Over at Science On Religion at Patheos, I've posted an article explaining part of the underlying resistance to President Obama's health care law. I admit that I was, um, terrified before posting it – I haven't used the scientific study of religion to tackle anything this overly political before, and I was afraid of the barrage of negative comments from all sides of the aisle. Fortunately, this hasn't happened. Most readers seem to have found the thesis of the article fairly palatable, or at least worth taking seriously.
In essence, I argue that conservatives are partly motivated by a fear that leveraging too much power to a central authority will reduce people's motivations to participate in local-scale networks of obligation, mutual aid, and reciprocity. In other words, the conservative instinct is that community isn't forged out of shared hobbies or mere domestic proximity. It's forged out of necessity: communities function when people need each other. Once you take away individuals' responsibility to materially care for one another – setting up nursing homes rather than expecting people to extend care to their aging parents, for example – you eliminate the shared web of assistance that is the lifeblood of true relationship.
Here's a section from the article:
To a liberal or progressive, it’s axiomatic that the government is morally obliged to provide services like affordable health care. If a society has the power, wealth, and means to prevent children from dying of lymphoma, or to provide eye surgery to a poor working mother, then it is morally mandated to do these things. To deny this ethical truth is pretty much the definition of being, well, a jerk.
…(But) the most pressing conservative or traditionalist problem with big social safety nets isn’t the Randian fear that helping the poor will make it more difficult for talented people to succeed. It’s the danger that, by transferring the responsibility for providing basic social goods away from local and/or religious communities to larger, more abstract systemic platforms, cultures divest people of their obligations to personally care for one another. With that can come a serious reduction in mental well-being and increase in loneliness – and in lack of meaning.
Thus, according to this logic, the more services and social supports are provided by large, abstract systems such as the federal government, the more the webbing of local, personal community will slowly degrade. Ergo: Obamacare may very well lead to increased loneliness, disaffection, and social malaise.
This is the substance of the argument I try to highlight. Now, there are two very important caveats: First, I have big reservations about the ability of local and personal social networks – churches, neighborhoods, mosques, and so forth – to adequately care for everyone. Religious groups especially have always tended toward exclusivism, so that if you want care and support from a religious community, you need to belong to it and play by its rules. Outsiders, whether members of other religions, gays, or outcastes, are often pretty much out of luck. Only those who are integrated into communities can benefit from communities, and there will always be those who, through little or no fault of their own, are not well-integrated into any local or religious community.
Second, a lot of the current political squabbling over the Affordable Health Care Act is motivated more by political aims, and by libertarian rejection of any government intrustion into private life, than by the collectivist fears I'm trying to outline. It's important to note that the kind of conservatism I'm talking about bears little ideological resemblance to the libertarian strain that motivates much of the Tea Party. As Ravi Iyer and his colleagues have found, libertarians are cognitively and socially more similar to liberals, in most respects, than to traditionalist conservatives. Libertarians' social ethic does not place much emphasis on local webs of personal connections or on large-scale social systems.
So the applicability of this analysis to today's Obamacare battles is somewhat obscured by partisan conflicts and libertarian sensibilities. But it's worth considering that, beneath these influences, there is a deeper conservative fear of the dissolution of local, small-scale communities motivating much of American conservatives' resistance to big government programs. If so, it's a concern worth taking seriously and addressing head-on in public dialogue.