It’s not every day that a TV commercial makes you think of theology and politics. But that’s what happens every time I watch the ad for Liberty Mutual insurance. A man installs a window air conditioner that falls and smashes a car below. A woman opens the door of her parked car and a passing truck rips it off. A dad carries a platter of barbecue from the patio into his house and slams into the closed sliding-glass door.
The accidents range from ink stains on a shirt to a car falling into a lake. The narrator says, “Humans. We mean well, but we’re imperfect creatures living in a beautifully imperfect world. Sometimes the little things get us, and other times the not so little. It’s amazing we’ve made it this far. Maybe it’s because when one of us messes up, someone else comes along to help out.”
Here’s the theology in those sentences: Mercy trumps justice. Forgiveness beats punishment. Compassion topples cruelty.
Here’s the politics: The Affordable Care Act makes good sense, both morally and practically.
At a time when audiences at a Republican primary debate applaud the notion that an uninsured motorcycle-accident victim deserves to die, to say instead that messing up should not be fatal sounds revolutionary. Even more revolutionary is the argument that looking out for each other brings mutual well-being and success.
It’s unsurprising when faith leaders preach the importance of caring for each other. But it’s unusual when a large insurance company promotes these values in such a straightforward way. Yes, the narrator ends by saying, “At Liberty Mutual Insurance, we get that it’s tough out there, and our job is to make it less tough. That’s the thing about humans—when things are at their worst, we’re at our best.”
Still, to see mistakes and carelessness as forgivable rather than justification for endless suffering is good news, even when delivered via a 30-second ad for homeowners and car insurance.
The ad reminds me of a recent column by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times who wrote about a childhood friend dying from Stage 4 prostate cancer. Because of bad choices and bad luck, his friend Scott didn’t have health insurance and so didn’t see a doctor until his cancer was untreatable.
Kristof wrote, “We all make mistakes, and a humane government tries to compensate for our misjudgments. That’s why highways have guardrails, why drivers must wear seat belts, why police officers pull over speeders, why we have fire codes. In other modern countries, Scott would have been insured, and his cancer would have been much more likely to be detected in time for effective treatment. Is that a nanny state? No, it’s a civilized one.”
Sadly, many readers of Kristof’s column responded in similar ways to the audience at the Republican primary debate. One wrote, “Not sure why I’m to feel guilty about your friend’s problem. I take care of myself and mine, and I am not responsible for anyone else.”
Kristof challenges that smug notion by pointing out we’re all paying for the uninsured, whether we like it or not. His friend Scott was treated as a charity case and had more than $550,000 in medical bills before he died. Those costs got spread through the system and will eventually be paid by the rest of us. To think otherwise makes you a “sucker.”
I haven’t talked with the creative team at Liberty Mutual or its ad agency, so I don’t know what marketing research went into these ads. Perhaps researchers discovered Americans are tired of playing real-life “Survivor” when it comes to their homes, jobs, and health. Maybe researchers found a yearning for compassion and security, despite competing pressures to be rugged, self-sufficient, and tough. Incidentally, that lines up with recent polling that shows massive support for the Affordable Care Act when the “Obamacare” label is removed.
How surprising—and ironic—it would be for religious truths to hit our hearts when we least suspect it, to sneak up while we’re downing a beer or folding laundry in front of the TV. But maybe it’s not so different from the way Jesus and his disciples bypassed the formal religion of their time and used conversation, teaching, and listening—a limited version of mass media back then—to spread compassion, love, and forgiveness. Jesus healed the sick wherever he went. He didn’t treat only the “deserving.” Everyone who came got free health care.
More than 2,000 years later, it’s worth perking up our ears to hear those truths again.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress.