the original meaning of the word) focusing on what has actually proved to work in the real world.