Faith Groups to Help Obama on Health Care

5196009Having let his push for comprehensive health care refom become bogged down by confusion over the details of his plan, President Obama this month is turning to the religious community to rally support for the fundamental idea of expanding health care accessibility.

As part of a major new initiative from the faith community, Mr. Obama on Aug. 19 will participate in a call-in and audio Webcast with at least 25 faith leaders -- from evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other religious traditions -- to aggressively encourage their congregations to support health care reform.

"Every so often there is an issue that is so clear and compelling, or so alarming and disconcerting, that it really does galvanize the faith community," said Reverend Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, one of the groups sponsoring the new initiative. "Inclusive, accessible, affordable health care for all of God's children is for us a moral issue."

As the health care debate turns more hostile, dozens of religious organizations are joining in an effort to emphasize the moral argument for reform. Their 40-day campaign kicks off today with the launch of an advertisement on national cable networks featuring local evangelical, Catholic, and mainline pastors and people of faith with the message that "millions of people of faith are supporting health care reform."

On Tuesday, faith leaders will hold 50 prayer vigils and rallies in 45 cities in 18 strategically chosen states to communicate to members of Congress that health care reform is a priority for the religious community. More than 14,000 people are expected to participate, organizers said in a conference call today.

Additionally, various congregations have committed to generating 55,000 phone calls and e-mails on the issue to their congressmen over the next 45 days, and faith leaders will converge in Washington on Sept. 15 to directly lobby Congress.

Along with Sojourners, the "40 Days for Health Reform" campaign is being sponsored by the groups PICO National Network, Faith in Public Life, Faithful America and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

"The concept of universal, accessible health care resonates deeply with our common values," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. "We see the people who've lost their jobs and health insurance... the people who are left out of what is one of the most remarkable health care systems in the world. They are included in the people we see every Sabbath."

"We cannot sit idly by while we have a system that just doesn't work for everyone," he added.

The sites of Tuesday's rallies are listed on the campaign's Web site and include cities in Florida, Colorado, Missouri and Louisiana. The event organizers said they are targeting areas with moderate Democrats and areas where religion is of special significance.

"One of the reasons Colorado is a key state is Senators Bennet and Udall are both new to the Senate," said Karen Timmons, a PICO lay leader from the Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver. "They are supportive of health care reform in general but still have expressed some hesitation, and we want to drive the message home that people here, in Colorado particularly, in the faith community are strongly supportive of health care reform."

The campaign, however, is not intended to be partisan.

"The people who are falling through the cracks are as likely to be Republican as they are Democrat," Saperstein said. "We come to this precisely because it is a human rights issue that supercedes any ideology."

Wallis railed against the distortions and hostility that have come to dominate much of the health care debate.

Health care, he said, is "not something we can allow to be demagogued in the street. There are people who want to shut down democracy, and we can't let that happen."

Wallis said it was "really irresponsible to be stoking those kinds of fears" that are prompted by lies about euthanasia in the health reform bill.

With respect to the explosive issue of abortion, he said both sides of the debate should agree to an "abortion-neutral" health care bill.

"Abortion shouldn't be paid for by public funds," he said, adding that, "It can't be prohibited by private insurance because it's legal."

"We can help shape a bill where abortion doesn't become an issue that scuttles health reform," Wallis said.

The details of any reform effort will be left up to policymakers, Wallis said, but the bottom line for the religious community is that coverage must be expanded.

"What's not acceptable is to end this process and still have 47 million of God's children uncovered," he said.

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