Faith and Community Groups Organize to Promote Health-Care Reform

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 25, 2009

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 by speaking out for universal health care.

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

The efforts have been coordinated closely with the Obama administration. A group of faith leaders met with President 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. It originally grew out of frustration that conservative Christian groups were dominating the national faith conversation on social issues. The coalition is speaking out on such issues as 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.

"The Bible does not outline specific public policies around the provision of health care, but it does make clear that protecting the health of each human being is a profoundly important personal and communal responsibility for people of faith," says the brochure, "A Guide to the Health Care Reform Debate." "Physical healing was a part of the salvation Jesus brought. . . . Healings represent a sign of the breaking of God's reign into the present reality."

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

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