One of the most embittered complaints from critics of George W. Bush was his use of religious imagery to promote a domestic agenda. Religious liberals lamented that God and the Bible had been "hijacked" by Bush and his social conservative allies. Self-styled "prophets" such as Jim Wallis of Sojourners even accused the president of "idolatry" for the way he blended God-talk with his faith-based initiative to alleviate poverty.
That was then. Today, with a president who shares their political priorities, the apostles of liberalism don't seem worried about conflating the city of God and the city of man. Their religious enthusiasm is directed, for the moment, at ensuring passage of Barack Obama's health-care reform agenda. Detractors are not just mistaken, but morally debased: that's the gist of a fiery campaign led by the religious left and stoked by the president himself.
"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," Obama told religious supporters during a conference call last month. The reference, of course, was to the ninth commandment from the Decalogue. According to President Obama, the false witnesses include those who worry that a national health plan will open the flood gates to federal support for abortion. "You've heard that this is all going to mean government funding of abortion," Obama said. "Not true." Under this formulation, opponents of health-care reform join the sorry ranks of adulterers, thieves, murderers, and other miscreants.
A coalition of religious activists--who have just completed a "40 Days for Health Reform" campaign filled with declarations, petitions, rallies, and candle light vigils--seem to share the president's views. Groups such as the National Council of Churches (NCC) complain that reform efforts are being "victimized by narrow political interests." The NCC and nearly every leading voice of the religious left either welcome federal funding for abortion or pretend that objections are overblown. Jim Wallis, an advisor to the White House, insists that public money will not pay for abortions under the president's plan and scolds the "angry mobs" who say otherwise: "I have said that one important moral principle for the health-care debate is truth-telling." Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good likewise reject as "false" the "extreme claims" that taxpayer money will underwrite abortions. "There is absolutely no expressed funding of abortion in the bills under consideration," the organization states. "Health care reform is far too critical to be derailed by frightening hyperbole or deliberate misinformation."
Thanks to president Obama, there's plenty of hyperbole to go around. More importantly, the president's sanctimonious style--"these struggles always boil down to a contest between hope and fear"--cannot disguise his intention to use health-care reform to advance the pro-choice cause. He considers "reproductive care" to be "essential care" to be covered by his public-insurance plan. In an address to Planned Parenthood in July 2007, he assured activists that his plan would provide "all essential services, including reproductive services." Contacted afterward by the Chicago Tribune, a campaign spokesman confirmed that "reproductive services" included abortion. The president and his allies view this as a matter of conscience, as a "moral obligation" of civic-minded taxpayers.
What ought to trouble the conscience--especially the religious conscience--is the shameless dissembling about abortion funding in this debate. The legislation now moving through the House of Representatives (H.R. 3200), and backed by the White House, explicitly authorizes the government to offer coverage for all elective abortions. Yes, federally funded insurance plans would cover the cost of abortions--exactly as President Obama has promised--and thereby overturn existing prohibitions. It requires no prophetic gift to realize that a national approach to health care would enshrine federal support for abortion as a political and moral principle. The logic is unambiguous: When government subsidizes an insurance policy that includes abortion, it subsidizes abortion. And whatever government pays for, society gets more of. Only a "false witness" could claim otherwise.
Nevertheless, this is just what the latest gaggle of religious progressives are defending. Their coalition includes the United Methodist Church, the National Baptist Convention, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). A somewhat shadowy organization called the New Evangelicals is also on the list, alongside the Gamaliel Foundation, which got attention during last year's presidential campaign because of its radical anti-Americanism and extremist redistribution schemes.
It's one thing to underwrite the lethal use of force against the unborn as part of a nationalized health-care system. It takes a certain moxie, though, to persuade oneself that such plans warm the heart of the Almighty. Yet this is how defenders of the president's agenda, including the president himself, like to talk. Passages in the Bible about compassion, justice, and the plight of the poor are grafted into policy speeches and legislative proposals. In a recent pastoral letter, the National Council of Churches cites the parable of the Good Samaritan, who helped a stranger "in desperate need of health care." The not-so-subtle conclusion: get behind the president's plan. "Will you join us in this witness to the Christ," the letter implores, "who still brings Good News to all?"
Religious progressives are not the only ones, of course, who tend to politicize the Christian gospel: Too many conservatives, with Republican help, have played the same scandalous game. In this case, though, liberal Christians apparently need reminding that the "good news" of their historic faith--the message that still sends persecuted believers resolutely to their deaths--has nothing to do with universal health care. It is the belief that God sent his Son to die for the sins of mankind, to rise from the dead, and to offer forgiveness and life to anyone who would trust him.
What Jesus might think about government-run health care is anybody's guess. But his attitude about false prophets--"a brood of vipers"--should make the religious left just a little anxious about the righteousness of their cause.
Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at the King's College in New York City and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.