SALT LAKE CITY — The trick to opposing universal health care as a Christian is not sounding cruel. It’s a tough task that’s getting tougher, and Robert P. Murphy handles it better than most.
He doesn’t quote that Bible verse saying the poor will always be among us, which is often cited in related debates. He doesn’t dwell on the sinfulness of raising taxes or mock those who think increasing the government’s role in health care coverage would be a good thing.
Instead, Murphy, a born-again Christian and free market evangelist, presents a question that Americans of all political stripes have probably asked at least once: Why trust the government to do a good job?
“I believe Christians have a duty to help the sick and the poor. I think both economic theory and obvious history show that the government does a very bad job of this.”
“I believe Christians have a duty to help the sick and the poor. I think both economic theory and obvious history show that the government does a very bad job of this,” he wrote in an email to the Deseret News this week.
Although nearly all Christians agree with the first part of that statement, many would deny Murphy’s second claim. Starting in the late 19th century, a number of American Christians, including some who identified as socialist, have argued that the government has an essential role to play in fulfilling the Bible’s call to care for the poor, said Heath Carter, an associate professor of American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary.
“There’s a belief that faith calls us to pursue the common good through the state,” he said.
This belief helped justify support for the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous package of government programs aimed at pulling the country out of the Great Depression. One member of the Roosevelt administration actually characterized the legislation as an embodiment of Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, Carter said.
Today, interest in partnering with the government to achieve religious goals helps explain Christian advocacy for public health insurance. Seventeen percent of Protestants and 28% of Catholics support creating a single, national government health care program, according to Pew Research Center data provided to the Deseret News.
“Support for more extensive access to health care comes out of a pretty old tradition of social Christianity,” Carter said.
The religious beliefs may be old, but they’ve taken on new significance in 2019. Calls for “Medicare for All” are now part of the political mainstream.
Democratic presidential candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, say expanding Medicare, which currently provides health insurance coverage to elderly Americans and some people with disabilities, would greatly reduce health related inequality.
In his Medicare for All legislation, Sanders lays out a plan to build a universal health care system and eliminate co-pays for necessary medical care. He’s said that health care is a human right, not a perk for Americans with enough money to spare.
President Donald Trump rejects the Medicare for All plan and has characterized it as a “socialist threat.” But he’s also acknowledged the need for health care reform and signed an executive order Thursday aimed at improving current government programs and reducing medical costs.
Overall, 43% of Protestants and 54% of Catholics say it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure all Americans are covered, according to Pew. They may not think the government offers the best health insurance, but they believe it has the power to get something done, as Carter noted.
“Christians sometimes think (the government) is the best tool we’ve got,” he said.
Murphy, a senior fellow with the Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank, shares the goal of increasing access to medical care, but he condemns the Medicare for All approach. Like half of white mainline Protestants and 75% of white evangelicals, Murphy believes it’s not the government’s responsibility to regulate health care coverage.
“I laud their goal of helping the unfortunate, but I simply disagree with their methods,” he said.
Murphy said his Christian faith informs his views on health care, but it’s not obvious at first. As he describes the economic problems with Medicare for All, he highlights concerns typically associated with Republican and libertarian politicians, not necessarily followers of Jesus Christ.
He worries about “fiscal mismanagement” and reduced market competition. He criticizes the cost and the likelihood of raising taxes.
However, he also draws on biblical principles to explain why all this matters. He argues that forced financial support for the underprivileged doesn’t meet the Bible’s call to freely care for “the least of these.”
“It is not true charity to force ‘other people’ to donate to your preferred cause against their will,” Murphy said.
Christians should work to increase personal freedom, not government interference, said Russ McCullough, an associate professor of economics at Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kansas, who co-hosts a podcast called “Faith and Economics.”
“A society built on freedom provides a better opportunity for Christians to exercise their faith,” he said.
Rather than draw on government resources to improve health care coverage, Christian opponents of Medicare for All place their hope in the free market. Carter refers to their message as “the gospel of free enterprise,” noting that it too has been around since at least the time of the New Deal.
“Some Christians believe the market is God’s way of providing for the common good,” Carter said.
However, even these people of faith often acknowledge the value of some government involvement in the health care system. Many say they aren’t opposed to the government providing a baseline health care safety net.
“I’m not someone who thinks we should eliminate all safety nets and let people fend for themselves,” said McCullough, who is Lutheran.
Just 6% of Protestants and Catholics say there should be “no government involvement of any kind” in health care coverage, according to the Pew data.
But supporting public health insurance for the poorest Americans is very different than calling for Medicare for All. Christians who oppose socialized health care argue that increasing the government’s involvement in the medical system would actually lead to worse conditions in the long run.
“As the government (takes) a larger and larger role in the provision of health care, people reduce private expenditure in the area of health care,” McCullough said.
In other words, grassroots efforts to build a better health care system could fall apart. Private initiatives, like faith-based free clinics, could be “crowded out” by government programs.
“People are looking to the impersonal government for help and they’re becoming detached from a more personal approach,” McCullough said.
“People are looking to the impersonal government for help and they’re becoming detached from a more personal approach.”
A key problem with these arguments is that they’re not as productive as what’s offered by Medicare for All supporters, Carter said. As Sanders and Warren paint a picture of a healthier, more equitable future, Christians like Murphy try to explain complicated economic concepts.
“I’m not convinced that there are two equally compelling answers to that question” of what’s the appropriate Christian response to modern health care debates, Carter said.
At the very least, Christians who oppose Medicare for All have to work a little harder to convince people that they, too, care about increasing access to quality medical care. And those who cite Bible verses about the persistence of poverty aren’t doing themselves any favors, Murphy said.
“I disagree that Jesus’ observation about ‘The poor will always be among us’ is relevant here. I think citing it in this context unfortunately reinforces the notion that opponents of Bernie Sanders really just don’t want to help poor people,” he said.