Video: Health-Care Hermeneutics with Jon Stewart

By Steve Holt 8-28-2009

090828-jon-stewart-daily-showI need to find something to do until Sept. 13 or thereabouts. The Daily Show is on a three-week vacation until then. (Anyone have a good home remedy for the Stewart Shakes?) I kid.

Jon Stewart's last show before his break, though, should get me by for a while. His guest was Betsy McCaughey, former lieutenant governor of New York, who has been a vocal opponent of the president's health care plan. She is widely recognized as originating the claim that the plan will force doctors to choose between patients' care and government incentives, especially in end-of-life care. From her analysis, the term "death panels" was derived, becoming the latest in a series of arguments crafted to induce fear and steer Americans against "Obamacare."

Stewart has always been classy when it comes to welcoming those who think differently from him or his viewers for the purpose of having a civil conversation. In fact, a blogger for Politico recently pointed out the increasing number of conservatives who have been guests on The Daily Show of late because of Stewart's willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, challenge when necessary, and do it all with a sense of humor. Stewart's interview with McCaughey -- which went way over the allotted time limit and was posted in its entirety on the show's Web site [and at the end of this post] -- was a case in point. Perhaps for the first time during this entire debate, two people on different sides of this issue sat down with the physical bill on the table between them, read parts of it aloud, and managed to have a civil dialogue. The two were able to keep it lighthearted and humorous the whole time, McCaughey came off as extremely likeable, and smiles and handshakes were exchanged at the end. But they got down to business as well.

McCaughey plopped a monstrous binder containing half of the 1,000-plus-page health-care bill on the desk so she and Stewart could read from the portions that cause her (and many Americans) concern. Stewart read the "death panel" article aloud, and McCaughey followed it up by giving her reasons why what she sees as the government forcing doctors' hands when counseling and enacting the end-of-life wishes of their patients is "really wrong."

Stewart directly challenged her interpretation: "It would be really wrong if that's in any way what this says," he replied, drawing laughs from the audience.

"You and I disagree about the reading of this bill," McCaughey replied, turning to the audience. "I'm looking at the letter of this bill, and he's wrong."

Stewart again disputed her interpretation, giving his own.

Amid the back-and-forth, I was reminded about similar conversations I've had with fellow Christians about Romans 13 or Revelation or Genesis 1. The similarities between the health-care debate and the classic Bible wars in contemporary Christianity are uncanny. Two people with the same text are somehow able to come to polar opposite conclusions as to its meaning. How many books will John Piper and N.T. Wright swap debating the true scriptural meaning of the atonement? At what point will even their dialogue, which has been civil up to this point, devolve into a crossing of their arms and frustrated "you're wrong," as in the case of Stewart and McCaughey?

Here's my assertion: Most human beings look for interpretations of sacred scriptures -- be they health-care bills or the Bible -- that support pre-existing worldviews. In other words, they believe what they want to believe and pass their readings of scripture and legislation through those beliefs instead of the other way around. McCaughey may in fact oppose Obama's health-care plan because she believes it will kill old people, or she may have opposed it before she read it and justifies it with her argument about death panels.

This will never be enough for folks like Stewart, who opposes McCaughey's exegesis not on political grounds but because it is inauthentic and far from "open and shut." His project is one of getting to the nut of an issue -- the value argument -- and bringing two viewpoints a little closer to each other purely on moral grounds.

"I like you, but I don't understand how your brain works," Stewart quipped toward the end of the show. "If I thought that what this bill was is a Trojan horse to deny older people an ability to get care, I'd be marching behind you. Maybe not behind you, but near you. With a sign."

We must appeal to deeper [dare I say it] values when we find ourselves across the table from someone with whom we disagree. In the health-care debate, our shared value should be finding a way to ensure quality medical care for every American. Our shared faith value ought to be a deeper understanding of and participation in God's saving work in the world.

Otherwise, we will find ourselves -- figuratively or literally -- stating our case with the Bible (or a bill) in one hand and a megaphone in the other. That gets us nowhere.

[Watch the entire interview here. Warning: explicit language.]

part 1

part 2

Steve Holt seeks joy and justice in East Boston, Massachusetts. Steve enjoys gardening, being a husband, community life, and writing. He blogs about spirituality and his garden at

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