Putting Our Faith in Health Care

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

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.”

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.