By the time the Republican-dominated Congress and executive branch had begun preparations to dismantle the Affordable Care Act in January 2017, the stage had already been set for this watershed moment of backlash in American political life.
The cradle-to-grave medical safety net that the late Sen. Edward Kennedy had called “the cause of my life,” known as Obamacare, signified more than the expansion of accessible healthcare for millions. The legislation, in force for several years and perhaps more consequential on individual livelihoods than any other public policy since Social Security, had embodied a primary objective of American liberalism since the nascent days of the modern Democratic party unfolded under the leadership of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
That objective was to foster American freedom by enabling and empowering individuals to live with unalienable rights that were broadly defined beyond the largely theoretical “liberty” concept. Key components of the economy needed to be more specifically regulated, Democrats argued. Americans eventually agreed, returning Democrats to control at least one house of Congress continuously until the Republican Revolution of 1994.
Yet by 2017, with religious voters providing a decisive advantage to conservative candidates for political office, and amid the ascent of now-President Donald J. Trump, Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and supermajorities in many state legislatures, the end of another major social reform of the political left was assured.
Ironically, the impetus for liberal policy in postwar America had been rooted in the influences of leading theologians of the early part of the 20th century. Over that century, through the 1960s, into the 1980s, and diminishing into the1990s, something unanticipated happened: The Bible – once assumed to validate, if not require, aggressive social-reform policy on behalf of the poor – had been appropriated by right-leaning revisionists into a simple justification for a laissez-faire economic approach and for “smaller government.” The public discourse and public policy that resulted led to outcomes such as: a constitutional right to homelessness in the 1980s, the post-1994 “Republican Revolution” limits on public assistance to poor people and other marginal groups whose plight has always called for governmental intervention in the Western world, and Supreme Court authority for the idea that corporations are people who have First Amendment rights to spend unlimited money on political campaigns.
Enter Jesus Loves Obamacare and Other Liberal Causes, the book written to realign the moral-values discourse in 2017 toward the center-left. Supplying rigorous textual analysis of more than 200 passages of Scripture from none other than the King James and New International versions of the Holy Bible, interracial mother-son duo Barbra Young and Stuart Young ’08 shed contemporary light on what the authors persuasively characterize as a misappropriation of Scripture.
Putting the Word of God back into context and adopting a plain-meaning (near-literal), contextual reading of the Bible to which very few Protestants could seriously object, the mother-son legal and policy team hold forth in a concrete manner previously unavailable to lay readers.
The book’s professed objective – to reclaim the discourse of faith for liberal causes – is a tall order, but the writers go about it adroitly. Channeling Black Protestantism – the truest and most consequential manifestation of the Christian church since Martin Luther’s break from Rome – the Youngs (who hail from a conservative-holiness Pentecostal tradition but who now appear to identify in key respects with liberal Protestantism) operate in a Kingian sense that could serve as a compendium for proponents of the social gospel.
The scriptural evidence on which the Youngs rely is well known among Black Protestants, but frequently unaddressed by their White Bible-believing counterparts, and largely unknown to liberal politicians. The book seeks to debunk as myth the viewpoint that the Bible mandates small government or that it is wrong for the government to carry out Jesus’ commands to care for “the least of these.”
The authors’ legal training shows through in their recognition that Old Testament laws to care for the poor and the immigrant were restraints on private property rights. Their chapter on good government in the Age of Trump not only compiles standards that all Christians should expect of their leaders but also contains some humorous and uncanny comparisons between Donald Trump and King Nebuchadnezzar, both of whom, according to the authors’ assessment, created themselves as a global brand and demanded worshipful affirmation.
And their chapter “Why Speak from the Bible” will be of utmost relevance in the emerging conversations. Here, the authors seek to bridge liberals and conservatives, resting on common ground by presenting lessons from the best-selling book in the world, The Bible. Their hope is that liberals will reclaim a moral high ground in informal but informed engagement with their socially conservative friends, to win over voters who sincerely aim to align their values and voting with the word of God but who have been getting it wrong due to lack of information or outright misinformation.
Despite offering an accurate presentation of certain particular and broad biblical principles, it is the admitted omissions that may keep the Youngs’ project from working to full effect. In a political culture shaped more and more by citizens’ regional cultures, familial traditions, personal identities, and related worldviews, the authors have expressly elected to avoid the three major hot-button issues that frequently – and reliably – serve as heuristics as to not only what political party American voters will select, but also which churches they can choose in good conscience to join.
Can two women have a church wedding to one another and then co-pastor a historic Baptist church without valid objection and disfellowship from orthodox believers? (That question emerges from recent developments Washington, D.C.’s Calvary Baptist Church.)
Can an unrepentant woman have serial late-term abortions and still have a clean conscience when judged by God according to the Scriptures, “shouting” her abortion proudly to de-stigmatize the procedure? (That question arises from the “#ShoutYourAbortion” campaign, launched last year to de-stigmatize the surgery and normalize the decision to abort.)
Is “thou shalt not kill” to be read as a prohibition on capital punishment even as to the crimes of Osama bin Laden? (Former President Barack H. Obama ’91 ordered it, and then immediately boasted about it.)
These questions are currently confronting American believers, and Christian denominations are constantly taking internal votes on such questions, too.
For believers conservative and liberal alike, one’s answers to these questions are frequently dispositive as to whether the answerer can be trusted to reach the right answer on any other matters controlled clearly by Biblical mandates. (Conservatives, by definition, will never accept the proposition that personal morality is not antecedent to societal morality – that they would be wrong to believe that, if a man’s house is not in order, then neither will be his ministry.)
As questions that go to the core of how one regards all of the rest of the Bible’s applicability to today’s political questions, these are the threshold questions to be answered before most folks will listen to whatever else the bearer of Biblical interpretation is bringing to the table.
The book openly avoids these topics because, the authors announce, they are too divisive. But these critically defining chasms are precisely the divide that corrodes democratic consensus in our America of today. Conservatives believe the solutions to America’s problems originate in the spiritual realm; liberals believe the solutions to America’s problems originate in the material realm. The two camps approach the conversation, and the work of policy, from different assumptions.
And noteworthily, as the late legal scholar and jurist Robert Bork reminded us in his bestselling 1996 book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, social issues were hardly politically correlated prior to the 1960s; such issues previously were viewed as purely moral and thus not even subject to the politicization that we today expect, if not demand. (Recall, for example, that Richard Nixon in the 1950s supported federal civil rights legislation before John F. Kennedy later switched to what would become known as “the liberal side” of that moral issue.)
And maybe that’s where the true value of this disruptive Jesus Loves Obamacare contribution will tread. There still exists an independent voter – a righteously concerned remnant uncorrupted by postmodern political allegiance, if you will. And survey research suggests that political moderates, though declining in number decade by decade, are likely to be at least somewhat Biblically influenced. Thus, the Youngs’ book might succeed in its goal of attracting to the liberal cause a persuadable, open-minded segment of undecideds and swing voters who identify as neither solidly liberal nor staunchly conservative.
For filling that gap, these honorable authors are to be commended and their sobering book, recommended.
By Barbara Young with Stuart Young
Amos Jones is a 2006 graduate of Harvard Law School and an associate professor of law at the Campbell University School of Law. He is also a director on the board of the Academy of Preachers.