Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reacting to Political Rhetoric, Part 2b

So, having spoken to the theological issues related to this political commonplace of "your money," let me speak to social issues. Ignoring for the purpose of argument any claim of God's universal ownership does make the argument a bit harder. It doesn't make it impossible, just less simple.

Let me begin with my argument about that obnoxious sentence, "Government isn't the solution; it's the problem." As I've written, this is a false dichotomy, because in fact we are the government, at least to the extent we don't abdicate it. By the same token, to say, "It's not the Government's money; it's your money," is to embrace the same false dichotomy. What money we have is money our Government has printed. What money our Government has with which to do business is money from us, through our participation as taxpayers. What priorities our Government has for that business are those we have directed by our participation as voters (yes, perhaps all to often we vote for the persons; but each election they do tell us what their priorities will be). So, there is an inherent connection between "the Government's money" and "our money."

That is one of the consequences of the concept of "commonwealth." While a few states even designate themselves as "commonwealths," I don't think most folks think about why, or about what the word actually means. It means, really, that we're all in this together, politically and, critically, economically. We are sufficiently connected economically to describe and discuss this wealth that we participate in in common.

This isn't some kind of denial of private property (although one could argue that in the theological discussion). It is, rather, denial of any pretense or illusion of self-sufficiency. There are very few (and, as our society becomes more urban and suburban, fewer all the time) who we might consider self-sufficient without support from the larger society. We may talk about rugged individualism; but left to our own devices most of us would be in real trouble.

There are numerous examples of how we live in a commonwealth, but let me give just a few. I attended public schools, from the first grade through my Bachelor's. It's true that my parents paid taxes toward those costs, and we paid tuition toward my BA. However, there's no way those taxes and tuition paid the costs of my education - not even what might be called my "fair share." My seminary was a private school (that might be obvious, but perhaps not to everyone), and the tuition was much higher; but there was still no way it covered my portion of the seminary's expenses. I had to depend on the resources of others, folks who neither knew nor cared whether I got an education.

Another example is that all of us use roads that we haven’t necessarily paid our fair share of. There have in history been private roads, paid for by tolls; but they’re few and far between now. We do pay highway taxes under various titles: gas taxes, commercial user fees, license fees, etc. However, we’re not paying as individuals anything like the full expense. Moreover, since much highway funding is federal, folks in the less-settled western states are paying for highways serving the more-settled east – highways they’re not likely to ever use themselves.

The reason we support these things is that they’re good for the economy as a whole, and good for society as a whole. We benefit individually from things we support because they’re valuable generally. My kids are adults now, and live far away, but I have no regret about supporting with my taxes local public schools. I benefit and will benefit for some time to come. After all, studies have shown that those with more education are less likely to end up in prison (and those who while in prison get further education are less likely to return). And, as I age, I know that I will need the next generation of physicians, nurses, therapists, and pharmacists – not to mention the next generation of engineers, mechanics, teachers, and others. Where can I expect them to come from, if they’re not prepared and educated in schools? Where can I expect them to come from, if I don’t support those schools, even though my own kids aren’t in them? I need commerce to continue. How can I expect that to continue if I don’t support the infrastructure, even of components I won’t personally see? Highways and schools and any number of other government-funded programs were established by others, and paid for by many others, and I have benefited far beyond my own contribution. Don’t I have some responsibility to continue to support such programs?

This web of institutional and economic relationships and connections describe my responsibility. They describe the commonwealth in which we live – the degree to which we hold wealth in common, to which “my” wealth is dependent on the activities of others. Therefore, even if I have some claim to private property, I have some accountability within those relationships and connections to make my contribution not only for my individual good but also for public good. This is even more true of “government’s” money, since we are the government. I have responsibility for how I participate politically and economically, responsibility not just for how it benefits me for how it benefits society generally. So, for those social and political reasons, I find it disingenuous to make this falsely hard division between “your” money or “our” money or “government’s” money.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Reacting to Political Rhetoric, Part 2a

So, having addressed one piece of political jargon, let me address another. This one is difficult enough that it requires both theological and political/economic consideration.

The phrase in question is "your money," as in, "It’s not the government’s money: it’s your money." We’ve heard it a lot, and in these last days before the election we’ll hear it a lot more. It’s a commonplace among those for whom taxes are by definition bad, an imposition, without discussion about how taxes might be spent.

Now, in addressing this, the theological discussion is the easy part. Indeed, at this time of year I usually have a lot of help making the point, even if most folks so pigeonhole their worship as to avoid any connection with politics. That help comes in the form of the hundreds of thousands of stewardship sermons taking place in Christian churches at this season; and while I can’t say with certainty, I’d be surprised if synagogues and mosques didn’t have leaders discussing in one way or another how to support next year’s budget.

All of those sermons will refer to Psalms: "The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it." (Psalm 24:1) They may note that this reflects what Moses told the Pharaoh in Exodus 9, or that it’s repeated by Paul in I Corinthians 10. The sermons might refer to our call as tenants in a vineyard that we do not own; or recall to us that, while some portion of our life might belong to Caesar, all of our life and labor belongs to God. They might note from the Acts of the Apostles that the model of the first Christian Community looked a lot like, "from each according to ability to each according to need." How, then, shall we speak of "your" or "our money?"

The theme has been taken up even by new leaders among evangelical Christians. They have broadened the recent political perspectives among Evangelicals, realizing a concern for the unborn and for the poor, for morality in the media and for quality in the environment. They have recognized that Christ's concern for the poor must have both missional and political expressions. They are not speaking strictly of "your" or "our money."

Now, we might assume that somehow American separation of church and state might be pertinent. Still, this would seem a significant expression of the values of Christians and of others of faith. Yet, many of those who talk about "your money," also declare themselves people of faith. Somehow, there's a disconnect: for if it is all God's, how shall they (or we) talk about that money as "yours" or "ours?" Or, if they (or we) do, what does that say about the faith proclaimed? No, at least for us as people of faith (including those in politics so quick to proclaim their values as based in faith), this discussion of "your money" seems out of place.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Reacting to Political Rhetoric, Part 1

All right, I've heard enough. I've been trying not to, but I've heard again and again certain catch phrases from politicians that I just have to challenge.

The first one is that oft-quoted sentence, "Government isn't the solution; government is the problem." It is the favorite image of small-government conservatives, especially of a libertarian bent.

I have two problems with this, and the first one is really fundamental. I don't like being told that I'm the problem, that we're the problem.

"Oh, but you're not the problem. It's government." But, you see, that’s really the meaning of the statement. The Preamble to the Constitution begins, “We the People.” President Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address enjoined “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” (Don’t we all remember studying this in our high school History and/or Civics classes?) If we take seriously that this government of the people and for the people is also government by the people, to say that “Government is the problem” is to say to us, “You are the problem.”

Now, in a sense perhaps we are the problem. After all, we have an opportunity every two years to significantly change the government (that’s how often all members of the House of Representatives are up for reelection), and over a maximum of six years to turn it over completely (four years for the President and six years to completely turn over the Senate). If we’re really committed to throwing the rascals out, we have regular and relatively frequent opportunities. For good or ill (for good and ill) we don’t take the opportunity. Those who don’t vote have discarded the opportunity. Those of us who do vote frequently enough decline the opportunity. Has it never seemed odd to anyone else that, election after election, polls show people saying both “I don’t think that Congress is doing a good job” and also “My Representative/Senator is doing a good job.” Surely somebody’s Representative or Senator isn’t doing a good job for people to have the impression that most (“but not mine”) need to be thrown out.

And has money taken government away from us? I’d be more persuaded if votes, like bull rider rankings, were counted by money earned. In fact, it’s the votes that get counted, and corporate citizens don’t get to vote. Recent elections have shown, too, that it’s quite possible to raise lots of campaign money by accepting small donations from many donors. Moreover, there was some truth about that wonderful climax of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Send a politician enough letters, and the politician will pay attention, no matter who’s contributed campaign money. Several real lobbyists of my acquaintance have affirmed that. And these days, between local phone numbers to local political offices and web and email access, it’s a lot easier to get those letters in various forms to the politicians who serve us.

But it remains the case that we chose ‘em, whether by voting for them or abdicating the responsibility to vote against them. We are the government of this republic. So, to say, “Government is the problem” is to lay the blame on us, whether we realize it or not.

Which leads me to my second concern. If “Government is the problem,” who would want to be part of it? How often have we heard that old saw, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem?” Who, then, would choose to be part of the problem instead of part of the solution? And yet the people who want to tell us most loudly that “Government is the problem” want us to vote to make them part of it. Why, then, would we trust them to lead us as part of “the problem?” Isn’t there something remarkably disingenuous, if not downright duplicitous, about that?

So, that’s my problem with the sentiment, “Government isn’t part of the solution, it’s the problem.” Those who use it are trying to convince us to put them in charge of something they believe doesn’t work, and to blame us for the failure - and if they’re incumbents, for their failure! Do you see good reasons to have such persons lead us? Because I don’t.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Articles on Religions and Child Health

I’ve been a bit slow getting back into the flow of writing regularly. So, I went to a dependable source of inspiration.

I took some time reviewing recent issues of the Southern Medical Journal. I have cited articles from that journal in the past because they have particular interest in articles relevant to spiritual care of patients.

In the July, 2008, issue I found two review articles by Sara H. Sinal, MD; Elaine Cabinum-Foeller, MD; and Rebecca Socolar, MD, MPH. The first is “Religion and Medical Neglect.” (Southern Medical Journal:Volume 101(7)July 2008pp 703-706) The authors note that there is little literature on the subject. They cite particularly an article from 1998 reviewing 172 cases between 1975 and 1995 thought to be related to “religion-motivated medical neglect.” The authors also note how few religious organizations might be implicated. “A total of 23 religious denominations from 34 states were involved, but 5 religious groups accounted for 83% of the fatalities: Faith Assembly (64), First Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science) (28), Church of the First Born (23), Faith Tabernacle (16) and End Time Ministries (12).” The article discusses the histories of Faith Assembly and Christian Science, and information regarding child health in those bodies. There is also some discussion of issues related to the medical-religious concerns of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The article also includes a brief review of the issue of religious exemptions from medical care including vaccinations allowed by some states. They note ambiguity in history and practice:

“The Supreme Court ruled in 1944 that “the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” However, in 1974 the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare required states receiving federal child abuse prevention and treatment grants to have religious exemption in cases of abuse and neglect. Within 10 years the majority of states had exemptions in the juvenile code, criminal code or both. The federal government removed religious exemption from the federal mandate in 1983, but only a few states have repealed the exemption.”

The second article is titled, “Is Religiosity Associated with Corporal Punishment or Child Abuse?” (Southern Medical Journal. 101(7):707-710, July 2008) The authors note that there is also little information in the literature on this specific topic. However, the available literature notes incidence of corporal punishment is higher among Protestants than among other Christians. They note, however, that religious practice may possibly provide a buffer for those who experience child abuse, both in their own ability to cope and in preventing victims from becoming abusers themselves.

Both articles are worth review. In addition, the Southern Medical Journal has also posted on a separate site the articles published in the journal as a part of their Spirituality and Medicine Interface Project. Articles from the project through 2007 can be accessed at the site. It’s worth the time to review the articles available there.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Warm Thoughts at Episcopal Cafe

My newest piece is up at Episcopal Cafe.  I'd like to say it's a hot topic - but others may not have the appreciation of the punny that I do.  Anyway, go take a look.

Again, while you're there take some time to look at the many other good pieces and timely notes posted at the Cafe.  I'm in good company there.  Read and let us know what you think.

And now, if I can just get back into my rhythm posting here....

Friday, October 10, 2008

AEHC Is Back!

The web site of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains is back. After some time away, we've made the appropriate changes. You can see the new look here. Go over and check it out. And, we hope from this point to add changes and new information more quickly. So, stay tuned....

Friday, October 03, 2008

Into Their Right Mind - Updated

Updated 10-6-08

There’s been an awful lot of attention and debate today about the passage of the mental health parity bill. It requires that if a company with more than 50 employees offers mental health coverage as part of its overall health coverage, it has to offer it at the same level as coverage for physical health. (Sadly, it doesn’t require that the coverage be offered; only that if offered it be equal.)

Oh, you didn’t know that a mental health parity bill was passed today? You thought it was all about the economic bailout?

Well, you’re right, sort of; and most news reports have said the mental health bill was tacked onto the bailout bill. However, in fact it was the other way around. Section 7 of the Constitution of the United States says, “All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.” So. while the bailout bill was the point, it couldn’t originate per se in the Senate. Senators needed a bill that they could originate and that they could attach the bailout to.

Enter the mental health parity bill. In fact it had already been passed in both the House and Senate, but hadn’t gotten to the President’s desk. In addition, it was a matter of interest to some members of the House who had voted against the bailout plan the first time around. So, being generally acceptable and especially acceptable to some additional Representatives, it made a great vehicle for the purpose.

Parity for mental illness and addictions has been an issue for a long time. Parity had long suffered from the lingering stigma associated with mental illnesses themselves. Insurers resisted it, noting that mental illnesses were often difficult to diagnose, and were chronic, requiring years of treatment. On the other hand, with medical progress many with mental illnesses could be economically and socially functional with appropriate treatment. The same could be said for other chronic, complex diseases, such as diabetes or autoimmune disorders, which were covered. The logic for offering unequal coverage for mental illnesses could not be sustained.

So, today the House passed and the President signed a mental health parity bill, that happened to have an economic bailout bill attached (okay, so it’s not a coincidence). Of course, we’ll be living with the consequences of that economic rider for some time to come. On the other hand, for some the benefits of the mental health parity bill will make a difference for a lifetime.

Update: Yesterday on All Things Considered, NPR had coverage of the history and the importance of passage of the mental health parity legislation. It's an interesting and useful summary. You can read or listen here.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Those Who Don't Learn the Lessons of History....

I've been out of the loop for a while, but haven't been (haven't been able to be) unaware of the efforts to salvage the solvency of the financial markets. It has left me thinking of the question from my seventh grade math teacher: "Now, who has seen my deliberate mistake?" Yes, I know that those who made the decisions would never say they intended this result; but the critical decisions were nonetheless made quite deliberately.

So, what have we learned?

Perhaps we've learned - again! - that laissez faire capitalism cannot be sustained. We thought we had learned this. We thought that, thanks to Sinclair Lewis and other muckrakers, we had learned that unrestrained, "weakest to the wall and devil take the hindmost" capitalism would ultimately injure the community for the sake of a few industries and those who ran them.

Perhaps we thought that in "the new economy" that couldn't happen. After all, after the Depression we added regulation. And anyway, we're no longer in an industrial economy. We're in a service, information, and financial economy. Everything has changed.

Only, we've learned different. Not everything has changed. Some things have changed back, as deregulation became all the rage. Our society has changed as well as we've moved from a "barn raisin' " ideal of community to a rugged individualism. Most important, human nature, especially human greed, hasn't changed. So, our economic goals shifted from optimizing stakeholder benefits (profit, yes; but also full employment, philanthropy, and community investment) to maximizing shareholder profits.

And so we've now learned that laissez faire capitalism doesn't work in the "new economy," either. It has nearly destroyed this service, information, and financial economy as it nearly destroyed the industrial economy a century ago. At great human and emotional and financial expense we will survive and reshape, and call it recovery.

And, please God, we will pass this on. We will study and teach what went wrong. If we do that, perhaps a century from now our grandchildren won't have to ask again, "So, what have we learned?"