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What would Luther think about health care reform?

Submitted by on March 26, 2010 – 9:45 am14 Comments

What would Luther think about health care reform?

I don’t know for certain, of course, but I have some ideas about what Luther would think, or perhaps, what he wouldn’t think.

First of all, Luther saw caring for the neighbor as something Christians are simply supposed to do. He considered every vocation—every job or calling—to be an opportunity for such service.

So far that’s nothing more than a call for individual activity on the health care front. Even Glenn Beck can agree with that. But I doubt that Luther would stop there. Anyone who could say, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (the second major proposition of The Freedom of a Christian) would hardly argue that folks are on their own to sink or swim in society. In addition, Luther had no love for the incipient capitalism of his day. He characterized merchants who sold their wares for maximum profit as thinking: “I care nothing about my neighbor; so long as I have my profit and satisfy my greed, of what concern is it to me if it injures my neighbor in ten ways at once?” (Luther’s Works 45: 247)

Luther would have been unimpressed by the idea that free markets regulate themselves. That’s where government comes in. Now Luther was terribly pessimistic about government, but not in the same way that Americans—even many liberals—are. Luther considered most rulers knaves or fools, but that didn’t stop him from pointing out their duty and encouraging them to do it. Americans, on the other hand, tend to believe that no matter how well-intentioned government is or how well-equipped it might be for a given task, the very scale and scope of the enterprise will ultimately render government involvement ineffective at best and destructive at worst.

Luther believed that it was the duty of rulers to protect and care for their citizens. This was their particular vocation. Many instances of that care could be cited, such as establishing community funds for relief of the poor. A specific example that speaks to the question of what he might think about health care reform is his call for city governments to establish public schools to serve, in part, for religious instruction and the provision of future leaders in the church. The title of the treatise in which he proposed this course of action is clear and unambiguous: To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools. (Luther’s Works 45)

So what does that mean for the LCMS? From my vantage point, it doesn’t seem that we are in danger of succumbing to the siren song of the Social Gospel. We tend to fall off the other side of that horse and probably don’t need Glenn Beck telling us to “run as fast as you can” from churches that use the phrases social justice or economic justice. More often we need to hear Luther telling Christians to speak up if their pastor is not preaching, “Love your neighbor.”

How we show that love for our neighbors is, of course, a matter we can debate. People of good will can certainly argue that neither government regulation nor a public option is the best way to solve the problems with health care. But as we engage in such debate, Luther would add a final word of caution to all involved: be sure that your ideological positions aren’t masking pure self-interest.

14 Comments »

  • Jeff Kloha says:

    You quote from Luther on the merchants of his day “maximizing profits” at the expense of others is particularly apt. Our economic system, especially in recent years, seems inclined to slash jobs, lower quality, neglect the long terms effects of products on lives and society, reduce benefits, etc. all to “make a profit.” Certainly a business needs to “succeed” — but is “success” measured solely by the bottom line? Or do businesses and those who run them have a responsibility to society?

  • Travis Scholl says:

    In addition to Luther’s ambivalence to “free markets,” I’ve been thinking about Luther’s emphasis on government’s role to keep good order. Seems to me Luther would be just as “unimpressed” by America’s strong libertarian/populist streak, which has come out in full colors in the past year.

  • Joe Burnham says:

    Thanks for saying this. Now when I say it, I can point out someone else who’s made the same argument. I doubt it will change anything, other than half the stones coming at me being sent your way.

  • Erv Hutter says:

    Well written, Dr. Robinson. This is a topic and frame of thought which should be discussed more within our circles. If one is to believe the polling done for the book “Lutheran Pastors and Politics” over 80% of our number consider themselves to be conservative Republican. Not too surprizing. But sometimes at least the public debate coming from “conservative Republicans” tends to be in contrast to what Luther understood to be the role of the realm of government within God’s plan of sustanence of His creation. I’m not suggesting that we all should become liberal Democrats, but I am suggesting that we do need to understand how our theology relates to current civic events, and that in turn we should be able to then speak to those issues based upon theological perspective, rather than just political beliefs.

  • Jim Voelz says:

    A great discussion. It has to be recognized that Lutheranism is just not all that sympatico with the American democratic experiment. Why? Because the notion of all people begin endowed with inalienable rights (including liberty and the pursuit of happpiness), and especially that government serves only by the consent of the governed is bizarre biblically (see Romans 13). Now, it all seems to have worked fairly well, but I don’t know that one can justify it theologically. I don’t think that most people realize how “different” the US notion of the relationship between the people and their government really is. Most/almost all other societies work with the notion that the government “bestows” or grants rights to people. For the US, it is the other way around. It will be interesting to see how long this odd notion can remain in place. In fact, I would have been a Tory in the 18th C.

  • Nate Hill says:

    Not only is it important to note the disparity between the model of government in Luther’s time and that of the American experiment, but we must also note the fact that our government, unlike Luther’s, makes no claim to any manner of Chrisian legitimacy or function. In fact in this post-Christian era that we are entering into in America we will increasingly find ourselves in a situation more comprable to the situation of the early church than to the situation of Luther. I believe that we as the Church have all too easily relinquished our Christian duty of care for our neighbor to the state. The result of this has been not only the secularization of such acts of care and mercy but also the increased apathy of the Church to the performance of care for our neighbor. How often is our first thought when confronted with a stranger in need to direct them to the proper state run program rather than to care for their needs ourselves? So the “theological” issue in my mind with healthcare reform (and all state run entitlement programs) is that it becomes an excuse for the Church to neglect one of its core functions, namely care for our neighbor.

    • Joe Burnham says:

      I know a teenage girl who is a bone cancer survivor. I know a young man who was born without an ear who now has two fully functioning ears. I know a man who has no insurance but was recently diagnosed with cancer but has thousands of dollars coming in to cover expenses. I know people who’ve lost their jobs and couldn’t pay their mortgage, but never had them lapse. In each of these cases (all within the past 4 years), it was the local church who stepped up to cover the expenses. And yet, for these congregations, it took significant sacrifice to get the job done, and there are still tens of thousands of people already needing or potentially in need. Is it really realistic to expect the church to address these issues in their entirety? And even if the State does a piece of it, aren’t there going to be an abundance of additional opportunities for congregations to show works of mercy? I don’t think we can blame apathy on State involvement, rather, we have to blame apathy on human sinfulness that puts self before neighbor.

      In the end, unless you’re a Calvinist, Scripture doesn’t lays out the specific responsibilities of the State. Certainly Christians are to care for their own and are called to works of mercy in broader society, but does that exclude the States involvement?

  • Nate Hill says:

    Joe, I certainly applaud the local church that you mentioned for their willingness to fulfill their Christian duties to their neighbors! Sadly, these examples are often the exception to the norm. For every one of these examples there are many more who have not received this kind of Christian care from local churches. Should the blame for this prevailing apathy be placed squarely upon human sinfulness? Absolutely!

    You have asked if it is realistic to expect the Church to address these broad issues in their entirety. I don’t have a definitive answer for that. I would like to believe that it is, but I fear that I would be proven wrong.

    For me, the bottom line is that it is a crying shame that the poor, sick, and unprivileged are to place their hope in the assistance of the State rather than the Church. In this case the hand that cares for their needs will not be very hand of Christ (by means of the Church) but the hand of the secular State. What does this reinforce to them and to us about the living reality of Christ in our midst?

    You have also brought up the issue of human sinfulness as a barrier to true care for neighbor. I would argue that human sinfulness is especially apt to show itself in a secular government such as ours. In our context, which is better equipped to deal with these pressing issues according to the wisdom and justice of God? The State or the Church? The Church has the distinct privilege over the secular State of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit (this is not meant to play down the reality of the role of the Holy Spirit in the individual life of any of the many Christian legislators that this country enjoys). In short, is not our secular government’s embrace of “abortion rights” evidence of the manifestation of human sinfulness? How far can we place our trust in our government to work as a means of care for neighbor in the Christian sense of the term?

    • Joe Burnham says:

      @Nate, first off, it was churches. I know many congregations who display such care, although I know others that are too fixated on something else to take not of others, within or outside of their midst, but I don’t want to discount the graciousness of God’s people when it comes to caring for their own.

      Beyond that, I’m certainly not suggesting government as the only or even the preferred means, I’m simply saying that God gives daily bread (health is in Luther’s list) through the hands of Christian and non-Christian entities, with both sets of hands sinning along the way … I’m just grateful God does it, however he gets the job done.

      Perhaps the uniqueness that the Christian offers is the recognition that God works through both and realizes that, whatever care God gives in this life, he will personally give in a far greater way in the life to come. And we can say that no matter who does the surgery, pays the bills, or serves the meal.

  • Peter Elliott says:

    First of all, I agree that democracy can create some strange authority questions, and I agree with Dr. Voelz about being a Tory if I had lived in revolutionary times. I also agree that people need aid for various reasons and that a government needs to be involved with such issues. However, I consider myself very conservative politically, and I think that the health care bill recently passed was a bad idea. I applaud that our leaders wanted a solution, but I fear that this particular solution is worse than the problem.

    When it comes to the issue of health care (and several other issues of governance), I am bothered by the how question–or better yet–the who question… Who will do the BEST job fixing the problem at hand? I personally believe that more localized governments, churches, and private citizens (Christian and non-Christian) do a better job of taking care of those in need than a large Federal government. And I mean “better” in the sense of quality of care and use of resources.

    These things interest me, so if you see me around STL, we can chat it up. I’m off to watch Bill O’Reilly (if that tells you anything about me!).

    Peace,
    Peter

    • Peter Elliott says:

      Rereading my post, I noticed that I sound overly pragmatic, so let me rephrase.

      It’s curious to me that most folks that I talk to about such issues apply Romans 13 primarily to the Federal government–“you know THE government”–implying that the Federal government has all authority. But that’s not how our system was built to work! The Federal government is supposed to have limited powers. That does not mean, however, that the Federal government cannot be somehow involved in health care. It simply means that State governments are very important, and for many issues, local governments are vital as well. In addition, citizens play an important role of advising politicians and discussing with one another which ideas are best.

      So here is a conundrum: if the Federal government wants to take our United States in one direction and the States themselves, the majority of citizens, and other entities want to go in the opposite direction, who shall we support in our speech? How does one process such a question? Who has the final say here? The Federal government? The citizens? The states? The supreme court? The constitution? Something else? I now defer to wiser minds.

  • Karl Hollibaugh says:

    An excellent, nuanced take on what Luther might–might!–say or think about this divisive topic. Let me admit from the outset that I was and remain opposed to the recently passed HCR bill for various reasons. Some comments mentioned the vast differences between government in Luther’s day and our own. But an even bigger disparity exists between the medical knowledge and technology of now and then. Think “Mayo Clinic vs. swallowing horse manure to cure kidney stones.” So this whole enterprise is a bit like asking Luther to join the Mac vs. PC debate based on what he thought of the printing press. I also wonder where questions of stewardship come into play. Cat scans are more expensive than horse manure pills. Ditto the issues of self-discipline and care for one’s own body (which is also a 5th Commandment issue). Would Luther want the state to cover, say, a lung transplant for the Marlboro man? How about fertility treatments for “Octomom”? We always hear stories–and they are sad stories indeed–about dying children and cancer patients denied coverage by evil insurance companies. But it is an undeniable fact that a huge percentage–my wife, a physician, would argue the majority–of health care dollars are spent treating diseases and maladies that are utterly and easily avoidable. Octomom and the Marlboro Man are extreme examples, I know. But I would invite supporters of the HCR bill to shadow my wife when she is on-call in the ER and treats a steady stream of drunks needing stitches, drug-seekers who “spilled their Valium down the sink,” and testosterone-poisoned males who thought it would be a good idea to see who could make the biggest Everclear fireball. She is often wearied and disgusted that taxpayers are footing the bill for the self-destructive behavior of motivationally challenged folks whose tooth-to-tattoo ratio runs frighteningly low. I remain thoroughly unconvinced that Luther would include modern day medical care as a government duty. What else should the government provide based on such a theology? Housing? Well, not too far from Concordia Seminary, there once stood Pruitt-Igoe. We should have left it standing as a monument to Luther’s idea not to “cook and brew” too much.

  • Matt Phillips says:

    So when Luther wanted to encouraged government to effect change regarding the poverty and education did he petition the Emperor Charles V or his brother Archduke Ferdinand? No. He petitioned town councils and German princes. Therein lies the best historical analogy. Oh, and all begging was forbidden by new poverty relief laws. And anyone who was able-bodied had to work.

  • Of note also was Luther’s praise for the city council of Leisnig in establishing a common chest (see Vol. 49, pp. 28ff of Luther’s Works, AE). Drawing parallels from the American situation with an absolute separation of church and state to Luther’s day of a close relationship of Church and state can only make for an anachronistic reading of history. The relationship and intersection of the right and left hand realms has always been difficult. Going to either extreme in this debate, is for me a bit unsettling. What is most unsettling, however, is that a Christian would even consider any theological or historical advice from of all people, a Mormon.

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