Cultural Psychology

Unconstitutionality of the Individual Health Insurance Mandate: A Freedom of Religion Argument

with 3 comments

Unconstitutionality of the Individual Health Insurance Mandate:  A Freedom of Religion Argument

I am surprised that nobody has yet raised this concern (but in a way, not surprised, because today many people have a fairly mistaken view of what religion is generally).  The argument here is that modern medical practice is basically a very specific and arbitrary worldview — one based on metaphysical assumptions that some religions and spiritual traditions disagree with.

To begin, one may simply note that there are established religious denominations in the United States that do not believe in medical treatment.  The most notable example is Christian Science.

To be honest, Christian Scientists should be complaining loudly against this legislation.  The only news story I’ve seen on the subject, unfortunately, was to the effect that some members of the church lobbied for legal provisions to allow their centers to receive funding.  What this really shows is that, predictably, at least some modern Christian Scientsts have backed down from the original principles of their relgion.  Likely there are still some who hold the traditional view.

In case anyone needs a reminder:  Christian Science was founded by Mary Baker Eddy, in the 19th century.  One of her core teachings was that an illness is a physical manifestation of a spiritual disorder.  Physical illness is cured not by medicine, but by prayer and rectification of whatever is wrong with the soul.

That is not by any means a new or especially rare view among Christians.  Since the time of Jesus, it has long been accepted by Christians that physical healing may occur by praying or the laying on of hands. So, if one really believe this, then isn’t resorting to physical medicine a sign of lack of faith?

In general we can broadly distinguish between two radically different worldviews, naming them Materialism and Idealism.  Modern society is based on materialism, which holds that material reality — things like atoms and electrons — is the ultimate reality, and that sickness and disease are a products of interactions and events at the material level.

In contrast, Idealism holds that the ultimate reality is mental or spiritual: basically, all the world is a dream — either in our own minds, or in the mind of God.

Now if you are a Materialist, then it makes perfect sense to treat diseases with physical medicine.  But if you are an Idealist — and that includes not just Christian Scientists, but many others — including many Buddhists and practicioners of certain forms of yoga — then the way to cure disase is by changing your thoughts.

As a basis for a legal argument, this is not as far-fetched as it might at first seem.  In The American Religion, noted literary critic Harold Bloom observed that American culture is fundamentally rooted in what he labeled “gnosticism”, but which in this context could be equally well be called metaphysical Idealism.  Most Americans believe in miracles, and that ones thinking can shape reality in a non-material way.

Most Americans today perhaps are somewhere on a continuum between radical Materialism and radical Idealism.  But, in theory, a person could identify as a pure Idealist, and on that basis claim it is against his or her religious principles to use medical treatment.  If this were tested in the Supreme Court, if the defendent (the person refusing to buy insurance) were sincere, and if the case were knowledgeably presented, then it would appear to be a fairly open-and-shut case:  a person could refuse to participate in medical treatment for genuine religious reasons.

If this were a specious or insincere argument, that would be one thing.   But what’s involved here is a very genuine tension between radically different worldviews.   It should be very plain that the Constitution does not require a citizen to subscribe to the “religion” of metaphysical Materialism.


3 Responses

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  1. Except that said plaintiff would not be forced to buy insurance – said plaintiff would simply be liable for the tax which could be ameliorated with the insurance purchase, and furthermore, there is no requirement to use medical treatment; certain exemptions are written into the Act for religious groups, IIRC; and finally, it doesn’t wash by the SCOTUS’s previous statements on the matter – if a general legal principle is in place which affects all people equally and is not targeted specifically at religions such as Christian Scientism, broadly speaking it has the presumption of Constitutionality.

    That Other Mike

    April 3, 2010 at 10:41 pm

  2. Okay, these are all good responses — thanks for the comments. The whole issue of healtchare reform is very complex, and my own opinion is far from simple. Perhaps most of all I see discussion of the Constitutional aspects as an opportunity to reasonably and intelligently decide what we all want for the future of the Republic.

    See next reply.

    John Uebersaxd

    April 7, 2010 at 11:41 pm

  3. An update on my original post. If I understand this website correctly, an individual mandate has been in place in Massachussetts since 2008.

    It also appears there is an exemption available on religious grounds. However, if one takes the exemption, but later decides to buy insurance (or use medical services?) there is a penalty.

    It seems to me this raises a host of new questions. Can the government decide that religious objections to modern medicine must be an all-or-none affair? For instance, could a person not genuinely choose, that is, in connection with their true conscience, that it is right to use naturalistic or homeopathic medicine — anything derived from plants, say — but not synthetic compounds? That doesn’t seem like an implausible view for someone to take. If the government allows that someone may wish to avoid all medical treatment on sincere religious grounds, can the government then take issue with a person who, on religious grounds, accepts only naturalistic medicine?

    The government might contend, as it has done in some cases against people who claim a religious right to use otherwise controlled substances, that there must be ‘uniform enforcement’. By this argument the government would contend that it is simply infeasible to tailor the requirement to each individual set of religious beliefs. Certain legal precedents accept the Constitutional right of the government to limit an otherwise protected freedom if (1) the state has a compelling interest, and (2) the law in question is the least restrictive means available to secure the government interests.

    This comment isn’t meant as a satisfactory investigation of the topic — it just serves as a recognition that the issues are perhaps more complex and interesting than my original post might suggest.

    John Uebersax

    April 7, 2010 at 11:54 pm

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