What, I wondered, is a Christian minister doing on CNN pitching the president's health-care plan? Last week the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, a Christian social-justice outfit, made a seven-minute appearance on Lou Dobbs's show. Facing off against Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council, Wallis made a disclaimer. Health care for everyone is a fundamental moral issue, he said, but "the community of faith should never be involved in the weeds." And then he dove, headlong, into the weeds. If you didn't know Wallis was a cleric, you would have thought two veteran partisans were debating a hotly contested culture-war issue. Perkins accused the Obama administration of presenting a "one-size-fits-all health-care program." Wallis responded on message: "This proposal is about people having choice." Though he sought the moral high ground, Wallis was not able—this time, at least—to claim it.
Since the beginning of the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama has been unusually skilled—for a Democrat—at rallying the faithful to his side. Thirty percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 voted for Obama, compared with 16 percent for John Kerry in the previous election, a testament to the care his religious-outreach team took wooing and winning them and the pastors who preach to them. Less than a month after his inauguration, Obama announced the formation of his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Two dozen prominent (progressive and conservative) clerics and laypeople who are, broadly speaking, engaged in questions of the nation's values—Wallis among them—serve as advisers.
In frequent conference calls, the administration informs faith-based leaders of its policy initiatives; participants make suggestions and offer advice. In separate calls, the religious leaders then convey the administration's priorities to their constituencies—though not always, Wallis reminds me in a phone conversation, their agreement. Wallis has his own regular conference call, which, he says proudly, has the potential to reach a hundred million people. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, a Methodist megapastor in Kansas who is on that call, preached earlier this month on health-care reform. "I think this issue matters to God and to us," he said, "and I don't know what the solution is ... The Scripture keeps telling us to stand up for people who can't stand up for themselves."
There is nothing illegal or unethical in this exchange of ideas. It's smart politics, and in Washington, progressive religious groups are euphoric that after 30 years in the wilderness, sitting mutely as the religious right dominated the faith conversation, they finally have a seat at the table. Clerics have always engaged in politics (think of Martin Luther King Jr.), and politicians have always looked to church communities for support—both in elections and on issues (such as the religious right's historic drum-beating on abortion rhetoric). "Administrations, Democratic and Republican, have tended over the years to say, 'Our policies are good and they're consistent with your religious viewpoint. We hope you'll agree and go do things.' That's part of the interplay of politics and religion that's been with us for a long time," explains Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. All of America's great social movements, from abolition to suffrage to civil rights, have been driven largely by pastors as a matter of conscience.
But as religious leaders increasingly engage in the health-care conversation—and they will—two aspects of this new faith-and-politics marriage are worrisome. The first is that proximity to power can be corrupting. This is the theme of Blinded by Might, the 1999 book Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson wrote about their years with Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. More recently the George W. Bush administration was frequently accused of shrouding political fights in religious rhetoric—and of manipulating its conservative Christian base to further its own political ends. There is no reason why the left should be immune to this same temptation. "The word for that is 'idolatry,' " says former Missouri senator Jack Danforth, whose 2006 book Faith and Politics: How the 'Moral Values' Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together is a polite excoriation of the culture wars. "It's when you make God in your image rather than the other way around. It's the thing we all have to guard against."
The second is whether health-care reform is the really the perfect vehicle for a full-scale social-justice campaign—since "right" answers are so obscure. "Particularly on the issue of health care, and legislation of health care, and how it's paid for, and what the consequences are, and future generations—it's just so complex," says Danforth. "Some issues are clearer than others. If you're speaking out against genocide, that's a much clearer case. As I see it, there's only one possible position for people of faith to take. When it comes to economic policy and health-care policy, where there are numerous people with numerous ideas, it's very hard to say, 'This is the religious position.' " In light of these complexities, Danforth urges clerics to speak out for what they believe in but to do so with an appropriate measure of humility and not to claim to be speaking for God.
Wallis would agree with this. He believes that health care for all is "a fundamental moral issue," and he is committed to doing whatever he can to see that the nearly 50 million uninsured Americans receive coverage. Christians, he reminds me, have been concerned about the health of the poor and the sick since the time of Jesus. And while he understands that his warm relations with the White House give him a certain influence, he also demonstrates the requisite humility. "I have said very directly to members of the Obama team, all of this will be tested not by access but by results. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter who has the ear of the president or gets their calls returned. If 30,000 kids are still dying of preventable disease and stupid poverty in four years, our having a close relationship with this administration won't matter much." Fighting for justice as an insider, he says, is different than fighting as an outsider; but he's still determined to fight.
Look for more visible efforts by progressive religious groups on behalf of health-care reform in the coming weeks. Over the Memorial Day recess, a coalition of faith-based groups—including Wallis's Sojourners, the Washington-based Faith in Public Life, and others—ran radio ads in six states where "we feel there are members of Congress and senators that will be moved by a faith message," explains Katie Paris, spokeswoman for Faith in Public Life. "Or states that have a highly religious population. These are going to make the difference on health care reform." In each spot, a local pastor proclaims that "God desires abundant life for all people" and then pleads, "Please contact your members of Congress." New ads have been written to run over the Fourth of July recess, pending funding. This same coalition is also sponsoring forums at churches to talk about health care. Wallis and other prominent clergy are meeting in Washington after the Fourth to strategize about health-care reform. In those conversations, I'd guess agreement on the need to care for the sick and marginalized will be universal. More difficult is how to raise questions having to do with income taxes, insurance companies, and doctors' compensation to the high ground, where the moral perspective is perfectly clear.