Every so often, the issues at stake in the public debate become so clear and compelling, so alarming and disconcerting -- or both at the same time -- that I feel a need to speak out in a more personal way.
It's happened before around the 9/11 attacks, the war in Iraq, and the consolidation of power by the Religious Right after the 2004 elections (which was when I released God's Politics and began a 50-city book tour).
The issue that compels me to speak out today, and to send this personal column, is the moral drama surrounding the health-care debate.
I have a dear friend named Janelle Goetcheus. She is a doctor and a modern-day saint, and the moral conscience of health care in Washington, D.C. Janelle is a doctor to the homeless, the undocumented, and the vulnerable poor in the nation's Capital. She is the founder of Christ House, a medical facility for the homeless who are too sick to stay on the street; it is a ministry of the Church of the Saviour. We were talking about health-care reform the other day, and she said, "People don't seem to understand that this really is a life-and-death issue. People who have good health insurance will live and live longer; those who don't will die and die sooner."
We have a health-care crisis. The health-care system in the U.S. is sick and broken, 46 million of God's children are left out with no health insurance coverage, and 14,000 more are losing their coverage every day. Without change, costs will continue to go up, and we all will pay more and more for health care -- without reform.
President Obama has made health-care reform his top domestic policy priority, and Congress is slowly moving to embrace a plan for reform. But as members of the House and Senate went home for their August recess, the opposition forces to health-care reform have mounted a ferocious offensive.
We have a democracy crisis, with right-wing forces trying to prevent and destroy a civil debate with their "mob rule" campaigns. Fueled by right-wing conservative talk-show hosts and funded by special interests in the health-care industry who are afraid they will lose money if the system is really fixed, a vicious campaign to defeat health-care reform has begun. The "storm troopers" of political demagoguery, such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, have mobilized their followers to disrupt town meetings and defeat comprehensive reform by yelling louder than anybody else. The campaign tactics include lies, intimidation, character assassination, verbal abuse, and even mob behavior against members of Congress trying to conduct town hall meetings on the issues. In some places violence has broken out, and it has been threatened in other instances. Their approach seems to be to confuse and scare people, shout down the reformers, and disrupt the town meetings -- to prevent a serious, honest, and civil public discussion about the best way to fix a broken system. There are also now some stories of left-wing groups organizing to confront these disruptions. Left-right shouting matches and confrontational tactics will not create the civil discourse we need, and could finally sabotage needed health-care reform.
E-mails tell seniors that the reforms won't cover them, assert that vulnerable people will be excluded from the system, and that Christian doctors and nurses will be forced to perform abortions. Pastors are telling me stories of distortion and fear; elderly parishioners are asking them, "Will I die under the new system?"
There are difficult and complicated issues involved with truly reforming the health-care system, and there isn't even a bill yet. It will take the best efforts of our legislators and the best attention of our citizens to accomplish real reform. But the lies and intimidation are designed simply to shut down the discussion, to make people afraid, to poison the civic atmosphere, and kill any possibility of real reform (along with stopping the president's capacity to move on other issues -- which some of the opposition readily admit. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) has said, "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."
Simply put, we must stop them from doing that. The faith community must protect the nation's civil discourse from the clear threat of demagoguery.
The country needs a good, honest, and healthy debate on the best ways to reform the health-care and insurance system, but fix it we must, and in a way that includes all who are now left out.
It's time for the faith community to unite around the moral imperative of health-care reform, defense of the most vulnerable, and support for moral conscience in a comprehensive reform of the health-care system.
It's time for the faith community to confront the distortions and lies that are being told. It's time for the ministry of "truth-telling" and to surround the nation's discussion of health care with fervent prayer.
It's time for the faith community to practice nonviolent tactics of reconciliation and resistance against those on either side who would threaten the public debate with intimidation, fear, and even the threat of violence.
It's time for the faith community to make its voice heard -- loud and clear.
So I am personally asking each of you to do some very important things:
1. Make it a point this August to talk to your representatives in Congress and your senator (or their staff). Tell them that as a person of faith you want serious and comprehensive health-care reform that covers everybody. They need to hear from you!
2. Write letters of support for health-care reform to the editor of your daily newspaper, or write an opinion-page commentary yourself.
3. Plan study, prayer, or Bible study groups on health care in your congregation for September. Use the new resource for congregations that we have helped to create.
4. Encourage your pastor, rabbi, or imam to preach a sermon related to healing and health care on the last Sunday of August. There are resources on our health-care reform Web page.
5. Pray without ceasing that the nation will not lose its soul at this critical moment.
The faith community has an important role in this growing debate -- in the name of truth-telling, fairness, and social justice. Let's lift up our voices on these fundamental moral issues.
A special note: Next week, on Wednesday, August 19 at 5 p.m. EST, Sojourners is co-hosting a call with President Obama, and I invite you to join us. But we need you to RSVP. This is an unprecedented opportunity for the faith community to hear from the president and unite around health-care reform. We want tens of thousands of people on this call to hear President Obama, so please let your family, friends, neighbors, and fellow congregation members know so they can be part of this historic event, too. Post this link on your Facebook page, Twitter, and other social networking sites. Visit Sojourners' health-care page for more information.
Jim Wallis is CEO of Sojourners.
To learn more about health-care reform, click here to visit Sojourners' Health-Care Resources Web page.