Religious coalitions find unity in care overhaul

SUNDAY, JULY 26, 2009, 1 A.M.

WASHINGTON – Several large coalitions are mobilizing religious communities nationwide in support of overhauling the nation’s health care system.

In recent weeks, hundreds of clergy members and lay leaders have descended on the offices of members of Congress, urging lawmakers to enact health care legislation this year. With face-to-face lobbying, sermons, prayer and advertising on Christian radio stations, the coalitions are pressing the idea that health care for everyone is a fundamental moral issue.

But organizing groups with disparate religious beliefs around a single goal has been challenging. The coalitions have had to tiptoe around sensitive issues, such as whether to support a government-run health insurance option and whether government-subsidized plans should pay for abortions. They have also had to deal with some clergy members’ fears of offending their congregations.

“It’s a pretty radical step for this congregation to get involved in the public arena,” said the Rev. Jennifer Thomas, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, a largely middle-class congregation in Kansas City, Mo., and a leader in one collection of grass-roots community and national religious groups. “A few members wonder how much the church should be involved.”

A group of faith leaders met with President Barack Obama in April, and administration officials took part last month in a rally at Freedom Plaza with representatives of more than 40 denominations and faith groups in support of comprehensive health coverage.

Showing up at the rally were Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and Neera Tanden, senior adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Your united voice is critical,” Tanden told the gathering. “We are, in the next two months, at the most critical time of trying to get (health care) legislation passed.”

One coalition of mostly liberal and centrist religious groups was organized by Sojourners, an evangelical group; Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good; Faith in Public Life, a Washington think tank; and PICO National Network, an alliance of 1,000 U.S. congregations. Developed out of frustration that conservative Christian groups were dominating the national faith conversation on social issues, the coalition is speaking out on health care reform and comprehensive immigration reform.

“We don’t want to create a culture war. We want to dismantle it. We want to put faith, and not politics, first,” said the Rev. Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life.

In a guide for leaders and members of participating congregations, the coalition uses biblical teachings to make the case that the nation’s health care system is in urgent need of repair, saying “The Bible … (makes) clear that protecting the health of each human being is a profoundly important personal and communal responsibility for people of faith.”

Conservative Christian groups say the coalitions are using the common language of faith to disguise unpopular ideas.

“I don’t think they speak for the vast majority of Americans,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who has debated the Rev. Jim Wallis, executive director of Sojourners, several times on the health care issue. “They are playing on the sympathies and passions of most Christians.”

Another large pro-reform alliance, Faithful Reform in Health Care, made up of 40 religious organizations, has called for worshippers to “pray for those who are left out of our health care system – and for those with the power to enact change.” The group is holding candlelight vigils at state legislative buildings and recently sent letters to all members of Congress laying out what its executive director, the Rev. Linda Hanna Walling, calls a “faith-inspired vision of health care.” Members also plan to visit lawmakers during Congress’ August recess.

The coalition that includes PICO has tried to identify members of Congress who can be persuaded to support health care legislation. Pastors in seven states recorded radio ads promoting reform efforts that aired over the Memorial Day and Fourth of July recesses.

The message, said PICO spokesman Gordon Whitman, is this: “Religious voters support health care reform, and you can’t take them for granted. We’re not going to allow people who stand up for health reform to be attacked on religious grounds. If you are in a district or state that is culturally conservative, there is support for health reform.”

In August, paid organizers will meet with pastors to help them organize their congregations, develop talking points for meetings with members of Congress and coordinate with other groups and individuals – religious and secular.

To hold together their diverse memberships, Sojourners, Faith in Public Life, Catholics in Alliance and PICO are supporting the “status quo” on abortion – neither requiring nor banning insurers from covering the procedure as long as federal funds are not used.

“We try to stay away from broad ideological fights,” Whitman said, “and stay where there is common ground.”

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