From the very beginning, more than a year ago, the faith community called on the president and Congress to follow three principles in health-care reform: that it be framed as a moral issue; that it provide coverage to all who need health care, and that the sanctity of life be respected with no federal funding for abortion.
All three are reflected in the historic legislation the U.S. House passed by a 219-212 vote late Sunday night. The bill did become an issue of faith for millions in the religious community, and was being framed by many members of Congress, including the president, as a moral issue. Still not all Americans, but 32 million more people currently without health coverage, will now receive it. It is still not universal coverage, as too many people are still left out, most notably undocumented immigrants, but it is a significant step forward.
The final issue that was resolved was health care and abortion. A bloc of pro-life Democrats were still not satisfied until Sunday afternoon, when President Obama released the text of an executive order reaffirming the ban on federal funding and conscience protection, and providing an enforcement mechanism to ensure that both are followed.
With that assurance, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) and others agreed to support the legislation. In the final debate, while Stupak was defending the abortion agreement, a Republican lawmaker called out "baby killer." He later claimed he was referring to the bill, not to Stupak personally. But to many of us, it was one further sign of the rapidly degenerating political discourse in America.
In the ugliest incident, anti-health care "tea-party" demonstrators spit on Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver (D-MO) and shouted racial epithets at Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Rep. Andre Carson (D-IN). Carson told the Associated Press that as he and Lewis were leaving the House office building, some among the crowd chanted "the N-word, the N-word, 15 times." According to the AP, Carson remarked "It was like going into the time machine with John Lewis. He said it reminded him of another time."
The fact that health-care reform passed at all in such a poisonous political atmosphere is a great achievement. Like the original Social Security Act, this health-care bill will need to be improved over time -- and can be. But this was a step -- for beginning to fix a broken system, for including 30 million more Americans, and for showing that, despite tremendous opposition and a massive campaign of distortion and fear, big things can still get done.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, CEO of Sojourners and blogs at www.godspolitics.com.