The Universal, Single-Payer God

A report from the pray-in for comprehensive health care reform.

Health care pray-in

At 4:30 on Wednesday afternoon, a small army wearing red T-shirts arrived at Washington’s Freedom Plaza to the beat of drums and brass, singing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” They sat in makeshift pews before a dais, praying to God for just one simple thing: comprehensive health care reform.

“We ask that you bless our efforts to achieve a holistic health plan that will bless your people—all of your people,” cried the Rev. Ileana Rosario. “We know there are many who wait in silence for this miracle of love. Those who usually do not have a voice. But you, you always hear their cries at night and only you have the power to bless all of them!” Those congregated bowed their heads and raised their hands, some with umbrellas to block the sun, others just sweating it out, tossing off an occasional “Amen!”

As a mixture of politics, religion, and high humidity, it could have been disastrous. But never mind God: If anyone on Capitol Hill was listening, a little hokeyness in this driest of debates can’t have hurt.

People have asked God for things beyond their direct control before. Last summer, activists joined together and prayed for lower gas prices. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin asked folks to pray for a natural-gas pipeline. Such earthly concerns as lower co-pays and premiums may seem a little outside the Creator’s bailiwick—but there’s something about universal health care that almost seems religious. It’s all-encompassing, and its believers are fervent.

Unlike the great awakenings of yore, this was an ecumenical gathering, with every faith scrupulously represented. Religious leaders, with the help of D.C.-based policy organizer types with ID badges and headsets, had managed to truck in hundreds of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians from around the country as part of the national Interfaith Week of Prayer for Health Care. A Buddhist led the group in a meditation directed toward “all sentient beings.” Men and women in white collars speckled the crowd. A flock of women clad in black, billowing chadors alighted on the small patch of lawn, surrounded by children; they had come from the Bronx. The unity pitch came through loud and clear.

“Everybody in! Nobody out!” marchers chanted.

Besides religion, many in the crowd could commune over their various ailments and mounting bills. People who didn’t know each other commiserated about dialysis treatments and heart conditions and the long waits for treatment. “If I had money, I would have gotten it done a month ago,” said Maureen Simon, pointing to her hurting knee, which she said she couldn’t get looked at for another three weeks. She had come from Brooklyn, N.Y., with a friend. “If we have to come again, we’ll come again.”

Oddly enough, the tough economic times may actually abet activism like yesterday’s pray-in. Unemployed people are easily mobilized. “Nothing to do but support what I believe,” said Joyce Franklin of Milwaukee, who lost her insurance when she lost her job. She had never been to the nation’s capital before and was planning a monument tour before she took the long trip home.

These are the people who show up, in the abstract, in most every health care speech politicians make: the nameless Hardworking American who has to choose between paying medical bills and some other necessity of life. President Obama upped the ante in his press conference this week by mentioning an actual person, a 36-year-old woman in Green Bay, Wis., whose breast cancer has put her family $50,000 in the red. Everyone I talked to—and everyone was eager to talk—thought Obama was doing as well as he could, considering the forces arrayed against him. (They named CEOs, corporate raiders, obstructionist legislators.)

The spritelike Neera Tanden, a senior health policy adviser and one of three emissaries from the White House to recite administration talking points, got whoops and applause for her plaintive address. And Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia’s Fifth District was firmly on the religious-and-healthy-values bandwagon. “We feel it in our premiums, but we should feel it in our souls!” he thundered, as people gathered on a corner across the street to watch. “We can get into the weeds on policy, but at the end of the day, we will win this debate on principle. We will win it on the fundamental morality of loving your neighbor as you love yourself.”

This wasn’t the time or place to talk about CBO scoring or comparative health systems research. Instead, the program was marked by impassioned testimonials and interpretive dance performances set to inspirational Christian music. A cynical observer might have rolled her eyes at the trio of women in white dresses twirling colorful scarves in unison, or the idea that Jesus can do anything about the American Medical Association. But it’s hard to argue with their conviction.

“Keep on keeping the faith,” said Franklin. “It’ll happen fast if you all believe.”