October 8, 2009

Religious Groups Weigh In on Health Care Reform

As the political battles over health care reform intensify, religious organizations are forcefully adding their voices to the debate. They have launched media campaigns both for and against the proposals under consideration by the U.S. Congress, appealing to millions of Americans through national radio and television ads, Internet webcasts, conference calls, petitions, prayer vigils and sermons on health care.

Two large coalitions of religious groups have staked out opposing positions on the issue: the Faith for Health campaign strongly backs the current drive to revamp health care, while the Freedom Federation strongly opposes what it calls “the federalization of the health care industry.”

Both coalitions reflect political alliances that emerged in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, with Faith for Health uniting self-described progressive groups and the Freedom Federation uniting self-described conservatives.

Both coalitions also appear to have natural political constituencies. A September 2009 Pew Research Center poll found 42% of Americans saying they favor the health care proposals being debated in Congress, compared with 44% who oppose the proposals and 14% who express no opinion on this issue. Analysis of the poll reveals that Americans’ views on the health care debate are driven primarily by their political ideology and partisanship, not by their religious affiliation. Most Republicans and people who lean Republican oppose health care reform. By contrast, Democrats and Democratic leaners tend to favor health care reform. Among religious groups, fewer than one-in-five white evangelical Protestants (18%) – who are largely conservative and identify with or lean toward the Republican Party – favor the bills before Congress to overhaul the health care system, while support jumps to more than half of the religiously unaffiliated (54%), most of whom identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party.

Earlier Pew Research Center polling found that most Americans support the idea of extending health insurance to every citizen. In a March 2009 survey, before the debate on health care reform heated up, six-in-10 Americans (61%) – including 48% of white evangelicals, 55% of Catholics, 56% of mainline Protestants and fully three-quarters of the religiously unaffiliated (72%) – said they favored a government guarantee of health insurance for all citizens, even if it would mean raising taxes.

Religious organizations appear to be more active in the current debate than they were in September 1993, during then-President Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful effort to overhaul health care in the U.S. At that time, Clinton met with some religious leaders to seek their support for health care reform, and a few religious groups issued public statements of support or opposition. Some conservative Christian organizations also launched a newspaper ad campaign opposing government intervention in people’s choice of health care insurance plans and end-of-life decisions as well as government funding for abortions. But the actions of two large coalitions this year are more visible than those of religious groups during the 1993 debate.

Faith for Health

The Faith for Health campaign – a coalition of more than 30 organizations representing mainline and evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews – strongly backs health care reform and has given President Obama an opportunity to speak directly to grassroots supporters, most notably in an Aug. 19 conference call that the coalition estimates had 140,000 listeners.

Members of Faith for Health

  • African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME)
  • Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good
  • Catholics United
  • Christian Community Development Association
  • Disciples Center for Public Witness
  • Disciples Justice Action Network
  • The Episcopal Church
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
  • Faithful America
  • Faithful Reform in Health Care
  • Faith in Public Life
  • Gamaliel Foundation
  • Islamic Medical Association of North America
  • Islamic Society of North America
  • Jewish Council for Public Affairs
  • Jewish Women International
  • Latino Leadership Circle
  • National Baptist Convention, USA
  • National Council of Jewish Women
  • National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA
  • NETWORK – A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby
  • The New Evangelicals
  • PICO National Network
  • Presbyterian Church (USA), Washington Office
  • Progressive National Baptist Convention
  • Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
  • Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference
  • Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
  • Sojourners
  • Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations
  • United Church of Christ
  • The United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society
  • The United Methodist Church, Global Ministries, Women’s Division, Washington Office

The coalition’s members include religious denominations and faith-based organizations that work on a wide range of public policy issues as well as others that focus solely on health care. Two of the groups in the coalition are led by members of Obama’s White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships: Jim Wallis of Sojourners and David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Through the Faith for Health website, supporters can sign up to work for reform by contacting members of Congress, attending events and signing a petition. They also can download guides for clergy and congregations, tailored to suit various faith traditions. “The faith community has a vital role to play in reminding our elected officials that health care is not just about dollars and cents, but is a profound moral issue of life and death … It is incumbent on the faith community to make sure that people are not scared by interest groups into thinking that health-care reform means they will lose their current health insurance, be denied the ability to see their own doctor, or have to wait for care,” the guides state.

Among the leaders of the Faith for Health campaign are the PICO National Network, a network of faith-based community organizations and religious congregations; Sojourners, a group that focuses on public policy to fight poverty; Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a nonprofit organization that provides information about public policy issues; Faith in Public Life, a public policy strategy center for the progressive faith community; and Faithful America, an online communications center maintained by Faith in Public Life.

While the coalition is united in general support for reforming the health care system, its member organizations emphasize a number of different objectives and back varying specific proposals. Some of them, such as Sojourners and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, favor a continuation of current federal laws prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is endangered. Some groups also favor so-called “conscience protections” that allow medical personnel to decline to perform abortions.

Other coalition members, such as PICO National Network and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have emphasized the need for legislation to make health care and insurance more affordable. The public policy arms of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church have advocated for a so-called “single payer” health plan, a universal health care system operated by the government. That option is not included in the current proposals before Congress.

Another member of the coalition, Faithful Reform in Health Care, is itself an interfaith coalition of about 50 national and state organizations. Based in Cleveland, Ohio, the group calls for a complete overhaul of the U.S. health care system to provide inclusive, accessible and affordable health care. Its members include American Muslim Health Professionals and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

Faith for Health and its member organizations have undertaken several grassroots campaigns that have attracted national media attention. In August, its leaders launched “40 Days for Health Reform” to promote proposed health care legislation and to offset opposition to it among religious conservatives. Clergy members led 50 prayer vigils and meetings in 18 states with members of Congress. The campaign bought cable television and radio ads (titled “People of Faith for Health Reform”) that reportedly generated thousands of emails, phone calls and letters to Congress.

On Aug. 19, the coalition sponsored a conference call in which Obama urged Americans to work for health care reform; the coalition says that 140,000 “people of faith” participated in the conference call and that the broadcast has been listened to more than 300,000 times. The United Church of Christ, a Faith for Health member, launched a campaign on Sept. 8 to send 100,000 messages to Congress in support of health care reform. On Sept. 15, the climax of the “40 Days for Health Reform” reportedly generated 20,000 calls to Congress, and the following day, 100 members of Congress received visits from supporters attending an “Affordable Health Care is a Family Value” rally in Washington.

Freedom Federation

The Freedom Federation – a consortium formed on June 30 by about 35 groups, including two dozen Christian organizations – opposes the current proposals to revamp the U.S. health care system. Originally formed to address a variety of public policy issues, the federation has recently focused on health care legislation. Its motto is “Real Hope. Real Change. Real Freedom.”

Members of the Freedom Federation*

  • American Association of Christian Counselors
  • American Family Association
  • Americans for Prosperity
  • American Values
  • Bott Radio Network
  • Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny (BOND)
  • TheCall
  • Catholic Online
  • Church of God in Christ
  • Concerned Women for America
  • Conservative Action Project
  • Eagle Forum
  • Exodus International
  • Extraordinary Women
  • Family Research Council Action
  • Generals International
  • Harvest International Ministry
  • High Impact Leadership Coalition
  • Liberty Alliance Action
  • Liberty Counsel
  • Liberty University
  • Life Education and Resource Network (LEARN)
  • MorningStar Ministries
  • National Clergy Council
  • National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference
  • The Oak Initiative
  • Renewing American Leadership
  • Strang Communications
  • Teen Mania Ministries
  • TeenPact Leadership Schools
  • Traditional Values Coalition
  • Vision America
  • WallBuilders

*Note: The Freedom Federation’s statement on health care also has been endorsed by groups that are not officially members of the federation. Those groups are not included on this list. In addition, some organizations that belong to the Freedom Federation may not endorse the coalition’s statement on health care.

In a “Declaration of American Values” on its website, the federation proclaims values supporting: the sanctity of human life; traditional marriage, defined as a union between one man and one woman; parents’ right to guide their children’s education; the free exercise of religion; laws against obscenity; the protection of property rights and gun rights; a federal system of checks and balances and states’ rights; a strong national military; non-progressive taxation; and limited government.  The federation’s website allows supporters to sign the “Declaration of American Values” and also offers news updates and tracking polls on Obama’s job approval rating and certain policy issues.

When it comes to health care, the federation says, “It is time to start over with a truly nonpartisan approach” to reform. “We believe social justice includes health care reform that lowers the cost, increases quality, and expands choice at the greatest convenience, without moving private health decisions from the doctor’s office to Washington bureaucrats,” the coalition says in a Sept. 10 statement. “Individual liberties trump government-imposed obligations. We believe that individuals, communities, and doctors in the free market make better health decisions than government mandates. We believe in incentives, not coercion.”

While the coalition is generally united in opposition to current efforts to reform health care, its member groups and denominations have emphasized disagreements with varying aspects of the proposed legislation, including the potential for taxpayer-funded abortions, government control of health and end-of-life decisions and a lack of conscience-rights protections for health care providers. Some of the federation members are particularly concerned about the abortion issue and want health care reform legislation to include explicit language stating that abortion cannot be paid for with government money.

The Freedom Federation and some of its member organizations have launched a host of advocacy efforts against the current health care reform legislation. For example, Family Research Council Action in July unveiled a $500,000 national radio, television and Internet ad campaign titled “Government Takeover: The Moral, Ethical and Financial Dangers of the President’s Health Reform Plan” during a one-hour webcast that the group says was watched by an estimated 76,000 people. The ads ran for two weeks in five states, according to Family Research Council Action.

On Sept. 9, Richard Land, a radio talk show host and head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), met with other radio hosts to deliver to Congress more than 1.3 million signatures gathered on a petition opposing what Land described as a “government takeover of a major portion of American health care.” Although ERLC is not officially a member of the Freedom Federation, Land signed the coalition’s Sept. 10 statement calling for a new approach to health care reform.

Also on Sept. 10, according to FRC Action, 60,000 people listened to a national townhall webcast in reaction to President Obama’s address to Congress the previous evening. On the same day, Concerned Women for America, one of the nation’s most prominent anti-abortion groups, launched a “Void the Abortion Mandate” virtual rally and grassroots campaign encouraging the use of social networking sites to urge the public and Congress to oppose proposed health care legislation.

Among the federation’s members is the Church of God in Christ, a traditionally African-American Pentecostal denomination whose presiding bishop, Charles E. Blake Sr., belongs to Obama’s White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. On Sept. 24, Blake clarified the denomination’s stance, saying it supports Obama’s effort to provide health insurance for all Americans and accepts the president’s assurances that health care reforms would not include government funding for medical costs related to abortion.

Other Religious Groups

In addition to the Faith for Health and Freedom Federation coalitions, individual religious groups have been speaking out on health care. Prominent among them are Catholic leaders, who in the past have generally supported universal health care and reform efforts.

While many Catholic groups remain committed to overall reforms, this year about a dozen priests and bishops have written Internet blog posts, newspaper columns or letters to President Obama and Congress expressing opposition to specific versions of the health care legislation and expressing concern that such reforms could lead to government funding of abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research. Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., and Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., for example, issued a statement opposing “government socialization of medical services.” In response, a group of about 40 Catholic scholars and leaders, including the president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, signed a letter saying they are “deeply concerned that these statements embolden opponents of reform and distort Church teaching about the essential role government has in serving the common good.”

Meanwhile, Americans United for Life Action, an anti-abortion group, met in mid-September with White House officials, including Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The group delivered a petition with more than 39,000 signatures urging the president to veto any bill that does not explicitly outlaw federal funding for abortion.

While some religious groups want restrictions on abortion, other groups are insisting that reproductive medical services – including access to sex education, contraception and abortion – be part of a national health care plan. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an interfaith advocacy organization of about 40 groups and denominations, has launched a campaign urging Congress to adopt health care reform legislation that includes access to abortion and other reproductive health services. Members of Concerned Clergy for Choice, a network of more than 1,000 religious leaders from various denominations that is a project of The Education Fund of Family Planning Advocates of New York State, have preached to congregations and written letters to New York newspaper editors insisting that access to reproductive health services is essential to health care reform.

On Sept. 15, the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT), a coalition of national Islamic organizations, hosted a Capitol Hill meeting to encourage Muslim support for health care reform. Another group, the Jewish advocacy organization B’nai B’rith International, has issued a critique of a major Senate proposal for health care reform, saying it lacks a so-called “public option” – a government insurance plan to compete with private insurance plans – and would not do enough to make insurance and health care affordable, especially for older Americans. Also, the Interfaith Alliance, an organization that promotes separation of church and state, sent letters of opposition on Sept. 23 to senators who have proposed legislative amendments that would fund abstinence-only sex education and establish conscience protections for medical workers.

This report was written by Anne Farris Rosen and Scott Clement, Research Analyst, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Photo Credit: Health care town hall meeting: Steve Helber, The Associated Press