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Obama to preach his healthcare message to religious leaders

The president will address more than 1,000 leaders of different faiths in two conference calls, hoping they will pass on his ideas about the overhaul to their parishioners.

August 19, 2009|Duke Helfand

President Obama has barnstormed the country to sell his healthcare overhaul directly to sometimes-skeptical Americans. Today he will bring his message to a friendlier audience -- faith leaders who see reform as an ethical and religious imperative.

Obama is scheduled to address more than 1,000 religious figures in two conference calls, allowing him to extend his message to legions of faithful in the pews.

First up is a "High Holy Day" call this morning with rabbis from Judaism's Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements. Organizers hope the call will provide fodder for synagogue sermons when the Jewish holidays arrive next month.

"There is a very important moral dimension to this discussion," said Mark J. Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism which invited Obama to join the morning discussion.

The center is a co-sponsor of the second conference call later in the day -- pegged as "40 Minutes for Health Reform" -- with scores of lay leaders and clergy from evangelical, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish traditions.

"My hope and prayer is that President Obama is going to hold firm to his principle of making sure everyone is covered," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, head of the progressive evangelical group Sojourners and a member of Obama's faith-based advisory council. "Holding presidents to promises they have made is a good vocation for the faith community."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama would deliver the same message he has conveyed in other forums -- the need to relieve healthcare's financial burden on families and small businesses.

"Obviously the president will talk about the importance of providing access to affordable health insurance for millions of those that currently don't have it," Gibbs told reporters Tuesday during a White House media briefing.

Obama's conversations with faith leaders come as major religious groups -- including Faith in Public Life and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, ramp up a national campaign to influence the fall debate over healthcare.

The effort, known as "40 Days for Health Reform," features a national television ad, prayer rallies, meetings in congressional districts where lawmakers are waffling and a nationwide "sermon weekend" at the end of August.

Today's conference call with Obama, which will be webcast at faithforhealth.org, is designed to propel the myriad initiatives. Obama will spend about 10 minutes detailing his health reform ideas, organizers said. A dozen religious leaders also are scheduled to speak, along with parishioners who will describe their struggles in the healthcare system.

One figure scheduled on the call, the Rev. Joel Hunter of the 10,000-member Northland Church near Orlando, Fla., said Obama needs to go through religious leaders to sell his message "because that's who has access to the vast majority of people in this country."

Hunter said the 40-day campaign is meant to reduce the "level of angry rhetoric" that has typified many of the recent town hall meetings held by members of Congress.

"We ought to be the people who can promote a dialogue of differences," said Hunter, who also serves on Obama's faith-based council. "We want to find a solution, not find a fault."

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

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