Obamacare, N.T. Wright, and the “Via Media”

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

November 4, 2013

One thing I have noticed about N.T. Wright over the years is that he likes to position himself as the healthy middle ground in almost any debate.  After portraying both the “right” and the “left” of any debate as extreme, he shows how his way, the via media, is one that makes the most sense.

An example of this method can be found in Wright’s book, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. The subtitle offers a clear indication of where he is headed.  He is going to move us beyond the tired old liberal-conservative impasse onto a fresh new beginning.

Brian McClaren’s blurb on the back is telling, “N. T. Wright opens for us a path beyond of the paralyzing polarization of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’”

Now, let me say that there are many, many things I appreciate and value about Wright’s work. His Christian Origins and the Question of God series (Fortress press) is really an impressive piece of scholarship.  But, I have to confess that I am not always convinced by his via media methodology.  In particular, I think Wright often ends up with a view that is neither new nor middle of the road.

This is particularly evident in Wright’s regular commentary on U.S. politics (most of which is negative). In an interview earlier in the year, aptly entitled “Why Left, Right, and Lewis Get it Wrong,” Wright even decides to wade into the US healthcare (Obamacare) debate:

In your country, for example, there seem to be Christian political voices saying that you shouldn’t have a national healthcare system. To us, in Britain, this is virtually unthinkable. Every other developed country from Norway to New Zealand has healthcare for all of its citizens. We don’t understand all of this opposition to it over here in the U.S. And, we should remember: In the ancient world, there wasn’t any healthcare system. It was the Christians, very early on, who introduced the idea that we should care for people beyond the circle of our own kin. Christians taught that we should care for the poor and disadvantaged. Christians eventually organized hospitals. To hear people standing up in your political debate and saying—“If you are followers of Jesus, you must reject universal healthcare coverage!”—and that’s unthinkable to us. Those of us who are Christians in other parts of the world are saying: We can’t understand this political language. It’s not our value in our countries. It’s not even in keeping with traditional Christian teaching on caring for others. We can’t understand what we are hearing from some of your politicians on this point. Yet, over here, some Christians are saying that it’s part of the list of boxes we all should check off to keep in line.

I find this statement from Wright to remarkable on so many levels.  First, Wright’s position is by no means the via media here.  In regard to political options, nationalized healthcare is fundamentally on the left side of the political landscape and constitutes a clear move towards a more socialist mode of governance. It is a monumental government power-grab of almost 20% of the U.S. economy.

Second, Wright tries to temper this reality by pointing out that “every other developed country” has nationalized healthcare, implying that American needs to get with the program. But, the fact that America stands alone does not invalidate its approach. Historically speaking, America has always been distinctive from the rest of the globe in precisely this area, namely its commitment towards economic freedom for its citizens, with limited government intervention. One might make the opposite of Wright’s point, namely that what makes America great is its willingness to not join the European socialist program.

But third, and most problematic, Wright defends nationalized healthcare on the grounds that “Christians taught that we should care for the poor and disadvantaged.” While I certainly agree this is a Christian value, how does that fact lead one to conclude that the government should be the body doing it?  This simply does not follow. Historically, it was Christians caring for the poor and disadvantaged and not the government!

Wright’s argument simply assumes—without argument and without proof—that the best way to help the poor and disadvantaged is if the government takes over healthcare. This is not a surprising assumption from someone from a socialist background.  But, it is an assumption that is completely without warrant.

Indeed, on the contrary, one could argue if government runs healthcare it will actually make things worse.  There are good arguments to be made that nationalizing healthcare will limit both the access to healthcare and affect the quality of healthcare.  The government does very few things better than the private sector.  One need only watch the recent debacle about the Obamacare website to see that this is the case.  If the government cannot manage a healthcare website, why do we think they could manage the entire healthcare system itself?

Wright does not seem to realize that committed Christians, who love Jesus and who want to care for the poor, might actually think that the best solution to the healthcare problem might just be in the free market.  A free market solution would do the very thing that is needed most, it would lower prices.  And that is the best way to make healthcare accessible to the poor without sacrificing access or quality.

Even Bono now seems to recognize the value of the free market for helping the poor:

In dealing with poverty here and around the world, welfare and foreign aid are a Band-Aid. Free enterprise is a cure. Entrepreneurship is the most sure way of development. Rock star preaches capitalism. Sometimes I hear myself and I just can’t believe it.

Could it be that the most compassionate, the most caring, and the most loving thing to do regarding healthcare is to keep it out of the hands of the government?  Wright cannot seem to see this as a possibility.  On the contrary, Wright’s statement above comes dangerously close to saying that nationalized healthcare is the only position that is “in keeping with traditional Christian teaching on caring for others.”  That is definitely not a via media.

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