President Barack Obama attempted in a September 10 television appearance to recover lost ground in the debate over his proposed health care reform. In a 46-minute speech to Congress, Obama insisted that he was determined to proceed. â€œI am not the first president to take up this cause,â€ he said, â€œbut I am determined to be the last.â€ He said that many Americans who have health care coverage find when they get sick that their insurance companies exclude them from benefits. He said that the American health care system is the most expensive in the industrialized world but that it leaves 47 million people without insurance. He said that he will see to it that every American will have health insurance. Anyone who is now covered will be free to keep their existing insurance but if they do not have it, they will have to get it.
Obama said that he will not pursue a single payer system similar to that in Canada because he that would be too dramatic a change for Americans to absorb. He did leave open the possibility of having the government provide some coverage, as one among a variety of insurers. This option, in reality, seems increasingly remote given the Big Brother hysteria being generated by the Republicans and vested interests. Obama also promised to make it illegal for insurance companies to drop people from coverage when they become ill, often on the premise that they had a â€œpre-existingâ€ medical condition. He said his plan will cost $900 billion over 10 years, less than it would cost to maintain the status quo, less than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and less than the Bush administration spent on tax reductions to wealthy Americans in its first term of office.
Canadians are spectators in the American health care debate but we have found a small niche. On July 27, I reported on Pulpit and Politics that some major religious organizations in the U.S. were opposing the president on health care reform. I focused upon the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals and the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention. All are prepared to oppose broadly based health care reform based on fears that the plan may provide money for therapeutic abortions.
In my July 27 posting, I contrasted this behaviour by mainstream American religious groups to the role that Canadian churches have played in this country — including their support for public health care. Two weeks later, on August 10, Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton, general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC), wrote a polite letter to two of the three American religious organizations that I had cited. She also sent the letter to National Council of Churches USA. Rev. Hamiltonâ€™s comments to her various American coreligionists were polite but pointed. â€œWe have no wish to advocate specific positions on the various public policy options being proposed by politicians in your country,â€ she wrote. She did make it clear, however, that the CCC believes the principles embedded in public health care are good theology. â€œMedicare can be the Good Samaritan parable writ large,â€ she said in her letter.
I was curious to know what happened after she sent the letter, so I sent an
e-mail query to Rev. Hamilton. She replied, saying that the CCC letter has generated significant interest. â€œI heard from the General Secretary of the NCC that they were glad indeed that we had sent the letter. There has been much enthusiasm here in Canada for the fact it was sent â€“ a sense of thankfulness, I think, that we have experience we can share. Also a sense of how well done our work on health care is in Canada.â€
Christianity Today, a Canadian church-based newspaper, carried a brief story regarding the CCCâ€™s letter. The Winnipeg Free Press reported that Rev. Hamilton believes her letter led to an invitation to listen in on a conference call involving President Obama and representatives from a variety of American faith groups on August 19. An estimated 140,000 people were on the call and web cast organized by a supportive faith coalition.
The Washington Post also carried a story. The Postâ€™s religion writer Davie Waters made the connection between popular American actor Kiefer Sutherland and his grandfather Tommy Douglas â€“ whose CCF government pioneered medicare in the province of Saskatchewan. Waters provided an update on where major American churches stood on health care reform as of August 29. Referring to a story in the New York Times, he wrote that a â€œgrowing number of Catholic bishopsâ€ are speaking out against some details in Obama’s plan, despite the fact the bishops have been lobbying for decades for the federal government to provide universal health insurance. The New York Times quoted Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, Iowa, as saying in a recent pastoral letter that: “The Church will not accept any legislation that mandates coverage, public or private, for abortion, euthanasia, or embryonic stem-cell research . . . No health care reform is better than the wrong sort of health care reform.”
Waters reported that the National Association of Evangelicals released an August 19 opposing Obamaâ€™s plan on the basis concerns over abortion funding. But Waters the NAE statement was equally concerned about government involvement: “We also call on the President and members of Congress,â€ the NAE said in its statement, â€œto establish health care provisions that will maximize the creativity of the private sector while minimizing governmental control.”
The National Council of Churches, Waters wrote, â€œdoesn’t seem to be sweating the details at all.â€Â In an August 14 letter the NCC urged its members to support health-care reform, without mentioning the legislative details.
It will be instructive to see how these organizations respond to Obamaâ€™s September 10 address. He promised that state funds would not be used to pay for abortions under a reformed health plan. He wants to keep a public insurance option on the table, but says it would likely not apply to more than five to 10 per cent of the population â€“ hardly the â€œgovernment takeoverâ€ of health care that he has been accused of plotting. We know how the Republicans will respond. Their spokesperson, Senator Joe Wilson of South Carolina, in what can hardly pass for profundity, said that Obama is trying to â€œput lipstick on a pigâ€ and that the Republicans will continue to oppose. What about the bishops, now that abortion funding appears to be off the table? What about the evangelicals, now that both Obama says abortion funding and significant government involvement in health insurance will not occur?
The Washington Post now reports that the health care debate, and opposition to Obama, has breathed new life into the Christian right, which had been discredited by its unwavering support for George W. Bush and demoralized by the Republican defeat. The Post says that as Obama was preparing to speak on September 10, conservative Christian leaders were â€œ rallying their troops to oppose him, with online town hall meetings, church gatherings, fundraising appeals, and e-mail and social networking campaigns.â€
If the presidentâ€™s opponents are invigorated, many of his supporters are becoming demoralized. They believe that, after announcing his intentions on health care reform, he waited far too long to come forward with his own detailed ideas. One television commentator said that when the Republicans drew their line in the sand over the summer, Obama was not even on the beach. A perceptive commentary in Harperâ€™s magazine said that Obama might resemble former President Herbert Hoover (an intelligent and ethical man who was unable to overcome his own caution) when what America needs is a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had the courage to stare down his opponents on the issues that mattered.