WHEN DEMOCRAT JEFF MERKLEY WAS THE UNDERDOG challenging Republican incumbent Gordon Smith in 2008, he promised that if elected he would hold one town hall meeting a year in every county in Oregon. Because they usually begin with a 3,000-mile flight from Washington, D.C., congressional town hall meetings in Oregon are a heavy lift. And there are thirty-six counties in the state. So Senator Merkley was meeting with constituents months before claques of red-faced white men kicked off their summer of hate.
The senator had scheduled four town hall meetings (across 610 highway miles) for August 2 and 3—on the weekend after the House Energy and Commerce Committee completed a 1,000-page health care reform bill. Merkley’s August meetings occurred just as right-wing fanatics were preparing to hijack the national health care reform discussion.
I caught up with the senator at his first meeting on Saturday morning in Tillamook and proceeded up the coast for an afternoon meeting in Astoria. On the following day Merkley held meetings in The Dalles and Madras, two smaller towns east of the coastal range.
Ten minutes into the meeting at the Tillamook library, a man asked the question that would be asked at least twice, in one form or another, at each of the four meetings: “I hear if you’re a certain age, you’re going to have to go before a committee where they’re going to try to convince you that it’s not in the interest of the country for you to get the medical care that you need.”
The senator explained that a provision in the House bill would require the government to pay private physicians for one voluntary counseling session regarding end-of-life decisions every five years. The questioner didn’t buy it. It reminded him of Jack Kevorkian, the Michigan physician who served seven years in prison for assisting terminal patients to end their lives.
End-of-life counseling was the topic of the moment. That afternoon in Astoria a woman asked, “Why do we have to have mandatory end-of-life counseling?” The senator again explained the provision in the House bill: an optional consultation with your private physician paid for by the government. His explanation was followed by a variation on the same theme from yet another woman. “Would you be willing to let me counsel your parents without knowing what my belief system was and I encourage them to end their life?” she asked. “I think the government has no business making end-of-life decisions.” She angrily refused to accept the senator’s explanation that counseling would be provided by private physicians.
It was evident that these questions had little to do with the actual content of any health care bill. It was also evident that the most vocal opponents of reform were literally reading from the same script. In this case, a script that revealed the influence of Christian extremists, whose sloppiness in dealing with facts and programmatic deceit has been largely ignored by the media.
I spoke with one of the women who had asked about mandatory end-of-life counseling. She said she knew the counseling was mandatory because “it’s in the bill.” Yet she hadn’t read the bill. She was reading from a memo posted on the website of the Liberty Counsel, a Christian law firm and advocacy group related to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Virginia.
Among the 112 talking points in the Liberty Counsel’s ten-page electronic samizdat were the following:
- Sec. 2511, Pg. 992 – Government will establish school-based “health” clinics. Your children will be indoctrinated and your grandchildren may be aborted!
- Sec. 1233, Pg. 429, Lines 10-12 – “Advanced Care Consultation” may include an ORDER for end-of-life plans – from the government.
- Sec. 1713, Pg. 768, Lines 3-5 – Nurse Home Visit Services – Service #1: “Improving maternal or child health and pregnancy outcomes or increasing birth intervals between pregnancies.” Compulsory ABORTIONS?
- Sec.1751, Pg. 800 – The government will decide which Health Care conditions will be paid. Say “RATION!”
None of these claims are true. Nor were they compiled by the Liberty Counsel’s staff. They were provided by right-wing blogger Peter Fleckenstein and posted under the imprimatur of the Liberty Counsel.
HITLER, OBAMA, AND MALTHUS—Sunday meetings in The Dalles and Madras were more angry and volatile.There was a lot of concern about a nonexistent provision in the House bill that would provide free health care for illegal aliens. And the end-of-life questions continued.
In The Dalles, a seventy-four-year-old woman wearing a nasal oxygen tube held in place by a retaining headband asked about “this new House measure in the bill which says the government will determine when I stay and when I go.” When I asked her about her sources, she handed me a printout of the Liberty Counsel talking points, which she said she “got from a pastor on the Internet.” She also said that “getting rid of the old people was how Hitler got started.”
In Madras, where the crowd was extremely vocal and angry, an elderly woman linked the House’s proposed solution to the nation’s health care crisis to the final solution. “In Germany when Hitler came in, he started out with the insane and mentally retarded,” she said. “And nobody ever saw them again. Then he came for the senior citizens. Later word got out that they were all euthanized. Hitler said we’ll have more food for the healthy people.” (She neglected to mention six million Jews.)
The woman said she is Christian and believes in “the End Times,” in which she fears Obama is playing a role. When I spoke to her, I found that she, too, was reading from the Liberty Counsel talking points, printed out from Rick Joyner’s Web site.
Rick Joyner is “the pastor on the Internet” who somehow managed to inform much of the debate in Oregon. He is a South Carolina evangelical with a large church and an even larger Web-based ministry. He derives his spiritual authority from a claim to have been transported to Heaven for an extended conversation with Jesus. Joyner has done eight “National Health Scare Bulletin” Webcasts that are also available in transcript format. They all provide links to the Liberty Counsel memo, which he continues to promote.
Joyner insists that it is a Christian duty to speak out about Obama’s health care reform plan. In his health care homilies, the pastor links reformers to Nazis in Hitler’s Germany:
“They started with abortion. Then they started with all the retardeds; they gathered up all the retarded and said the state can do a better job taking care of the retarded than families: No one ever saw them again. Then they went on, to the elderly to the infirm…. Nobody knew what happened to them.
“You may have heard the one German who said when they came for the Jews I didn’t complain, because I wasn’t Jewish. When they came for the Catholics, I didn’t complain because I wasn’t Catholic. When they came for the union leaders I didn’t complain because I wasn’t in a union. When they came for the Protestants, I didn’t care because I wasn’t a Protestant. When they came for me, nobody complained because there was nobody left.”
Joyner admits that there are errors in the Liberty Counsel memo and said that its executive director, Mat Staver, and Staver’s staff are working on a revised copy. Two weeks after the Oregon hearings, I called to ask about the inaccuracies. Joyner’s administrative assistant told me they would get back to me. I called the Liberty Counsel, where a woman in the press office told me she knew nothing about any revisions and that Mathew Staver would call me with a further explanation. As this issue went to press, neither Joyner nor Staver had returened calls. These are organizations that enjoy non-profit status under the IRS Code, are fully engaged in the health care debate, yet answer to no one.
In his Webcasts (http://www.morningstarministries.org) Joyner persists with his claims about Nazi Germany, a historical moment he claims to have studied extensively.
I found it odd that a pastor who is an authority on Nazi Germany would have missed Pastor Martin Niemöller, the “one German” quoted by Joyner. Joyner might be surprised to learn that Niemöller was in fact a Protestant, a Lutheran pastor and theologian.
Niemöller actually said:
“First they came for the communists, but I was not a communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the socialists and the trade unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”