Putting Our Faith in Health Care

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


After an August recess filled with hair-pulling, chart-waving and town hall recriminations, the national debate on health care reform has come back to Washington. President Barack Obama’s joint address to Congress this evening has three audiences: lawmakers, pundits and a skittish public worried about what the contentious legislation means to them.

But as plan A for selling health care seems to have stalled, a growing number of organizers, activists and politicians want Obama to add a new argument to his arsenal: health care as a moral and civic obligation.

Why hasn't the White House, they want to know, used the bully pulpit more like a real pulpit?

Since the early days of the conversation, the White House pitch has focused on an economic and logistical case for change. Obama, the salesman in chief, has confined his sales pitch to cutting the costs of health care delivery in America—by far the most expensive and least efficient among developed nations. "Ultimately we can't afford this," he said at a July press conference devoted to health care. "We just can't afford what we're doing right now."

But as the president takes the podium for what may be the most important speech of his young presidency, the faith-based, moral case for helping the nation’s 46 million uninsured Americans—more than half of whom are people of color—hasn’t made an appearance.

What’s most needed in the debate, faith-based proponents say, is the idea that, in a rich country like the United States, leaving the poor and the sick to go broke and get sicker is just wrong. “The faith tradition says that when people are sick, that’s exactly when you need to pull them in and help them more,” says Tim King of Sojourners, a leading progressive Protestant organization. Delman Coates, a pastor and activist in Maryland, uses the tale of the Good Samaritan to make the case for government intervention. “Why wasn't that Jericho road better lit?” he asks. People of faith “are called not just to provide charity; we are challenged to look at systems and structures that cause people to become economically vulnerable.”

“The moral conversation has the most weight with the American public," says Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., House majority whip and an advocate for faith in politics. “If we had come out of the box talking about the moral case for insurance reform ... I really believe that the emotions of people would have been captured much better.”

This Labor Day, at a rally in Cincinnati, Obama came closer to his impassioned campaign self: “Every debate at some point comes to an end,” he said, perhaps previewing tonight’s remarks. “At some point, it's time to decide. At some point, it's time to act. Ohio, it's time to act and get this thing done.”

Politically, a more forceful “moral case” for reform could prove quite savvy. In November 2008, Obama did better among regular churchgoers than any Democrat since Carter, with 43 percent of their votes—and among those who said they attend church monthly, Obama beat John McCain 53 percent to 46 percent. Going into tonight’s speech, only 37 percent of those polled by Gallup say they would direct their member of Congress to vote for health care reform (24 percent don’t know). Winning the moderate faith community could move those numbers in Obama’s reformist direction.

A number of liberal religious groups are poised to help. “The faith community has a unique and important role to play—to define and raise the moral issues right beneath the policy debate,” says Jim Wallis, a member of the White House faith advisory council. “People in my congregation see a clear connection between the message of scripture and an issue like health care,” says Coates. “This is a social justice issue that’s very consistent with the tradition of the biblical prophets.”