Prominent Christian pastors in the United States who have dedicated themselves to serving the poor and most vulnerable citizens don’t believe in trickle-down economics and they don’t believe the problem of poverty should be left for churches to address. More than 4,000 of those pastors signed an open letter to that effect addressed to President Obama and the members of Congress, urging them as they hammer out a federal budget not to make poor and hungry Americans bear the burden of reducing the nation’s deficit. More than 95 pastors and clergy members in Colorado signed the letter, which appeared in Politico Wednesday.
“How narrow and limited and disappointing the budget debate has become in this town,” said Jim Wallis, president of Washington D.C.-based Sojourners, a national Christian nonprofit dedicated to social justice, in a conference call with reporters. “It’s about who’s up and who’s down, what the latest polling says about how a decision this way or that way might affect electoral fortunes in the next election. But there’s nothing about people, real people. Who is going to really suffer and pay the price for bad decisions made in this capital city?
Aghast at the debate, Wallis was moved to ask pastors around the country to weigh in on the budget and raise their own related priorities absent in the news.
“We thought, let’s go to pastors, particularly because some in this town believe churches should do all this, that government has no role and that pastors could just take care of the problem [of poverty]. Anyone who knows about poverty or knows or lives alongside poor people, knows that’s not an answer.
“Jesus once said ‘come and see.’ Well, I’d like members of Congress to come and see and meet the people who are going to be impacted by their decisions. But they don’t do that. They don’t come and see. They don’t go and look. They don’t find out.”
How would Jesus attack the deficit?
So far the budget wrangling in Washington now tied to raising the national debt ceiling has been massively tilted toward cutting entitlement spending rather than on raising revenue, which means it has been tilted toward shrinking programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Headstart and the WIC food program for impoverished women and children.
That approach to the budget spearheaded by Wisconsin Catholic Republican Paul Ryan has irked some Christian groups, which have launched a campaign against the Ryan budget plan and confronted its author in public as fellow Christians. Ryan has defended the plan as a long-term fiscal and cultural solution. He says reducing government spending is necessary medicine that, in effect, will reform what he sees as a failed approach to public policy. He says austerity is the only way to “save” essential programs like Medicare by ensuring future prosperity.
Unlike the pastors who signed Wallis’s open letter yesterday, Catholic Church leaders
endorsed delivered a mixed message on the Ryan approach. In May, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent the congressman a letter commending his “continued attention” to Catholic social justice “in the current delicate budget considerations in Congress” but he fell short of an endorsement, pointing to concerns about the poor, as some Catholic writers were quick to point out (here and here). The bishops also joined the Circle of Protection, where members pledge to work to safeguard programs that serve Americans in need, many of which Ryan has placed in his cross-hairs.
Congressional Republicans, urged on by the anti-government Tea Party, so far remain intransigent. They stress entitlement programs as the only viable target and have said repeatedly that they will accept no tax raises during the recession, even though Obama has said no proposed increases would go into effect before 2013, including eliminating the Bush tax breaks for the highest earning Americans.
“I would want more revenues, and fewer cuts to programs for middle class families,” Obama said in a press conference Monday, giving a rough outline of the budget discussions. “But that’s the point. I’m willing to move in [the Republican] direction to get something done. And that’s what compromise entails.”
Progressive Democrats and economists on the left have been horrified by the president’s proposed compromise and the lopsided nature of the debate. They say a jobless recession is no time to attack debt and exactly the time to spend to generate jobs and government revenue. They point out that revenue has been withering for nearly a decade as government leaders from both parties have OK’d slashed taxes and rudderless wars on two continents—and until last year did so while watching the deficit soar like a colorful holiday balloon. Obama, wrestling with the recession since before he took office, has set taxes for Americans even lower than they were under Republican George W. Bush. And Wall Street, bailed out of the financial catastrophe, has returned to reveling in record profits. It’s not so much time for austerity and telling the poor to just “suck it up and cope,” they say, it’s time for everyone to contribute.
Yet, as Wallis pointed out on the call, lobbyists for the private jet industry have reportedly mobilized in the wake of Obama’s targeting for repeal tax breaks for billionaire plane owners.
“There is absolutely no desire on the part of any House Republicans I know to raise tax rates and tax revenues,” Colorado 5th District Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn wrote in a letter to supporters Wednesday. “I do not believe the president’s repeated references to relatively minor issues like corporate jet owners and hedge fund managers are helpful. This may appeal to class envy among some, but the dollar amounts involved will make almost no difference. Entitlements need to be looked at and should be part of the negotiations. That’s where the dollars are,” he said.
‘If god does judge the nation’
Denver Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints, signed the open letter to Obama and Congress. She added in a press release that she had been a recipient years ago of the WIC food program threatened by the budget negotiations.
“As a member of the clergy and a mother of two children with strong minds and bodies– minds and bodies which benefited for three years from WIC– I stand with all Christians in America who believe the cries of the poor and the cries of the children are not only the very voice of Christ, but are indeed the sound of our future waiting for response.”
She told reporters that the poor can’t afford lobbyists but that programs like WIC, which for example sees to basic nutritional needs of pregnant women and new mothers and their infants, should be seen as making an essential “investment in the minds and bodies of our children.”
“People who say they are pro-life,” she added, “should know WIC has saved more than 200,000 babies from dying at birth.
“If god does judge the nation,” she said, referencing the rhetoric surrounding Texas Governor Rick Perry’s Christian-right prayer fest scheduled for next month, “then it’s not on how we protect the wealth of the top percent [of earners].”
Rich Nathan, Senior Pastor of the Vineyard Church of Columbus in Ohio, conceded to reporters that there was an argument raging among Christians in America over government fiscal policy.
“There is an argument but to be quite honest I’m aware of no local pastor in central Ohio who says ‘I am opposed to government spending for the poor’ or ‘I am supportive of government cuts to programs for the poor because I am a follower of Jesus.’ I’ve never heard that statement in central Ohio, ever…
“On the other hand, I’m aware of many many pastors who would say ‘Out of my followship of Jesus, I cannot in good conscience support program cuts for the poor.’”
Wallis added that the stark choice between either attacking the deficit or attacking poverty is a false choice that has only recently gained widespread traction.
“There’s been bipartisan agreement in the past to [protect] the most vulnerable… We have [in the past] reduced the deficit and poverty simultaneously. Everything should be on the table,” he said.
Wallis said he initially sought to draw 1000 pastor and clergy signatures but that the letter drew escalating interest.
At least 350 Catholic clergy members signed on to the letter, although that number includes only one from Colorado: Fort Collins resident Bill McClellan, a deacon at Colorado State University church John XXIII.
That the letter drew a signature of support from a deacon who openly professes dedication to social justice but not from a single priest in the state is perhaps unsurprising, given that the archdioceses here is run by outspoken political conservative bishop Charles Chaput.
Note: Thanks to Kristin Ford for clarification on the position taken by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.