"PEOPLE OF FAITH" AND HEALTH-CARE REFORM.

Yesterday, Faith in Public Life -- a leading a coalition of 22 religious groups -- hosted a conference call for "people of faith" and the White House on health-care reform. The message? "People of faith" think we have a moral obligation to provide quality, affordable health care to all our citizens and want Congress to pass a reform bill -- any bill, apparently.

The 40-minute call, filled with platitudes about religion and ambiguities on policy, demonstrated just how much a political organizing effort based vaguely on what "people of faith" think falls short. First, while the moral obligation argument is obvious, it's not so obvious that making that argument to members of Congress would help produce the best bill for consumers. Granted, many of the religious groups who are co-sponsoring this ongoing health-reform mobilization effort have neither the staffs nor the resources to follow the nitty-gritty of Gang of Six negotiations on cost-containment, mandates, co-ops, subsidies, and exchanges. But broad stroke statements about what sort of reform would create the coverage to fulfill that moral obligation would certainly give them a great deal more credibility.

To their credit, the call organizers are striving to counter the lies and distortions of the far-right, which is aided and abetted by the religious right's anti-reform campaign, Stop the Abortion Mandate. They have a threefold aim: to debunk the perception that all "people of faith" fall in line with the religious right on what their faith calls them to do, to foster a more civil debate, and to debunk scare tactics about socialism, death panels, and abortion.

This is useful, as far as it goes. But the coalition does not take a position on, say, the public option, or reproductive health coverage, issues that could make or break the effectiveness of reform. (For the argument on the reproductive health coverage, see Dana's excellent piece.) The non-position was obviously by design in an effort to broaden the coalition. But it weakened the message.

Obama's domestic policy adviser, Melody Barnes, took questions that were submitted from "people of faith," including questions from a Catholic caller who wanted to know about "government-funding of abortions." She asked, "Can you assure us that we can support health-care reform without sacrificing our values?" (Wasn't the whole point of the call that health-care reform is an essential reflection of the values of "people of faith?") Barnes gave the familiar Obama administration answer -- which is to say, she did not further illuminate the issue. She reiterated his support for the "longstanding policy" that federal funds not be used for abortion coverage and added that any reform "is not intended to reduce insurance coverage Americans already have."

The call seemed designed to support but not question the president, which deeply disappointed some religious folks -- showing, again, the uselessness of speaking broadly about what "people of faith" want. The Rev. Jim Moss, a Presbyterian minister I know in South Carolina, was updating his Facebook status during the call. He expressed disappointment at the failure of Sojourners' Jim Wallis, who spoke on the call, to question the White House's abandonment of single-payer and waffling on the public option. After Obama spoke -- and didn't take any questions -- Moss wrote, "What? Obama didn't answer any questions on the Faith for Health online chat. And he didn't say anything he hadn't already said a thousand times. That was kind of a waste of time."

--Sarah Posner

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