WASHINGTON—Health care reform may be Priority No. 1 in Congress and at the White House, but for the 1,825 religious conservatives who gathered for the annual Values Voter Summit, the subject was barely on their radar screen.
“To me, there are so many more important issues than health care right now,” said John Leaman, a retired yacht builder from Lancaster, Pa. Added his wife Linda, a waitress: “I don’t think it’s as urgent as Obama’s making it out to be.” The real problem, she said, is illegal immigrants “cluttering up our emergency rooms.”
Indeed, among the dozen issues that summit participants cited in casting their votes in a straw poll for possible 2012 Republican presidential candidates, health care never made the list. The top three issues were abortion, protecting religious liberty and opposing same-sex marriage.
“It’s up to us to help each other; it’s not the government’s job to take care of us,” said Texan Karen Marsalis, a retired teacher from Deadwood, whose shirt, like her husband’s, featured stars and stripes and images of the Statue of Liberty.
Just days before the summit got underway, a report by the University of Akron and the liberal-leaning group Public Religion Research found that conservative and progressive activists don’t just disagree on hot-button issues on the public agenda, they can’t agree on the agenda itself.
Conservative activists—typified by the “values voters” who rallied in Washington— picked abortion (83 percent) and same-sex marriage (65 percent) as their top two issues; just 6 percent cited health care. Progressives, meanwhile, cited poverty (74 percent) and health care (67 percent).
The only organized attention that health care received at the two-day summit was a panel discussion on “ObamaCare: Rationing Your Life Away.”
Participants booed at any mention of “Obamacare,” and cheered Texas Gov. Rick Perry when he decried a government that “has its hands too far in our pockets and its nose too deep in our business.”
Many participants drew a distinction between access to health care and health care reform. Anyone who needs treatment, they said, can get the care they need. How they pay for it is their problem, no one else’s.
“Personal responsibility is not something people want to do anymore,” said Debbie Michael of Mount Airy, Md. “We expect the government to do it all.”
Still, some at the summit said there is room for improvement. Lorie Watson, a nurse from Simpsonville, S.C., works for an insurance company administrating third-party claims and worries about the high costs of drugs and tests. She said Washington could have “a limited role in reform, but not in providing health care.”