donkeyBy Dena T. Smith

Since his inauguration, President Obama has used just about every forum possible to stress the need for health care reform. We’ve heard the pragmatic arguments: in the current system, we spend too much money on treatment rather than focusing on preventative care or that all the power is in the hands of private interests inflates costs. And we’ve also heard plenty of opposition to government intervention from the right. Two Tuesdays ago, I wrote about the need for the president and health care reformers to frame changes to the system in a way that people would feel motivated to create and/or support reform. I discussed what role altruism could have in this process (click here to go to the post). To re-cap, in the framework of classic theories of altruistic behavior, if people are to support an overhaul of the American health care system (as a helping behavior), they have to feel compelled to act and that the costs of the act would need to be minimal compared to the benefits of change. In other words, wanting to help combined with a bit of self-interest are the necessary cocktail.  In the last few weeks, especially given the failure of the pragmatic (generally economic) approaches in convincing both congress and the public to change the system, the President and his team of health care reformers have locked in on emotions more intensely than ever before. One way in which they hope to activate people’s emotional responses is by swaying religious leaders to publicly emphasize the values of their respective faiths that might potentially push congregants to support government intervention in and alterations to the health care system.

The New York Times describes this as situating health care reform as “a core ethical and moral obligation,” (NY Times)   Specifically, last week, Mr. Obama addressed thousands of American religious leaders. For instance, it has been reported that he telephoned about one thousand Rabbis, as the High Holy days approach. A major tenet of Judaism is the notion of social justice, which includes helping those less fortunate, those who are struggling, those who are in need – as a moral obligation. These themes will surely be addressed in temples accross the country in the coming month, when attendance is at its peak for the year and the President reportedly asked these Rabbis to address the need for health care reform at the same time.  For those who hear these sermons, then, the benefit of reform is heightened, as a respected religious leader has endorsed its benefits. Additionally, the identity of individuals who attend religious services is generally tied to their religious background.  Because of this, guilt and even dissonance from acting in a manner incongruous with the beliefs of one’s Rabbi or other religious leader, would be heightened, if congregants do not support the reforms that both their religious leader and, by implication, their religion seems to support. In other words, if the President can convince religious leaders to publicly support health care reform, the odds of congregants supporting the process also increases; people are exposed to the need for change, feel as though it’s a good/the right thing to do and also open the door to experiencing dissonance if they act in a manner that is in opposition to how they imagine their religious leader and fellow temple (or church or mosque) members would. Dissonance theory suggests that people alter their cognitions and/or behavior in order not to experience the unpleasantness and even torment of acting in a way that is in conflict with their attitudes. Further, this line of thinking suggests that the more salient an attitude is (i.e. someone’s religious values that dictate taking care of those less fortunate – especially when a religious leader is clear about the connection between health care and altruism), the more conflict they would feel if, say, they did not support the democratic party’s push for health care reform.

The question, however, is whether blurring the boundaries between politics and religion will push people to feel increased motivation towards health care reform or, on the other hand, to feel as though it’s a political invasion on their private moral beliefs and customs. If people see this as an emotional issue, this strategy could be quite successful as in the case of support for the Iraq war, as argued by Pagano and Huo (see link below).  Emotions are very powerful factors in our support (or lack thereof) for political endeavors. However, if people feel intruded upon or as if their places of worship have been invaded by political pandering, this could all go terribly wrong.

Square-eyeObama Calls Health Plan a Moral Obligation


The Role of Moral Emotions in Predicting Support for Political Actions in Post-War Iraq