With health-care battle not yet over, Obama must reach out to religious leaders

At the funeral of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in August 2009, Boston’s Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley pulled President Obama aside for a quiet word. It was a sign of things to come: the first failure of the president to understand the moral dimensions of his health-care proposal.

The bill that has become known by its opponents as “Obamacare” had not yet been passed into law, but O’Malley said the American bishops were eager to support it. There was just one teeny problem. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would be unwilling to throw its weight behind anything that would make abortions easier to get, a hint of the war the bishops would soon wage over the place of abortion and contraception coverage in the new law.

“Listening patiently, Obama had no idea how actively the Church was about to flex its muscles,” my former Newsweek colleague Jonathan Alter writes in his book “The Promise.”

Now the Supreme Court has upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, including the individual mandate that requires every American to purchase insurance, but the furious popular and religious antipathy against the law continues. Its opponents’ main argument boils down to this: You can’t make me.

Obama has long personally believed that health-care reform was a moral imperative. He campaigned on the issue. His close friendship with Sen. Kennedy — for whom health care was the mission of a lifetime — heightened his commitment. The president pushed the issue in the summer of 2009 despite the political counsel of his closest advisers. As he said in his speech this week, Obama didn’t promote health-care reform because it was “good politics.” He did it because it was the right thing to do.

This week’s high court decision represents a political and personal win. But on the level of stating unifying moral principles for the country, of conveying his deep feeling about our responsibility to care for the least of these, which knows no party, the president has failed.

He has failed to create alliances with conservative religious leaders on health care, and he has failed to convince Americans that the uninsured deserve the protection of the government. (More than half of Americans still believe the law should be repealed.) As the O’Malley anecdote shows, Obama may have listened to his principled foes in the religious sphere — certainly he knew they were out there — but he did not hear them. Among conservative Christian believers, the president “failed to create a climate of confidence that would enable him to see this through,” says David Neff, the editor of Christianity Today.

The Supreme Court win won’t dampen conservative opposition. It will amplify it. Conservative religious groups will continue to cry that their liberties are being trampled, Last week, the evangelical Alliance Defense Fund called the Obama Administration a “dictator of conscience.” The bishops will continue their Fortnight for Freedom campaign through next week, and two dozen lawsuits, mostly by Catholic groups, are pending against the administration.

Obama might have deflected some of this assault by having deep and careful conversations with religious opponents, many of whom would have been inclined to support it, ahead of the public debate over the health-care bill.

Part of the problem, says a person who works as an informal adviser to the administration, is that although Obama maintains a faith-based office, most of his top advisors do not take the concerns of religious believers seriously. “The president does not have a lot of people around him that understand religious institutions,” he says. Referring to the work of the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, this person characterizes the president’s staff as instinctively liberal, prioritizing values such as equality and fairness above more conservative values of tradition, group affiliation, or sanctity. What if the president had used words like these to sell his health plan? Might he have triggered the same kind of rage?

The president’s “secular ‘all or nothing’ strategy failed in engaging a natural constituency,” says the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “Wherever the president frames the moral imperative, he stands poised to attract support across the political spectrum.”

Of course, the president is loathed by the folks in Washington formerly known as the religious right. And he is pro-choice, a line he will not cross. In those very real circumstances, the president might only have made so much headway. But it would have been worth it to try, the White House insider says. “As hard as these guys are on the right, they would still tell anybody what they think, and what to be careful of,” he says. They might have helped him strategize.

In an election season, it’s a president’s job not just to win, but to rise above. He might start by calling on Americans’ consciences. As he has on immigration, he might find a moderate or conservative religious leader to remind voters that they shalt not put self-interest above the suffering of their neighbors.