Healthcare, Religious Freedom & Coercion

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I got into a conversation about Hobby Lobby with my father-in-law. The basic point being that the Hobby Lobby owners object to providing the morning-after pill in their employee healthcare package. For more details on the case and context, read here:

This is a big issue, touching on a number of important themes–healthcare, faith in the public sphere, employee rights, religious freedom, and government authority, to name a few.

From the outset I should say that I am personally opposed to the linkage between healthcare and one’s employer. From my HR grad class, I know the broad strokes of this history and rationale (here & here), but it does not serve us well today. I do not believe healthcare costs should be a business expense, and I don’t think it wise for people to get this particular type of insurance through their place of work. But that’s another issue deserving its own blog post. 🙂

So given that (a) I disagree with the situation that presents the problem in the first place, and (b) I am a Christian writing from a certain (there is more than one) Christian perspective, let’s move to a consideration of just two of the issues that are before us. First, there is the question of business operation in a pluralist society. Where is the balance between owners’ and workers’ rights?

I will not solve this, but will only point out that this healthcare conversation is one of many on this issue of rights. We will never settle on just where the sweet-spot is, so while we attempt to locate it, let us come to some measure of acceptance of the fact that we never will come to a final conclusion. Should owners be allowed to pay their workers whatever they desire? As a society we decided no, and put this into law by prescribing a minimum wage. Should owners be able to fire whomever they wish? As a society we decided no, and put this into laws on wrongful termination or dismissal. Should owners determine the type of healthcare their employees receive? This is now under consideration. Should owners who are Jehovah’s Witnesses be free to offer insurance that does not cover surgeries since these procedures require blood transfusions? Where is the line? Libertarians argue that this should be granted, and prospective employees are free to apply to or avoid the establishment. Others argue that employees should have the freedom to get the same coverage from any business that is not directly church-owned or operated. This is an interesting question that will have its day in court.

Secondly, I want to address the issue of government coercion. This is a significant question for Christians. Three portions of scripture often come up in this context, and all three should be noted here.

1) “And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. 17 Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?’ 18 But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, ‘Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? 19 Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.’ And they brought Him a denarius. 20 And He said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ 21 They said to Him, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.’” (Matt. 22:16-21, NASB, Biblegateway.com).

We see Jesus limiting what is Caesar’s, and yet acknowledging that taxes are due him. The state can coerce taxation. At exorbitant amounts. For highly immoral actions. In the book Less Than Two Dollars a Day, Kent Van Til states that

it is clear that the government does have the authority to coerce. It coerces me to pay taxes, to drive responsibly, to support public education, and so forth. It even coerces me to help finance things that many believe are evil–such as fighting unprovoked wars, aborting unborn children, and building anti-ballistic missile systems that don’t work. (p. 155)

The mention of war is especially relevant for me. Whatever disdain the owner of Hobby Lobby has against the morning- or week-after pill, it is matched by my disapproval of much that is done by the CIA and the US military, both of which I have been coerced into funding for years through my taxes. When will Christians feel as much outrage for violence done in their names through the School of the Americas/WHINSEC as they do from the morning-after pill? Do we not know what has been done or do we just not care? Mr. Green, I encourage you to learn more about your military and CIA (start with Smedley Butler to see this is nothing new). Maybe you can add them to your letter.

2) “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” (Rom. 13:1)

The best commentary on this that I’ve read is the chapter on the topic in John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus (see #6). Basically, Yoder explains that “subjection to” is not equivalent to “obey.” We obey as far as we morally can, and then we refuse to do evil, taking the punishment for our just actions.

Where is this line that we will not cross? That is a great debate. As is shown from the verse above, coercion by the state to pay even for immoral activities is within the line. That is, the Roman government used the taxes Jesus sanctioned to pay for all kinds of things a Jew or Christian would not approach.

3) “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.'” (Acts 5:29)

This is sanction for refusing to obey the government’s dictates when they call us to do things that are directly opposed to God’s word. Again, in relation to verse #1, this does not include taxes. Those who demand and use taxes will be accountable for those actions.

Summary: None of this is simple. However, in general terms we see that we are called to pay taxes even for “bad” things, that we are to be subject to authorities, and that we are to obey God rather than men when the two call us to directly perform different actions (taxes excluded).

As I stated at the beginning, I wish no company in the US had to deal with healthcare, but since that is how our society is currently structured, I do not see a biblical basis for refusing to make a payment coerced by the US government simply because I disagree with it. It is fully Mr. Green’s right to advocate for a changed law; however, I don’t believe he can make a biblical argument against paying the tax if the law does not change.

Your thoughts and reactions?

NOTE: A follow-up post will cover more from Alan Kreider, Ellen White & Jesus.

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