Van Ens: What moral voice rings true in the debate on health care?
When General Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered in York-town on October 19, 1781, to end the Revolutionary War, his down-cast British military band played the march ” The World Turned Upside Down.” For centuries prior to this defeat, a top-down moral order had prevailed. God placed royalty at the apex of humanity’s heap. Their subjects dutiful-ly plied their trades, farmed long hours in fields and felt wedged into strict social niches into which they were born.
Today at health care town meetings, some angry citizens sound like Cornwallis’ troops.
Their world, too, feels as if its been pitched topsy-turvy. These protest-ers argue that America’s economic greatness is preserved when work-ers roll up their sleeves, persist in hard work when lean times linger and wait until a self- correcting economic machine slams into high gear.
Such ” Tea Party Patriots” are angry with a government that presses for regulation in health care. They reject President Oba-ma’s caution that waiting out recessionary declines without Uncle Sam’s intervention may plunge us into another Great Depression.
At the end of his speech to Con-gress on health care reform, our passionate President answered the biblical question, “Am I my broth-er’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). The “I” embraced broad dimensions, with the government playing a signifi-cant role in providing health care. He appealed to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s dictum that health care reform was ” the great unfinished business of our society.” Such “business” means more than scrapping unproductive ways of dealing with disease. We must rediscover our moral voice, demanded the president. It involves social justice. The nation’s character can’t be preserved if citi-zens are denied health care.
Clashing moral voices over health care aren’t new in our national history. Such tensions and arguments over the Fed’s role in health care have erupted before. When Franklin Delano Roo-sevelt served as New York state’s governor, he delivered a historic address to the legislature in Albany on August 28, 1931. He described a new way for effective government to work. Its role is to regulate so that the few don’t bene-fit at the expense of the many who lack health care.
” What is the State?” asked Gov. Roosevelt, referring to New York. It functioned as an “organized society of human beings, created by them for their mutu-al protection and well-being.” What’s one of the State’s primary duties? “Caring for those of its citizens who find them-selves the victims of such adverse circumstances as makes them unable to obtain even the necessi-ties for mere existence without the aid of others.”
FDR, after spending an unheard of $20 million on public relief, for-tified by another $ 5 million as the Great Depression deepened, gave a radio address on the role of gov-ernment from Albany on October 13, 1932. He hammered home his theme on government interven-tion to meet human need. Alluding to his “What is the State?” message, Roosevelt announced, ” I not only reaffirm it, I go a step further and say that where the State itself is unable successfully to fulfill this obligation which lies upon it, it then becomes the positive duty of the federal government to step in to help.”
President Herbert Hoover went berserk over such folly. Adam Cohen, assistant editorial page edi-tor of the New York Times, in his book “Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America” ( 2009) tells of Hoover’s fierce clash with FDR. Much of it is replayed in today’s health care shouting matches.
After witnessing how FDR turned upside down the Republi-can Party’s economic platform, Hoover lashed out. Comparing the two, Cohen writes, “Roosevelt also brought help to the urban unem-ployed. Hoover, who believed relief eroded character and encouraged idleness, thought the poor should be cared for by private charity or, as a last resort, by local government.” The Feds should stay out of the way.
Let the individual climb out of economic holes by his own efforts, asserted Hoover. This ideological bent acted as wraparound sun-glasses do, preventing the wearer from seeing exactly what’s hap-pening. Hoover’s ideological resentment toward the federal government’s role in rescuing our nation from the Great Depression tinted his outlook. His myopic vision forced him to conclude that rugged individualism would res-cue the nation from economic doldrums.
In his book, “American Individu-alism,” Hoover summed up his personal philosophy. Individual effort ranked first as ” the one source of human progress.”
Hoover’s moral voice reverber-ates with those who demand greater individual initiative and less government regulation to clean up the health care mess. This moral perspective rejects govern-ment rescuing auto companies, the Feds bailing out banks and Uncle Sam’s help with health care. But this Hoover mentality deep-ened the Great Depression.
Multibillionaire investor Warren Buffet chooses another moral voice, coining the adage: What we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.
When a huge number of citizens lack insurance and others aban-don health care coverage because costs are spiraling upward at a rate faster than college tuition, when baby boomers are teetering on the edge of retirement and getting infirmed at nearly the same time, when the current system of deliv-ering health care can’t be sus-tained, what moral voice do you hear? What moral voice does histo-ry advocate?
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, (www.theliving history.com), which enhance Chris-tian worship through lively story-telling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.