Mobilizing Religious Progressives on Health Care

At the funeral of Ted Kennedy last Saturday, the senator’s grandson, Max Allen, led the dignitaries and family members in responsive prayer.

“For what my grandpa called the cause of his life as he said so often and in every part of this land,” young Max led, “that ‘every American will have universal health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.’”

“Lord hear our prayers” the congregation responded.

I don’t know which congressmen and women present spoke these prayers of support, but President Obama’s recent efforts to engage religious leaders in health care reform are leading to similar prayers, coupled with actions, by progressive religious men and women across traditions.

Many of these efforts are being led by the progressive 40 Days for Health Reform, an umbrella organization led by PICO National Network, Sojourners, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Faith in Public Life, and Faithful America.

As they explain, their intention is to “make clear to Congress that quality, affordable health care for every American family is a moral priority for millions of people of faith.” Their Web site includes a petition to be signed by members of the public, and details of a conference call with President Obama and 140,000 people of faith that took place on August 19.

An email from the Association for Muslim Health Professionals (one of the organizations that participated in the call) reported that it began with introductory comments about the need for health reform followed by prayers by religious leaders, comments by clergy, and personal remarks from several citizens. The director of the White House Domestic Policy Council led a question and answer session before President Obama spoke. The president thanked everyone for participating, expressed appreciation for religious communities’ efforts at reform, and then corrected myths about the health care proposals on the table. He encouraged people, and religious communities at large, to talk with each other about health care reform, aiming to correct misinformation and to frame health care as a moral issue.

“The one thing that you all share is a moral conviction,” Obama is reported to have said. “This debate over health care goes to the heart of who we are as American people… This is part of an ethical and moral obligation that we look out for one another.”

Obama used some traditional Christian language on this call saying that some people are bearing “false witness” and referring to biblical teachings about being “my brother’s keeper and my sister’s keeper.”

In addition to this call, the president held a conference call with one thousand rabbis from across the theological spectrum, urging them to make a case for health care reform in upcoming holiday sermons. Participants reported that the president recited one of the main prayers of the Jewish New Year on the call, and connected the reflection that traditionally takes place during the Jewish New Year with the kind of taking stock needed around health care. A White House spokesman cited the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam—the commitment to repairing the world—connecting it to the moral imperative for health care reform.

President Obama’s efforts to frame health care as a moral issue and to work with religious progressive are in marked contrast his predecessor’s work with religious conservatives. Such efforts are remarkably public, according to political scientist John Green (who explains that most of this sort of work is usually done “below the radar”) and shows progressive religious groups working together at a pace not seen since the 2004 elections.

Whether these efforts (which also include a television ad) were part of the rally for health care that began in New York’s Times Square shortly after Senator Kennedy’s funeral, or if they will help President Obama pass a set of reforms, remains to be seen. Their underlying political strategy—to connect moral arguments for health care reform to the core beliefs of many religious traditions—is clear, as was Senator Kennedy’s work, outlined in his letter to the Pope: “to develop an overall national health policy that guarantees health care for everyone.”

Religious progressives are helping make this connection in record numbers, potentially signaling new possibilities for religion in the Obama White House.