Putting Our Faith in Health Care

In President Obama’s speech tonight, will he make the moral case for health care reform?

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Since continuing the George W. Bush-established White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood partnerships, the Obama administration has tasked its director, Joshua DuBois, with a number of initiatives, from spreading awareness about the H1N1 flu virus to organizing around the 2010 census. The Faith Advisory Council will produce a report by year's end on how government can work with local faith outfits to advance the president's agenda.

Obama has frequently cited the biblical passage asking believers to care for “the least of these.” And if the moral case is a simple restatement of the Golden Rule—do unto others—the public might already be with Obama. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed in a midsummer Pew poll say that it is “more important to provide access to necessary medical care for all Americans” while only 36 percent say it is more important to control costs.

Then again, the White House may have sensed more of an advantage in talking dollars and cents with families hurting in this recession. Taking action on climate change, for example, has gotten more public support when framed as a pocketbook issue. And as unemployment approaches 10 percent, it seems like explaining that health care will reduce premiums and help hack away at the federal deficit is good politics.

Others maintain that the wonkery has hurt. “We missed a tremendous opportunity,” says Clyburn, who is joined in his opinion by legislators such as Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, David Scott of Georgia and in the Senate, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. “Cost containment doesn’t mean a thing to a person that doesn't have any insurance … it doesn’t mean a single thing to people who have lost a job and no longer have insurance.”

Another part of this administration’s hesitation may be due to the lack of clear religious dicta on health reform: “We can’t look to the Bible for whether the best option is a public option or whether we should computerize medical records,” says King. “But Jesus went out of his way to heal people who were rich and who were poor. So there’s that idea of universal inclusion.” The Jewish faith has the principle of tikkun olam—making the world a better place; and several Old Testament chapters discuss caring for “the weak” and impoverished.

Yet conservative Catholics and Protestants have battled insurance reform based on fears it might open the door to government funding of abortion, which they oppose on religious grounds. Still, the inclusion of a religious component to health care reform might re-introduce civility into what has often degenerated into a shouting match. “That’s an important role the faith community can play, bringing the debate back to reasonable dialogue,” says Kristen Williams of progressive group Faith in Public Life. “You see these angry crowds on TV all the time, but that’s not most of America.”

The president showed signs of reaching out to the faith community on health care in August, addressing a conference call with over 140,000 politically engaged believers assembled by 32 multi-denominational Christian nonprofits. There, Obama suddenly transitioned into the language of faith that had been missing from his health care pitch, charging Republican opponents with “bearing false witness,” and stating that health reform is “a core ethical and moral obligation—that is, that we look out for one another, that I am my brother’s keeper, my sister’s keeper.” He even called cost containment and the skyrocketing deficit “an intergenerational mission” to heal the nation.

David Brody, an influential columnist at the Christian Broadcasting Network, said the call had an “infomercial-like” quality, yet proved “a rallying cry from the progressive religious left and the White House to essentially go out there and set the record straight.”

Despite the enthusiasm of these faith groups—a major rally in Washington is planned for Sept. 16, exactly one month before the deadline Obama set for Congressional action on reform—Obama may not invoke explicitly faith-based arguments in his address. When asked whether the White House was losing control over the narrative, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, “The argument is not over. The discussion is not over; the debate is not over; the legislative process isn't over.” He’s right—but as Congress gets back into session, faithful observers argue, it may be time to bring in the big guns. The divine ones.

Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root.

Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.