Putting Our Faith in Health Care

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

Obama Delivers MLK Address At Chicago Area Church

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.”