Friday, June 10, 2011

Obesity: The State Has No Place in….


Excuses, excuses, excuses

Once again, I apologize for an almost two months-long interruption. Life sometimes becomes too hectic for me to cope. I take on too many responsibilities or obligations and then find I need to temporarily change course. This time around it was a trip to Ibadan, Nigeria, where I was invited to deliver an annual lecture about Muslim law or sharia in Nigeria. My title was “Re-tooling Our Approach to Sharia: A Wholistic and Pluralistic Perspective.” Readers interested in that issue may contact me at < > for an electronic copy. If you do forward this request to me, please be sure to mention this blog post and tell me what province or state and what country you are from. Of course, if you are interested in such issues, you would do well to also turn to my other blog: < Christian-Muslim >.

Trudeau: The State Has No Business....

If there is one statement by Canada’s “philosopher-king,” former Federal Minister of Justice later to become Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, that lingers in the collective memory of the Canadian people, it is probably that “There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” According to a CBC transcript, the context was his response to a reporter’s question. It seems that it was not a carefully thought out statement but, rather, an off-the-cuff remark without official backing. He bumbled his way through as follows:
“I think the, the view we take here is that, uh, there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation, and I think that, uh, you know, what's done in private between adults, uh, doesn't concern the Criminal Code. When it becomes public, this is a different matter."

Mclean's: The State Has No Business....

Whatever the statement’s official status, it has been quoted left and right—and been used as a takeoff for parallel statements about other concerns. Recently the editors of Canada’s Maclean’s captioned an article about obesity among kids with this: “The state has no place in the lunch bags of a nation” (May 2, 2011). They explained, “In the name of fighting obesity, schools everywhere are taking away the freedom of students and parents to make their own lunchtime decisions.” After giving a number of examples just how far this can go, the editors insist that “Eating remains a personal responsibility, not a government mandate.” Proper diet, they affirm, “is a matter for the family, not the authorities.”

Mutual Responsibility

Well, yes, in an individualistic world this may be true, but Canada is not a nation of rugged individualists. The nation has decided that the people are responsible for each others’ health and enforces this responsibility by means of a mandatory socialized medical regime to which everyone, except the very poorest, contributes through taxation.

Christian Responsibility

Of course, Christian tradition has always upheld mutual responsibility and concern for each other. Some Christians, usually more liberal ones, would extend this expression of mutual care by involving government, while others, often more conservative, may insist that this responsibility must be handled by both individuals and by the community, including the church, but not by government. Kuyperians like me cannot be placed in such boxes. Our criteria are different. Sometimes we sound like the one and sometimes like the other, sometimes we sound totally different. This is not due to a wavering posture of uncertainty—Kuyperians are hardly known for that!—but to our different criteria.

Mutual Accountability

Put bluntly, if I have to pay for your health problems, then I also demand a degree of accountability towards me on your part. And if we communally pay for each other’s health problems through government, then we, through government, also have a right to responsible living, including eating. Trudeau’s statement also includes the rider, “When it becomes public, this is a different matter." Through the national health care system to which we all contribute, we have become our brother’s and sister’s keepers via the government. It does not make sense to insist that it is purely your own business to eat as you like and then, when obesity or other problems set in, the public has to pay for your folly? Then it suddenly becomes a public concern—while you probably continue to consume mountains of junk food?

Radical Solutions vs Bandaids

The Maclean’s editors are right that it is hard to control dietary restrictions of students. Attempts to do so, they clearly show in their article, have not worked. However, one way of getting at it that the editors have not mentioned is control at the manufacturing and distribution level. A soft attempt at control would be heavy taxation on all problem foods. A hard approach would be to simply outlaw the production, importation and marketing of such foods. In the end, this latter approach may be the only one that could work.

When our health care system is overworked and underfunded and when the citizenry refuses responsibility, why do governments hesitate to apply the radical solutions needed? Is it the old democratic saw of powerful lobbyists and corporate finance? If democracy cannot fix things at their root or radix level, does it then doom us to patchwork solutions and limping along while our problems intensify?

Responsible Parenting

Of course, the other radical solution that is also desperately needed is responsible parenting. But who can imprint that on a secular population that rejects the teachings of stewardship, responsibility and accountability, the sacredness of the human body, etc.—all the classic teachings of Christianity? With the church sidelined in the lives of many and the government prevented by ideologies from enforcing responsible parenting, what do we have left? Things look kind of hopeless, I am afraid. Do an irresponsible citizenry and irresponsible parents call for some form of dictatorship? Perhaps our secular irresponsibility has driven us beyond the limits of democracy towards a new governing model? Perhaps--and now hold on to your seat!--we need to take another look at God and His guidelines as found in His revelation. Now that would be radical--going to the root of things, our spiritual roots.

Responsibility of Christians

I am not suggesting that Christians do not share in the responsibility for our derailed dietary habits and addiction to junk foods. Christians are often more influenced by their society and culture than by their religion. Too bad. Seeing that they are familiar with Christian thought and values, they should be among those providing formulae for solutions, not simply adhere to the dictates of pop culture or to middle class values and ambitions. It is time for churches to prepare their members to make hard-nosed decisions with respect to family diets and eating habits. Yes, it is first all of all a parental and family responsibility. Secondly, the church has an important task here. Thirdly, if both of these fail to function properly, the government may have to wade in and either insert strong nudges towards solutions like taxation or force the issue by legislation.

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