Yesterday at 5 o’clock Eastern time, I joined the President and 130,000 of his closest friends on a conference call about health care.  Earlier in the day, the President had a similar phone call with about 1,000 rabbis, initiated by my longtime friend David Saperstein, head of the Reform Action Center.

Was there anything wrong with these calls?  Here’s my take.

First, religious groups do have every right to advocate for specific public policies on any and all subjects.  Those on the Religious Right even have the “right” to support curtailing or abolishing the separation of church and state.  (I’ve spent much of my life trying to be an advocate on the other side of that debate.)

Second, these groups, like all others, may invite politicians, including the President to address their gatherings, live or on the telephone.  Ronald Reagan used to frequently address the primarily religious “March for Life” every January on the anniversary of Roe v Wade via a telephone call played through loudspeakers at the Capitol.  Many of us were horrified at what he said, but I don’t recall anyone saying he didn’t have the right to speak to these people.

This, however, is only one side of the matter.  The other is what politicos should say when they address such groups.

One, no politician should claim that his or her plan for anything–from
tax reform to health care reform- has gotten God’s stamp of approval. 
According to some reports,
including one via Twitter from another friend, Rabbi Jack Moline,
President Obama told the morning call yesterday that “we are God’s
partners in matters of life and death.”  Since no full transcript of
the President’s remarks have been released, it is not clear what the
context of that statement was, but it certainly seems to veer into the
“penumbra” of my fear about claiming to mirror some divine intent.

Two, even if a political leader does believe that his or her view is
consistent with a set of holy scriptures, that can’t be the basis for
policymaking.  There must be commonly shared secular values (including
those derived from the Constitution) which shape any programs or
proposals.  In the healthcare debate there are all kinds of rational
bases for seeing the need for dramatic changes in the current system. 
There is no need to have political figures “throw in” some references
to the Bible to buttress the evidence.

I wish President Obama would skip the religious rhetoric and instead
clearly lay out the kind of reform he’s looking for. If he wants the
support of religious leaders, he needs to be crystal clear about his
bottom lines for acceptable reform.  Is it cost savings, the public
option, limits on insurance company profits, or other specifics?  One
of the things the Religious Right often said after Reagan’s anti-choice
calls was that he never followed up on specific proposals.  Progressive
types ought to insist that the current administration make a firm
committment to specifics–and that last minute further compromises will
not show up on the table.

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