protestant work ethic american healthcare
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Now that President Donald Trump has decided again to fixate on killing “Obamacare” after having failed so many times before, I am reminded of the Bible’s book of Deuteronomy.

Specifically, I’m thinking of Deuteronomy 28 and what it says about how Americans still today, particularly conservative, Republican, evangelical ones, view people who might fairly be described as “left-behinds,” folks who decidedly are not “thriving,” as we are wont to say.

These are the American citizens who struggle the most among us to simply put a roof over their and their loved ones’ heads, and food on the table. Forget about their health insurance options without the federally subsidized Affordable Care Act (ACA, a.k.a. “Obamacare”).

So, what the president is effectively proposing, without offering a comprehensive, equitable replacement scheme, is to take away affordable health insurance altogether or punitively slash the current benefits for tens of millions of left-behinds.

Why would the president do such a seemingly heartless, callous thing?

Deuteronomy 28, although he probably has no clue that’s what it is.

This scriptural passage promises, in part, that people who accept the supremacy of the Lord will thrive:

“And the Lord shall make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground, in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers to give thee. … The Lord shall open unto thee his good treasure.”

This implies — as evangelical Republican ideology and American Protestant social history brightly underscore — that people who are not thriving are not favored by the Lord and are therefore to be disrespected and marginalized.

The entire Republican doctrine of small government and “self-sufficiency” reflects this negative sensibility. Republicans are viscerally opposed to anything that to their eyes would give something for nothing to the undeserving non-thrivers. Read: “socialism.”

But without the disingenuous political labels, it’s just a naked aversion to helping our brethren most in need under the false supposition that they aren’t thriving because they haven’t worked hard enough to gain the favor of the Lord and, thus, ours, too.

To conservative minds, the only explanation for such lack of success in a dog-eat-dog capitalist system is abject personal failure, certainly not that the deck might be stacked at birth against people hanging on by their slippery fingertips on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder (as reputable studies have repeatedly found ad nauseum). A recent New York Post op-ed, “How the government helps keep people poor,” fairly summarizes some key obstacles to upward mobility.

This bias against so-called “losers” is as American as apple pie.

How this peculiarly American prejudice evolved and now works is summarized nicely by the Encylopaedia Britannica in an article titled, the “Protestant ethic.”

The evolution of this unfairness began during the predominantly Protestant colonial-era founding of the nation, when a dominant doctrine was that although the faithful knew not who they might be, the Lord quietly tapped an “elect” group of worshippers for salvation in the hereafter. And since who was elected for heavenly immortality was not reported in newspapers or otherwise publicized (even in Ben Franklin’s brother’s periodical), people speculated about who was thus blessed.

From such speculation grew an informal tendency among Protestants to believe that outward manifestations of wealth (see Deuteronomy 28) reflected strong evidence of glorious election. It even has a name: the “prosperity gospel” and embodied by such evangelical stars as disgraced hucksters Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (Jim ended up in prison). Conversely, outward manifestation of impoverishment or sloth was believed strong evidence to the contrary.

Of course, unless one believes Christian scripture is infallible and that an invisible deity decides not only whether we embody “souls” but also whether the divine can make them immortal, it’s all apparent nonsense.

But tell that to the economically disenfranchised souls who are facing government theft or drastic dilution of their health insurance in the here and now.

The thieves imply it’s for practical political reasons but, in fact, the unvoiced assumptions undergirding the reasons are Christian to the core.

This is yet another way church and state entwine while, to most Americans, seem not to.


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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...