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.