The Worship Of Personal Responsibility

The Senate’s iffy vote on Health Care Reform has been delayed once again, ironically over the health of one of the “yes” votes, Senator John McCain. McCain’s blood clot surgery at the Mayo Clinic is a timely illustration of what happens when a person of means is confronted with a life and death health dilemma. There’s far more here than simple partisan disputation, and this pause gives us a chance to delve into one specific difference between the left and the right concerning the government’s involvement in the health care industry.

The GOP campaign promise to overturn Obamacare has at its core a deep Christian conflict so strong that one can say with a great degree of confidence that the issue really isn’t about health care. The driver is the Christian GOP’s worship of personal responsibility, one that benefits primarily the haves of our culture.

Personal responsibility as a moral contract with culture is a personal, internal governor commonly referenced by conservatives - especially Christian conservatives - in considering social issues or problems. At core, it states that that human beings “choose, instigate, or otherwise cause their own actions.” It’s a neat, black and white, and ordered principle that ignores time and chance in the events of life, and has become more of a yardstick for measuring others than a genuine operating philosophy for life.

This is especially true when arguments over God’s will are involved, for it’s a handy reference in attempting to explain the unexplainable. People starve in the ghetto, so it must be their fault for not living a lifestyle governed by personal responsibility. People get AIDS, because they don’t take personal responsibility for their behavioral actions. Just because others don’t take responsibility for their own choices, it doesn’t follow that I should have to pay for them. Sound familiar? And when tragedy strikes close to home, the personal responsibility demand can make amends for the loss of an explanation. A young mother is taken from a shopping center parking lot and brutally murdered, leaving a suffering family looking for answers. Someone, most likely a close relative, will ask what she was doing at the shopping center, and while some will be offended, others will nod on the inside. Some will insist it was the devil’s doing, and emphasize the need to be diligent in watching for “the evil one.” Still others will look to the murderer’s background as a reprobate and sinner who for whatever reason has rejected God. Few will argue time and chance, because they don’t have a place in this world of personal responsibility.

The word “deserve” sneaks its way into the conversation of personal responsibility, for all black and white thinking comes with a reward for doing right. Hence, one “deserves” what they get, according to their own choices and actions. “Well, she got what was coming to her,” is a common phrase among those assigning blame for bad outcomes. Or how about, “He was such a nice man until he started drinking every day.” Here, there is no requirement to understand the why of this man’s drinking, because it’s irrelevant to the point of his behavior upon drinking. In other words, he deserves whatever the law does with him.

Trial lawyers love this personal responsibility obsession, for if true, then there really is no such thing as an accident; someone is always to blame, and it’s hoped they have deep pockets. Lawyers are the guardians of the law, and no cultural group has more to gain from the worship of personal responsibility than they do. Lawyers, it should also be noted, serve as our representatives in Congress, so they actually make the laws that benefit their own kind. It’s a conflict of interest of staggering proportions, but that’s an argument for another time.

Christian fundamentalists can find Scriptures to justify any of their beliefs, and there are plenty when it comes to personal responsibility. The verses most often quoted relate to family life. The below is from the evangelical fundamentalist “Got Questions Ministries” through

The Bible expects us to take personal responsibility in all areas of life. Able-bodied people should work for their food. “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Men are to take responsibility for providing for their households (1 Timothy 5:8).

At times, people try to avoid personal responsibility, usually through blame-shifting. Adam tried to blame Eve for his sin (Genesis 3:12). Cain tried to dodge responsibility (Genesis 4:9). Pilate attempted to absolve his guilt in the matter of the crucifixion of Christ: “‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’” (Matthew 27:24). Ultimately, attempts to pass the buck are futile. “You may be sure that your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).

The whole book of wisdom found in Ecclesiastes contradicts everything about the worship of personal responsibility. Sometimes called “the book for cynics,” it is VERY important reading for today’s believers, for it speaks to the madness of black and white thinking. Here are two especially revealing verses, the latter being the Bible’s “shit happens” template:

8:14 - There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve.
9:11 - I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.

The worship of personal responsibility also plays a significant role - perhaps even the most central role - in the cultural divide between the haves and the have-nots. It functions as a form of moral superiority for the rich, because it leads to the argument of the American Dream of prosperity. At the other end of this spectrum is the argument that life can’t possibly prosper everyone, which is suggested by the black and white nature of the American Dream ideal.

Surely, life is a zero sum game when it comes to resources, so this idea that we can all have it easy if we accept responsibility for our actions is just a bit problematic. For every winner, there must be a loser. As my friend Doc Searls likes to say, “Life is a death sentence; it’s just that some of us get to live it more comfortably than others.” If not, why this constant battle for resources, with the most stuff going to the previous winners in a game wherein the rules are tilted towards them before the starting whistle is even blown? Think about the University of Alabama in college football. It would be absurd to suggest that any other college could compete if they just took more responsibility for their athletic programs, for it’s Alabama’s ability to recruit 4 & 5-star athletes that, along with a great tradition and coaching, makes them such constant winners. There just aren’t enough of these resources to go all around the NCAA.

The Gospel of Self is a perfect accompaniment for personal responsibility, for it begins with a personal relationship with a God who meets all our needs and rejects the realities of time and chance. Everything is ordered, for why wouldn’t God, after all, want to be good to those who acknowledge and worship Him? Behave a certain way, and you’ll be blessed. Moreover, demand that the whole culture behave this way, because it’s “God’s will” for everybody. This is the essential political and cultural drama being played out each and every day in the West in general and in the United States in particular.

We’re hung up on arguing about the fruit of this conflict instead of talking about it directly. Like many other things in a culture afraid to talk about its religion, it helps explain our current conundrum in the debate over health care.

Am I responsible for my decisions and actions? Of course, but the question is to what extent? Resolve that, and legislating its fruit – like health care – at least has a chance.