Hard to Swallow
Public Health, Government Obesity & Church Resistance
by Patrick Henry Reardon
Visiting another city some months ago, I found myself having breakfast in a B&B with a group of folks completely unknown to me. At first, each of us strangers struggled, I believe, to find an interesting and non-controversial topic to discuss while eating our early-morning quiche. (This detail should have tipped me off that trouble was on the way.) Relief landed on the table, however, in the form of the local newspaper. Why not discuss the front-page news?
Well, as it happened, the New York City Health Department had—just the previous day—banned the purchase of sugared beverages larger than 16 ounces at restaurants and other public places, including sports arenas. Much of the front page was taken up with it. This seemed like a safe-enough subject, so we started to talk about it.
I confess that this kind of conversation, the prohibition of large soft drinks, would never get off the ground with my usual friends and associates, most of whom—whatever their other failings—do live outside of locked hospital wards. If the subject of giant soft drinks ever arose among the Touchstone editors, for example, it would serve only as the theme of ridicule and rhetorical invention. I can picture it now. We would tell stories about the nefarious activities of a secret Orange Crush syndicate. We would create spoofs in which barmaids gave the wink to shady customers who quaffed buckets of Sprite and Dr. Pepper in the back room, away from the eyes of the law. We would compose limericks that began, "There once was a lad with a Pepsi." The single thing we would never do is to take the thing seriously.
Gluttony, Greed & Government
At breakfast that day, however, as I sat among those other folks, I was quite amazed to hear defenders of the recent soft-drink ban raise their righteous voices in tribute to its wisdom. Too stunned to speak, I mainly listened, and what I heard was an education.
In particular, there seemed to be a consensus on three points, a sort of triple thesis:
First, human beings are gluttonous and improvident of their health. They cannot be trusted. They are addicted serial drinkers, on whom hope is wasted. Leave these people to themselves, and they will squander the family inheritance, guzzling vast oceans of Dr. Wham and Mountain Dew. They will destroy the public health system and create other havoc with the economy. I quote: "Everybody's insurance premiums will go up! We'll all be paying for their early retirement." The problem, in short, is gluttony.
Second, these addicted whistle-wetters are not to be blamed. They can't help their obsession with 7-Up, RC, and Red Bull. They are victims, rather, of the ruthless beverage companies, whose incessant promotion renders their calorie-laden products irresistible. Because of the money-hungry policies of these manufacturers and their advertising agencies—the tricks-of-the-trade include subliminal TV messages—the entire population is put at moral and physical risk. The Free Market is the enemy of the people. The problem, in short, is greed.
Third, only the government can be trusted to do the right thing. Only the New York City Health Department, spurred on by high-minded officials like the mayor of that city, really cares about getting rid of vices like gluttony and greed. Thank heaven, there is the government, the one sterling and indisputable moral arbiter on whom we can rely, on the one hand, to ward off unscrupulous business predators, and, on the other, to keep us safe from our own irresponsible choices. Long live powerful and pervasive government!
Power as Dangerous as Greed
Our problem, of course, is not with large soft drinks; this is hardly the sort of question that prompts deep soul-searching among the Touchstone editors. What is clear to us, however, is the hermeneutical insufficiency of the triple thesis outlined above. We believe that a government-versus-marketplace paradigm does not adequately express or interpret our current economic and social problems, many of which are too serious to be contained in a 16-oz. cup.
We contend that the power inherent in government poses a threat at least as dangerous to the public weal as the greed inherent in the free market. Indeed, we remind ourselves that the Founders of this country—as Michael Novak expressed it more than thirty years ago—"did not fear unrestrained economics as much as they feared political tyranny." This is why they deliberately guaranteed freedom of expression to those two institutions likely to be critical of government: the church and the press.
For our moral guidance in these deracinated times we especially urge the studious maintenance of that matrix of cultural presuppositions and moral convictions inseparable from the transmission of the gospel. In particular, this is no time to weaken the authority of the church to address—as only the church, these days, seems willing to address—the serious ethical questions raised by current public-health programs of the federal government.
We at Touchstone appeal to the living biblical faith of those many witnesses, spread generously throughout the authoritative core of our history, whose writings and example testify to the decent, the dignified, and the sound. And we declare common cause with those who drink from those sources. •
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.