As a Baptist minister from Nebraska born in Louisiana, I have watched from the pulpit as three formative events profoundly reshaped America’s view of its destiny and possibilities: the 9-11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and the recent economic meltdown.
I hoped that this year, life would be better for my congregants. While standing with millions in Washington, D.C. listening to President Obama’s inaugural address in January, I reflected on the fact that it heralded an end to the Reagan era: a time in which government was viewed, first and foremost, as the problem. Our new President instead promised all of us that government would be part of the solution – not the whole solution, mind you – but a critical part, including setting new rules to ensure that more Americans would have a fair shake.
Fast forward a mere 11 months, and in the fight to enact health care reform and its promise of extending insurance coverage to 37 million uninsured Americans, this expansive vision is on the ropes. Political pundits on the talk shows are already hailing the demise of reform as the collapse of a dream. But this is not 1994, and the era in which cynicism about government can be mistaken for sound policy on governing should be over by now for good.
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, we saw what this commitment to small government meant for people stuck on rooftops and in the Stadium. Underfunded, unprepared and underutilized, the first responders’ valiant, if insufficient, efforts proved to the world that America was capable of neglect of, and deep indifference towards, the poorest among us. Although less visible to television viewers, the recent recession has wreaked a similar devastation upon American families, who are losing jobs, homes and their small savings in the continuing turmoil.
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Given these high stakes, it is critical that voices of faith in the larger community understand that, with the health care reform debate as a proxy, we are choosing among possible futures for our country. Through our charities, schools and churches, we have all seen the high costs of the lack of a social safety net for poor families. We are often the community that people in trouble turn to for help when government fails them. The question we now face is: will we live in a society that provides care for the sick and the injured, or one that continues on this path of callousness despite a widening gulf between the haves and have-nots?
As in the fight by previous generations for Medicare and Social Security, this is a defining moment. Against the backdrop, it is shocking to me as a person of faith that religious voices – those who should understand more than others what is being decided and what it means for poor and working families – are choosing to put a narrow agenda item like abortion before the goal of expanding coverage, and these same voices are evidently willing to threaten collapse of reform if their particular demands go unmet.
Religious leaders should stand up against this hijacking of the health care reform agenda, which has been about expanding, rather than restricting, coverage. Regardless of views on the issue of abortion, it is currently a constitutional and legal choice for women. A lack of coverage for abortion services may drive women to less reputable providers, and imposes hardships mainly on those who cannot afford health services more generally.
Moreover, provisions in the bill already assure that no federal funding will cover abortions, and that millions of women who will be added to the Medicare and Medicaid rolls will be subjected to highly restrictive policies on coverage for abortion (limited to rape, incest and the life of the mother). Yet, for some, these stringent requirements have not been enough.
It would be a profound tragedy if a handful of religious leaders in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, however heart-felt their objections, ended up blocking health care reform passage. The margins for enactment are already thin from disagreements over the need for a public option and how to pay for the plan.
Picking a fight over abortion services coverage, and ultimately, choosing to put such restrictions before the protections that millions of American families need most in these troubled times, would be an intolerable abdication of religious leadership. Such a spectacle might cause many people of faith to think twice about the religious leaders that claim to speak for them, and about the role of the church in the fate and future of our country.
Instead of blocking reform, religious leaders and people of faith must stand up for a larger vision: a more powerful role for government in protecting families and addressing the causes and problems of poverty. The stakes are too high, and the dream too important, to let mere politics get in the way.