Published August 20, 2009
If President Obama has his way, you'll soon be hearing about his health care package when you go to your church or synagogue to pray.
Thousands of religious leaders got a call from on high Wednesday when Obama reached out to Jewish and Christian clergy, urging them to push health care reform from the pulpit.
Obama spoke to about 140,000 people of faith in a conference call and webcast Wednesday evening. He and a White House official discussed the moral dimension of health care, telling the mostly Christian audience that "this debate over health care goes to the heart of who we are as a people."
But earlier that day, Obama went much further, asking about 1,000 rabbis to preach his political agenda in their sermons on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year -- one of the holiest days of the year.
The conversation was supposed to be off the record but was captured on the Twitter feeds and blogs of some rabbis who took part in the call, which was organized by the Union of Reform Judaism and included rabbis from other denominations.
"I am going to need your help in accomplishing necessary reform," Obama said, according to Rabbi Jack Moline of Virginia, whose Twitter feed has since been scrubbed of the information.
Obama told the rabbis that "we are God's partners in matters of life and death" and asked them to "tell the stories of health care dilemmas to illustrate what is a stake" in their sermons, Moline wrote.
Critics say Obama's message seemed to "cross a line" and imply a kind of "scriptural or holy support for the program."
"I can't imagine why it would be appropriate for a president even to suggest a partnership with God somehow was connected to his ideas for health care," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
"Whenever politicians give a message that implies that God is on their side on an issue ... this always troubles me."
A White House official told FOX News that Obama spoke at the invitation of the rabbis, who had many questions about health care. Current events often come up in sermons, the official said, and during the highly attended holidays many rabbis and congregants are likely to be interested in discussing the topic.
"We are not asking Rabbis to give a political lecture -- we don't expect everybody will want to hear sermons on health care," the official said.
Mark Pelavin, who organized the call from the Reform movement's Washington office, said the president talked about why the health care system needed to be fixed, but Pelavin declined to discuss Obama's specific remarks.
Pelavin, the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said his office organizes one or two such calls a year with experts and politicians to discuss issues of great interest to Jewish leaders, and health care was a natural topic.
Rabbis may choose to discuss health care in their sermons but will "stay away from partisan politics, but certainly they'll talk about issues that are facing the country," he told FOXNews.com.
But other rabbis present noted their discomfort with the president's message, and said they believed he was "using religious organizations to promote policy."
"I find the blurring of church and state to be disconcerting, not only on political grounds ... but also for competency," wrote Rabbi Josh Yuter of Manhattan, who was also on the call.
"Rabbis have enough difficulty understanding the nuances and intricacies of their own religion to be promoting specific policies in areas for which they have no expertise."
Lynn, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that although Obama is a religious man, he generally avoids emphasizing the religious basis for his decisions, adding he was disappointed that the president had "clouded this debate" with an underlying religious emphasis.
"This seems to, unfortunately, cross a line," he said.