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47 National Religious Leaders (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) Call for Urgent Priority to Health Care Reform -- and Why I Signed

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Why I Signed This Very Weak Statement

On the one hand, I wanted the Network of Spiritual Progressives to be included in a list of some of the most important religious forces in the U.S. I was honored that we had been invited to be among them. On the other hand, my requests that a stronger statement be floated or that the Religious Summit on Health Care being held today in Washington D.C. include an endorsement of Single Payer (Medicare for Everyone -- not just for people over 65) or at least a strong public option that could negotiate lower costs for drugs from pharmaceuticals and could force insurance companies to lower their costs in order to compete with the far more efficient public sector possibilities (already demonstrated by Medicare) were met with explanations that the coalition would be narrower should the statement be stronger, and that in any event the "realities" of "Inside the Beltway" consciousness already guaranteed that Single Payer was "off the table" and even "public option" might seem Utopian (note the coded message to Congress from Rahm Emanuel yesterday saying that the Obama Administration was willing to give up on a public option since that was only one possible way of achieving cost savings, and that "enhanced competition" between insurance companies might achieve the same goal).

My counter argument was this: Obama loves to find "common ground" among the contending forces. So if the only voices he hears contending range from centrists who back his already compromised notions to right-wing forces who oppose any health care reform to insurance companies, hospitals and other health-care profiteers who seek to weaken any pressure on them to provide for the common good, of course the outcome will be a compromise toward the political Right. That's why the Religious Community has a responsibility to be a Prophetic Voice, and to insist on the approach that is most consistent with actually giving "care" the priority over "profits" for the health-care profiteers, and saying that that must be the principle guiding the health care debate. That would mean endorsing Congressman John Conyers' HR 676, The United States National Health Insurance Act , insisting that the media give attention to the ways that that kind of "single-payer" plan would be both more cost efficient and provide better care, and insisting that the discussion be shifted to the issue of care rather than "what will fly in D.C." which is simply code words for "what will those Congressional reps who are dependent on the contributions of the health care industry be willing to allow to get through their committees." In terms of how to have an impact, the only way we can get something close to reasonable (by the criterion on providing the best care accessible to the greatest numbers) through the Congress is if the White House fights for it, and the White House will not fight for that unless they face the pressure for a "care-oriented" proposal rather than a "mollify the health-profiteers" proposal.

Why, you might ask, does it have to be "the religious community" that should take the lead in creating the more progressive alternative? Why isn't that already happening from the liberal and progressive forces? The answer is because Obama has organized those forces into a campaign for an already compromised position without any clear guiding principle other than "we urgently need health care reform" -- and that is precisely what is reflected in the statement I signed below. In effect, Obama has cut the ground from under the progressive perspective by convincing them all to be "realistic" -- and as a result, he faces no counter-pressure apart from the pressures to his right.

So then why did I sign? I succumbed to the same pressures that have "de-Prophet-ised" the religious world. "Wouldn't it be better for the Network of Spiritual Progressives to be represented on this list of liberal religious forces than for it to be absent?" I asked myself. The lure of "inclusion" and "access to the powerful" and "being part of the consensus" seemed attractive, while there seemed to be little to be gained by simply not being on the list -- no one would be asking "why wasn't the NSP part of the statement?" but instead they'd just assume "the NSP isn't important enough to be part of it. After all, there's nothing in the statement we disagree with, so why not keep our name as part of the process? " And this is precisely how the psycho-political dynamics of "lowest common denominator consensus" works, driving prophetic critique out of the discourse and replacing it with the bland generalities that will disturb no one that is reflected in the statement below.

Unfortunately, my desire to explain to you the behind-the-scenes reasoning is precisely ruining our temporary status as "insiders." The moment I talk like this, I break the cardinal rule of "inclusion" and "access to the powerful," namely: keep your prophetic ideas to yourself and never expose the way that fundamental principles are being abandoned for the sake of having power. In fact, it is precisely the tendency in me to not play by that rule which has kept me from being part of the insider-crowd all along. But that is the price of taking seriously that our fundamental commitment is to the God of the universe (or, for our secular spiritual members, a commitment to the highest ethical values of the humanist tradition) -- and hence our responsibility is to fight for the full picture of what we need in order to alleviate unnecessary human suffering!

"But wait," some of our critics will shout out, "don't you realize that politics is 'the art of the possible' and that you are making the mistake of making 'the best' become the enemy of 'the good-enough'?" This is the standard line of the compromises, and it is based on the false assumption that they, the realists, know what is possible. But my experience as a social change activist for the past 45 years of my life has taught me the opposite: that one never knows what is possible until one struggles for one's highest vision. And over and over again when people struggle for their highest vision, what appeared to be unrealistic and impossible becomes actual and achieved. It is actually the professional "realists" who don't understand, or don't want to understand, this essential truth about politics, in part because understanding it would push them into having to engage in struggles that might alienate them from the forces that are currently powerful, an alienation that would then make them feel that they had lost their one claim to "being important," namely their access to the powerful! But there is another way to "be important," namely to align your life with the highest values and deepest truths you know, and fight for them even when doing so risks putting you out of step with whatever the media, the corporate powers and their allies in government, and the manipulated consensus of public opinion tells you is "realistic." And that is why, despite signing this statement, I decided to tell you about why the religious community leaders are not playing prophetic politics in Washington today, and why, after saying all this, we at the NSP are unlikely to be included in the future.

P.S. If you want our voice to continue to speak this level of clarity, please Join the Network of Spiritual Progressives at We need your financial support. And also check out our new blog at -- it's called Tikkun Daily.

The Statement of the 47 Religious Leaders

Today health care reform has become an urgent priority, with many Americans fearful about the health care they now hold and more than 45 million lacking coverage altogether. Rising unemployment, underemployment and a decline in employment benefits have deprived many more of health care. The health of our neighbors and the wholeness of the nation now require that all segments of our society join in finding a solution to this national challenge.

"...Learn to do good, seek justice; rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." Isaiah 1:17
"...Love your neighbor as you love yourself." Matthew 22:39
"...Ye who believe! Stand up firmly for Allah, witness to just, that is next to piety." Qur'an 5:8

Our diverse communities of faith -- Jewish, Christian and Muslim -- are each shaped and guided by our respective sacred texts which compel us to speak out on behalf of the most vulnerable members of our society. Today that means making comprehensive and compassionate health care reform an urgent priority so that all of our neighbors, especially the people living in poverty, children, and the aged, can be assured of the fullness of life that is central to the holy vision of a beloved and peaceable community.

No longer can we afford to squander the hopes and dreams of the American people through a much-too-costly system that contributes to economic despair. Families and individuals must be able to rely on affordable care in times of illness or accident and preventative care to safeguard health and well-being. Those who are ill need the assurance that coverage will not be canceled by illness or employment circumstance. They should also be afforded the dignity of selecting their own caregivers.

Today we pray, each in our own custom, for discernment, boldness, clarity and leadership in each segment of our society so that we may find the resolve to achieve health reform worthy of this land. As we together pursue this vision our direction is certain-it is toward the common good. The prospect of high-quality, affordable health care for everyone is a measure of our wholeness as a nation.

We pray that our best minds and kindest hearts might be joined in this effort so that all men, women and children will have the health care they need to live the lives for which they were created. We stand ready to give our support and energies to its achievement.

Archbishop Vicken Aykazian
Armenian Apostolic Church
President of the National Council of Churches

Bishop Wayne Burkette
Moravian Church in America, Southern Province

Rev. Dr. Miriam Burnett
Medical Director
African Methodist Episcopal Church Health Commission

Rev. Jerry D. Campbell, Ph.D.
Claremont School of Theology

Sister Simone Campbell, SSS
Executive Director
NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby

Margurite Carter
National Board President
Church Women United

Dr. Iva E. Carruthers
General Secretary
Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference,Inc.

The Right Reverend John Bryson Chane
Episcopal Bishop of Washington
District of Columbia

Bishop Ronald M. Cunningham
Ecumenical Officer
Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

Amy Echeverria
Columban Center for Advocacy & Outreach

Matthew Ellis
Executive Director
National Episcopal Health Ministries
National Episcopal AIDS Coalition

Bishop Christopher Epting
Deputy for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations
The Episcopal Church

Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell
Ecumenical Officer
Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.

Rabbi Steve Gutow
Jewish Council for Public Affairs

Dr. Richard L. Hamm
Former General Minister & President
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the US & Canada

Rev. Mark S. Hanson
Presiding Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Dr. Michael Kinnamon
General Secretary
National Council of Churches

Dr. Ken Brooker Langston
Director, Disciples Justice Action Network
Coordinator, Disciples Center for Public Witness

Elaine Lee
Vice President at Large
Health Ministries Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.

Rabbi Michael Lerner
Rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco
Chair of the Interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives

Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner
Connectional Presbyter
Presbytery of the Palisades (NJ)

Rev. Michael E. Livingston
Executive Director, International Council Community Churches
Immediate Past President, National Council of Churches

Marie Lucey, OSF
Associate Director for Social Mission
Leadership Conference of Women Religious

Felton Edwin May United Methodist Bishop Retired
Executive Director
Multi-Ethnic Center for Ministry

Dr. David McAllister-Wilson
Wesley Theological Seminary

Rev. Dr. A. Roy Medley
General Secretary
American Baptist Churches

Stanley J. Noffsinger
General Secretary
Church of the Brethren

Harriett Jane Olson
Deputy General Secretary, Women's Division
General Board of Global Ministries
The United Methodist Church

Rev. Gradye Parsons
Stated Clerk
Presbyterian Church USA

Rev. Dr. Tyrone Pitts
General Secretary
Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.

Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader
Ecumenical Officer
United Methodist Church

Nancy Ratzan
National Council of Jewish Women

Rabbi David Saperstein
Executive Director and Chief Legal Counsel,
The Union for Reform Judaism's Religious Action Center

The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
Episcopal Church

Dr. Robert Seymour
Minister Emeritus
Binkley Memorial Baptist Church

Ronald J. Sider
Evangelicals for Social Action

Rev. Dr. T. DeWitt Smith
Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.

Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed
National Director
Office for Interfaith & Community Alliances
Islamic Society of North America

Russell M. Testa
Executive Director
Franciscan Action Network

Rev. John H. Thomas
General Minister and President
United Church of Christ

Daniel Vestal
Executive Coordinator
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Bishop George Walker, Jr.
Senior Bishop
African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

Dr. Sharon E. Watkins
General Minister and President
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada

Dr. Robert Welsh
President, Council on Christian Unity
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada

The Rev. David L. Wickmann
Moravian Church-Northern Province

Jim Winkler
General Secretary
General Board of Church and Society
United Methodist Church

Bishop Gabino Zavala
Bishop President
Pax Christi, USA