Friday, August 14, 2009

Health Care Debate: Reenacting the American Civil War?

Although post-Civil War Southern Baptists largely denied it until recent decades, slavery was the overriding cause of the American Civil War. Only in recent years have contemporary Southern Baptists by and large admitted what their white faith forebears in the antebellum South openly declared: the defense of slavery was the reason for the formation of the Confederacy.

Upon the defense of slavery white antebellum southerners constructed an argument of freedom: if the United States government denied whites the right to own black slaves, they reasoned, then the government was intruding upon their personal liberties and freedoms. In defending white liberty and freedom (it did not occur to most white southerners that blacks might also be humans deserving of equal rights), southerners argued, they were standing up for states' rights and against the federal government (although the same southerners quickly argued for federal centralization when it could be used to advance slavery).

By the end of the war, unrepentant southerners (Baptist and otherwise) reconstructed their arguments into the myth of the Lost Cause. Gone was slavery as the primary reason, or even a real reason at all, for the war. Instead, southerners had warred against the North in a valiant effort to preserve personal freedom and liberty and states' rights. The honorable and righteous South had been defeated only because unholy and unjust northern forces marshaled overwhelming military might against noble but overwhelmed white southerners.

For nearly 100 years after the Civil War, racist white southerners ensured that blacks, although now free according to the United States Constitution, were kept in subjugation to whites through intimidation and violence (the Ku Klux Klan) and oppressive laws (Jim Crow and segregation), means sanctioned (openly or quietly) by most white Christians. True freedom for blacks in the South came only in the 1950s and 1960s when the federal government forced the old Confederate states to integrate schools and other public institutions. Even then, most whites, including many if not most self-proclaimed Christians, resented integration and federal intervention - and many resisted with anger and violence. Many white Christians, refusing to recognize blacks as equals and angry over the intervention of the federal government, pulled their children out of public schools and enrolled them in the new white private schools that suddenly sprung up in an effort to keep white children from being contaminated by contact with black children.

Integration, in short, vividly opened old wounds of white southern defeat and challenged the cherished mythical narrative of the civility, righteousness and godliness of white supremacy. While memories of Civil War and Reconstruction injustices remained anchored in the minds of indignant white southerners, this new intrusion of the federal government upon white southerners' liberties and freedoms reheated inherent racism and anger.

When the Supreme Court in 1963 (Abington Township School District v. Schempp) ruled that the government could neither promote nor denigrate religion (but instead must maintain neutrality) in public school classrooms - a court decision that Baptists, historic champions of the freedom of church and state, lauded and supported - it added fuel to the anti-federal government anger already boiling in a religion-saturated South. The boiling anti-federal government anger among white conservative Christians, however, did not reach critical mass until the late 1970s, following the growing pluralism of the 1960s, the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, and the 1976 Internal Revenue Service ruling revoking the tax exempt status of Bob Jones University because the school openly discriminated against African Americans (a decision upheld by a 1983 Supreme Court decision).

The Religious Right was formally birthed in 1979 from (primarily) white southern anger over pluralism and the 1963, 1973 and 1976 federal decisions. Rallying Christian fundamentalists and taking the name "Moral Majority" for their movement, they claimed to represent the voice of God in a nation that had forsaken God and turned to "human secularism." Falsely claiming that America at its founding had been a "Christian nation," they rejected the historical Baptist struggle for separation of church and state that culminated in the creation of the world's first secular nation, and instead created historical myths in which to anchor their desire for an American theocracy.

From 1979 to 2009, the Religious Right allied itself closely with a Republican Party that - proclaiming a moral and religious mandate - glorified unfettered capitalism, stoked public anger at the image of an intrusive "big government," passed laws that publicly benefited the wealthy while quietly stepping on the poor and middle classes, alienated minorities through party policies, cut the taxes of the wealthy and produced unequaled federal debt and an unparalleled wealth gap between rich and poor, warred against other nations on false pretenses, proclaimed opposition to Roe v. Wade (but did nothing to overturn it), fought against separation of church and state, and used evangelical language and theocratic imagery to continually co-opt fundamentalist Christians.

Then, in February 2009, the nation's first black president took office, and the mostly white Republican Party found itself largely confined to the states of the Old Confederacy, rejected soundly by voters under 40 nationwide, and decidedly thrown out of national power for the foreseeable future.

In response, white Republicans and Libertarians began holding "tea parties" protesting "big government," both in terms of growing debt (Obama inherited an economic disaster from the Bush administration, and government efforts to shore up the economy violated the god of capitalism which many conservatives worship - never mind that runaway capitalism got the country into our current mess) and intrusion upon personal "liberties" and "freedoms." Both the imagery (Revolutionary War) and language ("freedom," "liberty," "patriots") echo arguments used by white antebellum southerners in their defense of slavery.

This month, enraged tea partiers have transferred their anger (and hatred) to congressional town hall meetings focused on the moment's issue: health care reform. Conservative white Republicans and Libertarians are now channeling their anti-government anger against health care reform.

Yesterday's edition of National Public Radio's To the Point, a panel discussion of health care and religion, summed up the anger-laden health care reform debate. A spokesman for the Christian Coalition (an arm of the Religious Right) cut through the clutter in the current debate. Health care is not the real issue, he insisted. The real issue is that "the government will control everything," beginning with health care. He later continued, "public health care will destroy our democracy." A representative of the conservative Cato Institute added that "government operates through violence or threats of violence" and insisted that if health care reform is enacted, "the government will put you in jail or shoot you if you don't buy health care insurance." The Christian Coalition spokesman rejected any concept of universal health care as a moral issue, insisted that one of the current health care reform proposals includes the words "rationed care" (and then had to recant when it was pointed out that he was not telling the truth), and defended capitalism as biblical. Another guest, an American health care scholar originally from Canada, remembered that upon moving to the United States, she was stunned to observe that some conservatives "believe in markets the way some people believe in God or Christ." Jim Wallis of Sojourners calmly and systematically pointed out the falsehoods propagated by the Christian Coalition and Cato Institute, while a Catholic scholar outlined the moral, ethical and Christian imperative of universal health care.

To the ears of one who has spent much of the past few years writing on the subject of religion and the American Civil War (the focus of my dissertation), the rhetoric and language of yesterday's NPR health care debate resonated closely with the rhetoric and language of the antebellum and Civil War era debates concerning slavery: white religious conservatives selfishly defended their personal "freedoms" and "liberties" and "rights", while religious liberals argued for the biblical, moral and ethical imperative of equal rights and justice for all persons. Ironically, however, the conservative slavery-defenders of old had a much more solid biblical case than today's religiously conservative opponents of health care reform: slavery is a biblical theme and as a practice is not explicitly condemned in the Bible, while there is no biblical basis for free markets and capitalism; in fact, the New Testament repeatedly condemns the pursuit of individual wealth and warns against the corrupting influence of money.

The white anger over Obama's presidency and health care reform, in the words of protesters, ultimately rests in claims that the federal government is plotting to take away their freedoms and liberties. Video clips of this month's town hall meetings across the nation include angry senior citizens living on socialized medicine (Medicare) ranting against ... socialized medicine. The video clips also reveal claims that the government "outlawed prayer and legalized abortion" and now wants to take away the right to decide one's own health care, and "we're not gonna take it anymore!"

It is well documented that most of the health care reform claims of the angry white crowds of protesters are not true; they are simply repeating lies. But the anger is real, and it is strikingly similar in tone, language and content to that used by white southerners who defended slavery and railed against big government in the antebellum South. Whereas slavery was the real issue and antebellum white southerners used the pretext of an intrusive big government interfering with their personal freedoms and liberties in order to wage war on the North, today's angry white conservatives who constitute the base of a Republican Party anchored in the Old Confederacy have reversed the pattern: having convinced themselves (in the years since the Civil War, stoked in the modern era by Reagan) that federal government is determined to take away their personal freedoms and liberties (while at the same time unconcerned about the rights, freedoms and liberties of minorities and those who disagree with them), they are attacking an egalitarian-focused government by taking a very public and abrasive stand against a black president who is committed to ensuring that all Americans have adequate health care.

In other words, to a previous generation of white southerners, the campaign to abolish slavery became the pretext for constructing a narrative of an intrusive federal government denying personal freedom and liberty to the racially privileged, while universal health care today has become ground zero of the antebellum/Civil War era racially-infused "intrusive federal government" narrative that never died.

Who will win in this modern reenactment of the American Civil War? Big government has never been the real problem. In 1861 and today, the real issues entail human rights, morality and ethics. And in both instances, certain privileged classes (whether by power, socio-economic position, religion, wealth, and/or race) ignore the real issues in order to preserve the status quo that favors them.

The American ideal, encapsulated in our nation's founding documents although not always fully realized, is a nation of persons enjoying equal rights, freedoms and liberties. Emancipation of blacks moved America closer to these ideals; enactment of universal health care is a step that would move us yet closer to the American ideal. It is time to put to rest the self-serving and racially-laden myths that took root in the antebellum South and have poisoned public discourse and civility ever since, and move a step closer to the American ideal that encompasses all persons, by enacting universal health care. I can only hope that today's Obama town hall meeting here in Bozeman , and others that follow in the coming days and weeks, will help move us closer toward the American ideal.


Here is a beginning point in terms of a bibliography of the American Civil War.

Survey of Religion and the American Civil War


Bruce Gourley said...

Fittingly enough, early this AM I came across another blog that relates the Health Care Reform Debate to the American Civil War:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. Just what I needed to find. I have two sons in Bozemann too (I'm in MN) in college. One in Reserve. I needed to find something to show most Baptists are like those I grew up with. Bless you.

Larro said...

Your words ring so true. I am also a history buff (far from scholarly) and I too see some stark similarities.

For the record I am an atheist, and I can see that your historical perspective is spot-on. I can't help but applaud what you have written here. I get so discouraged at times reading posts by Christians (that do not have such perspective) in which I find myself railing against their insular mindset.

Thank you. This was a breath of fresh air.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately your historical facts are incorrect as well as your characterization of the Tea Party movement. However, the reasons leading up to the Civil War and the Tea Party movement have significant similarities.

Bruce Gourley said...

Anon: You're both anonymous and you say nothing. Care to tell me who you are, and say what you have to say?

Anonymous said...

I am at work, and do not have the time now to debate you, but for starters: where in Article 1 section 8 of the Constitution is the federal government delegated the right to pass any regulation regarding health care? (since this was your main point)

For the record, slavery, in any form, is an abomination on mankind.


Bruce Gourley said...

Ah, Bobby, you are someone who wishes to interpret the U.S. Constitution to reflect your biases.

The federal vs state's right's battle is only one aspect of my argument.

Since you are familiar with Article 1, section 8 (taxation), you are aware that it states that Congress shall levy taxes and duties to provide for the defense and "general welfare" of the nation's citizens. The historical meaning of "welfare" in the late 18th century (that is, as used within the Constitution) is "n. health, happiness, or prosperity. [wel faren, to fare well]".

So, yes, the Constitution is quite explicit that Congress has the power to provide, via taxation, for the "general welfare" (health, happiness, prosperity) of the citizenry.

My guess is that you would agree with the prosperity side of "general welfare," but would prefer to remove "health" from general welfare.

Anonymous said...


No sir. I have no bias when it comes to our union. As stated by our founders, we are a nation of laws, not of men. I take this at face value.

As to the "General Welfare" clause, it was made very plain.

First the definition:
General Welfare - Exemption from any unusual evil or calamity; the enjoyment of peace and prosperity, or the ordinary blessings of society and civil govern-ment (Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828).

Second, this was throughly discussed in the Federalist Papers as during the Constitutional convention.

1)Federalist 41
"...Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars. But the idea of an enumeration of particulars which neither explain nor qualify the general meaning, and can have no other effect than to confound and mislead, is an absurdity…"

2)Federalist 83:
"...The plan of the [constitutional] convention declares that the power of Congress…shall extend to certain enumerated cases. This specification of particulars evidently excludes all pretension to a general legislative authority, because an affirmative grant of special powers would be absurd, as well as useless, if a general authority was intended..."

3)The Ten Amendment:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

I am absolutely for health care reform on a state level. I am for tort reform, which has in Texas reduced insurance cost up to 25%.
I am for the anti-trust revocation on a national level to open up free trade across state lines to increase competition of insurance companies (incidently one of the powers delegated to the Federal government). In my state we are only allowed 3 companies to service us.


Bruce Gourley said...

Ah, the Federalist Papers! James Madison said of the Federalist Papers that they did not represent the express views of the Founding Fathers and did not have any "authoritative character" concerning the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall declared that the question of whether or not the Federalist Papers should be used in defining government was questionable.

The Federalist Papers themselves argued against a Bill of Rights (And where would be today without a Bill of Rights? If you are a Baptist, you might yet be sitting in a jail cell.)

As to Webster, his dictionary did not appear until decades after the Constitution.

Anonymous said...


The Federalist Papers, and the Anti-Federalist Papers along with the Arguments put forth at the convention, give insight into the very men that forged the Constitution.

The Federalist Papers do indeed argue against the Bill of Rights. They do so with the argument that the Bill of Rights were unnecessary. The preamble to the Bill of Rights explain this argument as well. (Didn't even know it existed until a couple of years ago.)

With all the corruption in the House and Senate, how are you satisfied that the health care bill will not end up a catastrophic mess as has Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Postal Service, etc, etc? We are now at over 100 trillion dollars of UNFUNDED mandates to pay for, in all aspects of the above insolvent.

The more local the government, the easier it is to oversee and maintain.

I enjoy the discussion Bruce.


Anonymous said...

Incidently I might be in jail, being a Catholic, unless I lived under Lord Baltimore. :)


Bruce Gourley said...

You are basing your Constitutional arguments (at least thus far) on the opinion of exactly three men (Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay) who authored their commentaries and opinions within the Federalist Papers. Three men do not constitute the views of America's Founding Fathers, as Madison readily acknowledged. If you were to expand your argument to the Anti-Federalist papers, you would be incorporating the opinions of about 10 of America's Founding Fathers, hardly a majority.

As to the health care bill, the Republicans prefer to keep the status quo of a free market, capitalist health care system that rations health care (to only those who can afford it or work for certain companies, and who are not overly sick) and subjects customers to administrative death panels who are more concerned about corporate profits than human life.

So I ask you: do you also favor our current health care system of health care rationing and death panels that are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths of innocent American citizens each year? How can someone who is pro-life support killing people by the tens of thousands each and every year in order to pay corporate health insurance CEOs billions of dollars? Are corporate profits more important than life?

And yes, without the Bill of Rights, both of us (Baptist and Catholic alike) might yet be imprisoned.

Anonymous said...


I have indeed cited only a few ponderances (sp) to explain the reasoning behind the document that governs, not so much anymore, our country. I could go on, but we have both made our stances clear concerning this.

I have no trust in the present political parties as both have shown insatiable addiction to power. For the Republicans, greed with their own money. For the Democrats, greed with other people's money. Socialism is a fine idea until you run out of other people's money.

These tendencies are characterizations of a deeper problem, man. No amount of legislation is going to fix drunkeness of power or the selfishness of the individual.

I am firmly sure of the outcome of nationalized health care. It has been shown in time gone by: Germany, Italy, Russia, etc. I for one cannot subscribe to the oligarchy or tyranny that will surely arise.

I try to do my part by volunteering teaching autistic kids martial arts, I give generously at church, and I help my neighbors and co-workers to teh best of my ability. I only hope that we all become more giving so we won't need find charity by coercion.

Also saw your fly fishing link. Bass fisherman myself. Anyway,
Tight Lines and God Bless,


Bruce Gourley said...

Yes, we shall have to agree to disagree, which is fine. Should you ever be in Montana, drop me a line (and maybe we could drop a line for some trout).

Thanks for the dialogue, and God's blessings upon you also, Bobby.

Anonymous said...

You've got a deal.


Anonymous said...

Bruce, if you are a history buff and a Baptist, please read a little more carefully. In my reading and view it was the North who used Slavery as an excuse to eventually federalize the South. You just wrote an entire article to try to support why Obama's socialist agenda will be great for everyone in this country. This is contrary to the
Biblical foundation framed by the
Founding Fathers in the US Constitution. Baptists do not support your view. Why are you claiming to be a Baptist and in line with the Founding Fathers when you are not?

Constitutional Citizen

Bruce Gourley said...

Anonymous Constitutional Citizen:

You have not read Baptist history. Baptists shed their blood and dedicated their lives for nearly two centuries to ensure that America was founded NOT on a biblical foundation (the colonial theocracies - based on biblical foundations - had long persecuted Baptists and other Christian dissenters as heretics!), but as a secular nation with separation of church and state.

As to the causes of the Civil War, historians for well over a hundred years now have parsed the matter, and the primary view is that slavery (in some configuration) was at the center of the conflict. Indeed, if you have ever read the actual writings of Baptists in the South of the Civil War era, you know that Baptist leaders by and large in the South during the Civil War era understood slavery as the central reason for the war. (A lot of common Baptists questioned southern devotion to slavery, however.) Even the founding leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 made it clear that the continuation of slavery was central to the formation of the SBC.

simith ray said...

Even then, most whites, including many if not most self-proclaimed Christians, resented integration and federal intervention - and many resisted with anger and violence. Many white Christians, refusing to recognize blacks as equals and angry over the intervention of the federal government, pulled their children out of public schools and enrolled them in the new white private schools that suddenly sprung up in an effort to keep white children from being contaminated by contact with black children.