Obama's Health Care Pitch Should Be Less, Er, "Christian"

Until recently, Obama has emphasized two rationales for health care reform -- reducing the burden on the economy and providing universal coverage. One attempts to appeal to our sense of fiscal responsibility, another to our conscience. "The cost of our health care has weighed down our economy and the conscience of our nation long enough," he said in February. Both require us to think long term and altruistically -- admirable but not traditionally the best way to mobilize public opinion.

If he's looking for ideas on how to craft his national message, I would suggest he not copy the rhetoric of the increasingly-energized religious left. The liberal Christian group Sojourners emphasizes Jesus' injunction to help "the least of these." In a letter on behalf of the Catholic Bishops Conference, Bishop William Murphy wrote, "Reform efforts must begin with the principle that decent health care is not a privilege, but a right and a requirement to protect the life and dignity of every person."

This is certainly what you'd want Christian leaders to say -- and will be effective, one would hope, with many of the devout -- but if the argument for health care comes down to helping people other than yourself, we'll get many good sermons and no health care reform.

Obama and the religious leaders would be wise to marry an appeal to self interest with a moral message based on justice rather than altruism.

For instance, here are some moral statements more likely to appeal to those who have insurance (the majority):

--A system is immoral if it allows (or encourages) insurance companies to turn you away exactly when you need help most. (Thanks to exclusions for "pre-existing conditions.") That's unfair.

--A system is immoral if it allows (and incentivizes) insurance companies to write policies full of fine print that leaves shocked patients with devastating bills. That's dishonest.

--A system is immoral if it means that losing one's job means not only losing income but the ability to take your child to the doctor. That's cruel.

--A system is immoral if it forces people to stay in jobs that they hate because they don't want to lose their health coverage. That's tragic.

These moral statements may resonate more broadly because they emphasize the universal value of fairness, rather than compassion. Forgive my gross theological oversimplication but I suspect the message needs a bit less Jesus and a little bit more Moses; a bit less New Testament, a bit more Old; a bit less love and a bit more justice.

More from Steven Waldman at Beliefnet here.