Obama Frames Health Care Debate In Moral Terms

President Obama recently convened a conference call, on which he spoke to thousands of faith leaders about health care as a moral and ethical issue. Host Michel Martin speaks with David Brody, White House correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, and the Rev. Cynthia Hale, of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia. The two discuss why affordable health care for every American family is a moral priority for many people of faith.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, they're back - after years on the Wayne right wing Melissa seemed to be reappearing. We'll talk with Mark Potok from the Southern Poverty Law Center to find out why.

But first, we've been talking this week about various aspects of health care reform: the public option, free market alternatives and, of course, the increasingly nasty tone of some of the public discussions. Today, we ask about whether there's a moral dimension to this issue. And if so, what is it?

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama joined a conference call with thousands of moderate and progressive faith leaders convened by the group Forty Days for Health Reform. The group is advancing the argument that improving access and affordability of health care is not just a political issue but a moral imperative.

BARACK OBAMA: I am my brother's keeper. I am my sister's keeper. And in the wealthiest nation on Earth right now, we are neglecting to live up to that call.

MARTIN: On that call, the president also went on to criticize those who he said are bearing false witness about the proposals, which some conservative religious activists objected to as a slap at what they consider their reasonable objections.

We wanted to know more. So we've called on the Reverend Cynthia Hale, founding and senior pastor of the Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia. She was on the call. And David Brody, White House correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network and blogger. He's written about the call and how some evangelicals are taking it. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

DAVID BRODY: Thanks a lot.

CYNTHIA HALE: Thank you.

BRODY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Reverend, I want to begin with you. You led the opening prayer for the conference call. I wanted to ask more about your take on the health care debate. How and why did you decide to get involved in health care as, I don't know, in extension of your ministry or as a focus for your advocacy?

HALE: Thank you, Michel. That's a good question because for the last five to seven years actually the Ray of Hope Christian Church has been doing health clinics in impoverished areas of our state. And we've had a grave concern because many people cannot afford health care. And we believe that it is God's will that all people would prosper and be in good health and, of course, to have affordable quality health care.

So, that's why I was very interested because I'd like to see our country do something that would speak to the needs of the many people who either cannot afford health care or don't have enough coverage, so that they are not left in a lurch when they have extensive health needs.

MARTIN: David, do you think that there's a theological divide on this issue among faith leaders? I mean, do you think that there's a sort of different theological perspective about this?

BRODY: I mean, you could probably make that argument to a degree. I know that modern and progressive groups talk a lot about Matthew 25 and talk a lot about, you know, caring for the sick and the downtrodden, if you will. I don't think there's any question that conservative evangelical groups also feel very concerned about the sick and the downtrodden. There's just a different approach, if you will, or may be a different emphasis is probably, you know, the better way to explain it, especially as it relates to the abortion issue. And I think it's really, at this point, what we're seeing is it's all about the priority list, if you will.

You know, for conservative evangelicals, you know, abortion is going to be right there. The end-of-life care issues are going to be right at the top. It doesn't mean moderate and progressive evangelical groups don't care about these issues. It just simply means that it's a little further down on their list because they're seeing more of the broader picture.

MARTIN: Let's listen to a clip from the call. You (unintelligible) saying that this call - that there's a particular comment that the president made that has sort of pushed some buttons for conservative evangelicals. Here's that clip, here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO CLIP)

OBAMA: I know there's been a lot of misinformation in this debate, and there are some folks out there who are, frankly, bearing false witness. But I want everyone to know what health insurance reform is all about.

MARTIN: David, you wrote on your blog when you come out on a faith conference call and used the words bearing false witness, that's a direct slap down of conservative evangelical groups. Why do you think that - right groups - I think a lot of people would say, he's talking about specific individuals who he thinks have misrepresented his views. So, why do you say that?

BRODY: Well, sure. I mean, clearly you can make that a lot broader. I mean, I don't think - I mean, clearly, he did not talk about specific conservative evangelical groups. But it's important to note the context of the call. I mean, it's important to understand that it was on a faith conference call. That he hadn't used that type of language, bearing false witness, before. You know, conservative evangelical groups are very sensitive on this issue along with, you know, the other range of the spectrum. It can very much come across as, in essence, calling them liars, which - the problem here for the president is that he has always been very nuanced in his approach to issues and public policies.

So, for example, he will say, I can see that point of view. I can also see this point of view. It seemed more black and white, if you will, during - when he actually made those comments. And so, I think for conservative evangelicals they're going to say, well, wait a minute, Mr. President, we believe you're bearing false witness.

And then now we're starting to get into some name calling, if you will. And we're starting to get into the back and forth which probably isn't constructive on either side of the issue.

MARTIN: Okay, I take your point but I do want to say one of the people who wrote into your blog said - what if it's true? I mean, the president, what if there are some people who are, in fact, lying? Why shouldn't he call that out?

BRODY: Well, I think the short answer to that is no one is quite sure at the end of the day whether or not abortions will or will not be covered under health care reform. And I think that's the broader point. In other words, the conservative evangelicals will - and I'm not going to go down their list of reasons why - but they clearly believe abortions will be covered under health care reform. The president says no government funding will not take place when it comes to abortion.

So - but he can't make that guarantee and neither can necessarily the conservative evangelical groups. And that's why when you say bearing false witness, there seem - that seems so definite rather than it's a little murky.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly Faith Matters conversation. Actually, we're having the conversation about the intersection of faith and politics with David Brody, White House correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network; and the Reverend Cynthia Hale, founding and senior pastor of the Ray of Hope Christian Church.

We're talking about whether there's a moral imperative behind health care reform. And if so, what is it? We're also talking about President Obama's conference call with faith leaders. Reverend Hale, what's your take on this and also talk to me a little bit more about the tenor of the call. Who talked? What did you talk about?

HALE: Well, the call was specifically filled with people that I don't know that we necessarily - I didn't know that there were just moderates or liberals or progressives on the call actually. Because we thought that it was the faith community coming together to share stories of person's journeys - difficult journeys with health care. And to talk about what the churches, synagogues, and other groups, religious groups, are trying to do to foster health care in general.

I felt that the president's comment was directed to individuals who have been disrupting town hall meetings in a mean-spirited, ugly way. And that's all that I thought he was saying that - and the fact that there's much misinformation. As a matter of fact, I just preached on Sunday as said basically the same thing that we want civil discussion and debate.

We can agree to disagree. But we really need to have open and honest - and this is what we're saying on the call - open and honest discussion and dialogue. That's the important thing, which is why I came on this show because I said, oh, I'd like to talk to Mr. Brody about this...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HALE: ...and have this kind of discussion.

BRODY: You know what's interesting about this, and maybe what we're missing in all of this, is that in 2007, 2008 if Barack Obama had gotten on a faith conference call the story would have been, wow, look at this Democrat getting on a faith conference call.

HALE: Right.

BRODY: Now, it's much different. It's not about that he's got on this faith conference call. What it's about now is that he is part of the leader, if you will, so to speak, of this movement of faith, moderate and progressive faith groups that are coming together, going across the country, having these faith town halls, really mobilizing.

I mean this has turned into a serious effort in the pews, in churches across this country. Now, of course, you have the other side of this here. Millions of others who don't believe the way moderate and progressive evangelicals feel. And they are also talking and going around the country. So there's...

MARTIN: Well, I think the argument that I would make is that moderate and progressive evangelicals feel in effect that the faith narrative has been captured by one side of the argument. And that they're trying to...

HALE: That's right.

BRODY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...reclaim their stake in it. So, I wanted to ask each of you in a couple of minutes that we have left. Do you think - is a bridge possible? Do you think given the tenor of the debate that we've had so far, if we want to call it a debate? Do you think it is possible to bridge these different perspectives at this point, Reverend Hale?

HALE: I think it is because just sitting for a few moments talking with Mr. Brody I was just - I said wow, we can agree.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HALE: I mean because I think once you focus on the basic issues - and the basic issue is quality affordable health care for all Americans, that's where we start, and then dialogue. Once you've the honest dialogue, once you're willing to listen to one another and to hear one another's opinion, then I think we can create the bridge that we...

MARTIN: But I think - but I think what he's saying is that, for some people, the basic issue is abortion.

HALE: It is abortion. I understand that. And that's - but helping folks see the bigger picture, Michel, is what I'm hoping that we could do.

MARTIN: David?

BRODY: There are going to be certain conservative evangelicals that will never buy in to either this president or any sort of - type of president, you know, that he is. Having said that, if there is some sort of olive branch, if you will, maybe a few olive branches by this administration towards conservative evangelicals, the skepticism may come down a notch or two. And I think that's important to build the bridge.

You can't build the bridge if skepticism is all over the road on that bridge. And I think that's very important. For example, you know, conservative evangelical groups are wondering if abortion is not covered or - excuse me - if abortions are going to be covered under health care reform. They just simply want to know why wouldn't the president just say or at least demand language inside a bill that says abortions will not be covered in health care reform, if he's already saying that abortions will not be covered in health care reform?

They would like to see language in a bill like that. That would be some sort of, if you will, olive branch. I understand it is going - the pro- choice groups would be up in arms about that, I mean, clearly, and that's a whole political argument. But these are the type of things that if there's a - meeting halfway, then you can meet somewhere halfway on that bridge. And I think that's very important. Both sides have to give a little bit here.

MARTIN: But what about on the other side of it? Conservative leaders speaking out accurately about the end-of-life care discussions. How about that?

BRODY: Well, sure. And I think that, you know, there's one thing to say death panels, and it's quite another for them to feel that the argument is broader than that. That it's not just about death panels, it's about how you're treating the elderly and end-of-life issues.

MARTIN: So, do you feel that some sort of agreement is possible? Reverend Hale said she thinks that it is. You're saying, what do you think? And I understand you're a reporter. You're not an advocate, but I do want to ask your take on it?

BRODY: Absolutely. I think what I've seen is it's going to depend on the people that are in power on both sides of the issue. If they're willing to sit down at the table together, whether the planned parenthoods and the family research councils and other - actually the movers and the shakers, those are the ones that need to get together.

MARTIN: David Brody, White House correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network; and the Reverend Cynthia Hale, senior pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia, were both kind enough to join us and dialogue in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

HALE: Thank you.

BRODY: Thanks, Michel.

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