Can the Religious Left deliver exactly the kind of health care reform that the Religious Right has been trying to derail?
The matchup has so far been a lopsided victory for conservatives, who have a lot more practice at thwarting legislation with apocalyptic messaging and impressive grass-roots operations.
But as part of the White House's gambit to change that dynamic in the crucial coming weeks, President Obama on Wednesday afternoon joined a coalition of moderate-to-liberal religious leaders for a call-in rally aimed at recasting the debate in moral terms -- that is, a biblical morality of caring for the elderly and infirm and for would-be mothers. So far, of course, the moral debate has focused almost exclusively on fictitious "death panels" and federally funded abortions.
In his brief remarks, Obama answered his adversaries in overtly biblical language: He accused those who have been talking up "death panels" and rumors of taxpayer-funded abortions and government health care for illegal immigrants of "bearing false witness." He called such talk "ludicrous," and "an extraordinary lie" that was in fact undermining the nation's character.
"These are all fabrications that have been put out there in order to discourage people from meeting what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation: that is that we look out for one another, that I am my brother's keeper, that I am my sister's keeper," Obama said. "And in the wealthiest nation on earth we are neglecting to live up to that call."
"One thing you all share is a moral conviction," Obama told his listeners. "You know that this debate on health care goes to the heart of who we are as a people."
The president was speaking on a late afternoon call sponsored by a coalition of more than two dozen religious groups of all faiths that are launching a "40 Days for Health Reform" campaign -- 40 being a number that recalls not only Bible stories of the Israelites wandering in the desert and Jesus' period of fasting, but also the likely political window that Obama has to seal the deal on a reform plan.
Obama was clearly ramping up his rhetoric in an effort to counter the strident attacks. He punctuated each claim from opponents -- about insuring illegal aliens, a government takeover of health care, taxpayer funding of abortion, and so-called "death panels" -- with a firm rejoinder: "Not true."
The liberal evangelical leader and longtime Obama backer, Jim Wallis, opened the call-in with a vow that over the next 40 days "the nation will hear a steady moral drumbeat from the faith community about God's desire for the health and healing of our nation" and for "truth-telling" in the debate. Wallis said believers "are in danger of losing the moral core" of the health care debate.
But Obama and Melody Barnes, his chief domestic adviser, who also addressed the gathering, were also careful to couch their prophetic language in pragmatic terms. They spoke about reining in health care costs as making good health care affordable without increasing the deficit. "I would say health care is at the crux of being a faithful steward of our resources," said Barnes, niftily combining God talk and widespread concerns about the program's eventual price tag.
Barnes assured one listener, a nurse at a Catholic parish in Pennsylvania, that no health care package would fund abortion and said it would include the "robust" conscience protections for believers that Obama has promised; these are two of the points that many religious groups have said would be deal-breakers.
In response to another question about making health care affordable for the nation and for individuals, Barnes again covered the White House retreat on the so-called "public option" portion of the reform, saying that in contrast to recent reports, the president does strongly support it as a way to contain costs.
Can Obama turn things around by turning health care reform into a moral crusade? During the campaign, he did not necessarily win over white evangelicals, but he talked the talk enough to blunt many of their concerns, and since his election Obama has continued to use the bully pulpit to cast his policies in a moral and ethical framework.
On his signature initiative, however, Obama was slow to make that moral case, and that has hurt him.
On Wednesday, Wallis argued that the call-in for the faithful shows just "how united the faith community is" behind Obama's goal, but the facts say otherwise. Religious Right organizations have campaigned vigorously against the plans, using a two-pronged attack, one moral and one practical.
A controversial television ad from the Family Research Council, for example, claims that health care reform would promote abortion and deny care to the needy, and would also represent a "government takeover." And an analysis by the public policy arm of the influential Southern Baptist Convention warned that whatever the details, "what we can say with absolute certainty is that this legislation will lead to diminished health care for most Americans, less choice, higher taxes, and unprecedented government intrusion into every level and aspect of society, from business to education to marriage to individual liberty."
In principle, almost all religious traditions back universal health care as a moral imperative or even a basic human right. Abigail Rian Evans, a theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of "Redeeming Marketplace Medicine: A Theology of Health Care," said that there are three general points of agreement: inclusive coverage, no exclusions for preexisting conditions, and portability. But, she added, religious leaders have not been able to hold a left-right coalition together around those principles, in large part because political considerations have taken precedence over religious concerns.
The ultimate irony of the health care debate is that an issue that should be the biggest moral no-brainer since the civil rights movement has become as religiously polarizing as abortion.
Catholic leaders -- who represent a huge flock and have a longstanding commitment to universal health care -- could be driving the issue, but they are deeply divided among themselves over worries about abortion and euthanasia, and by political sympathies and antipathies for Obama.
And the conservative Protestants most in need of better health care tend to be most skeptical of government-backed reform. Statistics show that across the Bible Belt -- the final redoubt of Republican strength -- people have the poorest health care and score the lowest in terms of physical well-being. Moreover, the numbers of uninsured continue to stay especially high in the South among Hispanics and young adults -- those last two groups representing blocs that Republicans not only lost badly last November but need to win in the future to move from political vulnerability to viability.
From that view, backing health care reform could be just the cure for an ailing GOP -- if opposing health care reform weren't making them feel so good today.
Given that reality, the key to Obama's success will be turning health care reform into a biblical imperative by making Bible believers see themselves as the marginalized and down-trodden that the Scriptures are talking about, rather than calling for acts of charity on behalf of others.
Obama seemed to be trying to thread that needle on Wednesday, and Democratic operatives say he'll continue to push health care reform as a grand American cause that makes us feel good while also making us feel better.