Dan Nejfelt, Faith in Public Life’s Senior Editor and Training Coordinator, worked at Sojourners magazine as part of his graduate study of journalism at the University of Missouri before coming to FPL. Prior to that, he taught remedial reading and writing to 7th and 8th graders in rural Arkansas as a Teach For America corps member. Dan blogs about health care, the Religious Right and budget issues.
Religious leaders and activists made an important impact on yesterday’s Democratic primary in Massachusetts for Secretary of State John Kerry’s Senate seat.
There was one major difference between candidates Rep. Stephen Lynch and Rep. Ed Markey – Lynch initially favored construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and Markey steadfastly opposed it.
In case you’re just joining us, the debate over the Keystone XL Pipeline has global consequences. If the pipeline is completed, vast Canadian reserves of dirty tar sands oil will hit the international market at a time when we need to be drastically reducing our use of fossil fuels in order to curb the most catastrophic effects of the climate change crisis. And that’s to say nothing of the inevitable toxic spills that will happen along the route from northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.
Lynch’s early support for this disastrous project sparked a strong response from local and national faith leaders. The evangelical-led Good Steward Campaign joined forces with Catholics United, Sojourners, American Values Network, Interfaith Power and Light, 350.org and local nuns and activists to organize opposition, gather tens of thousands of petition signatures and publicly speak out against the pipeline. Lynch (who ultimately lost anyway) subsequently walked back his support for this environmentally catastrophic pipeline.
Keystone in particular, and climate in general, are flying somewhat under the radar right now but will take center stage sooner or later. The fact that faith leaders are gearing up and speaking out now bodes well as the debate goes forward.
While political conventions and the daily twists and turns of the Presidential campaigns grab the headlines, faith leaders are working hard in communities nationwide to change the debate and advance the common good in substantive ways. The Nuns on the Bus Tour’s success calling media attention to the Ryan budget was a great example of this, and there are many others.
Last week members of Bend the Arc, an innovative new Jewish social justice group, kicked off their eight-state “If I Were a Rich Man” tour to confront Members of Congress from both parties who are personally wealthy and support tax breaks for the richest Americans that hamstring our ability to preserve an adequate safety net as we pay off the debt. This campaign not only highlights the faith community’s commitment to tax fairness as a moral issue, but also raises important questions about individual lawmakers’ biases in favor of the wealthy.
When President Obama made the long overdue decision this summer to defer prosecution of young undocumented immigrants who qualify for the DREAM Act, faith leaders rejoiced. But the pronouncement alone didn’t bring relief to those trapped by our broken system. In order to qualify for the chance to stay, they must complete a complex application process. Religious groups are stepping up to help young people navigate these difficult waters. Churches are hosting legal clinics for thousands who want to contribute to our nation’s future and are in violation of immigration law through no fault of their own, and faith-based immigration reform advocates are providing hands-on assistance. (On a side note, take a look at these inspiring images of thousands of people lining up to apply to stay in America.)
Grassroots faith leaders are also mobilizing to affect crucial state-level debates. In Missouri, a religious coalition is fighting for economic fairness and justice by working to pass ballot initiatives raising the minimum wage and capping the interest rates predatory payday lenders can charge. Next month Catholic sisters will conduct a statewide Nuns on the Bus tour to call attention to the Ryan budget’s devastating effects on communities across Missouri.
I’m proud of the impact the faith community is making this year. From shaping national media narratives on the economy and taxes to helping immigrants take advantage of important new opportunities to come out of the shadows, we’re demonstrating for all to see that religion is a powerful force for justice.
In response to today’s Supreme Court ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act, Faith in Public Life executive director Rev. Jennifer Butler issued the following statement:
The Supreme Court did the right thing for American families by upholding the Affordable Care Act. Faith leaders worked tirelessly to pass this legislation because ensuring that all Americans have quality, affordable healthcare is a moral responsibility. The religious right needs to halt their misguided campaign to repeal this law. Human life is too sacred to be jeopardized by partisan crusades.
When Paul Ryan spoke at Georgetown last week, he made a point to acknowledge the letter sent to him by over 90 faculty members criticizing his use of Catholic social teaching to justify his budget. In response, he noted that he also brought a copy of his budget “so that we can have a fact-based conversation on the facts as they are, not — as I would say — as some have reinterpreted it [sic].”
This defense was just one part of a multipronged retort to his critics. Ryan also penned an op-ed defending his budget in the friendly pages of the National Catholic Register. Unfortunately, in addition to offering his usual highly selective doctrinal arguments, Ryan’s essay contains numerous claims that fail to live up to his aspiration of a “fact-based conversation.” Here’s just a few of the many misleading claims that caught my eye:
“The debt is weighing on job creation today.”
Au contraire. The primary drags on job growth right now are weak demand and public-employee layoffs caused by government budget cuts. I suppose Ryan’s argument here is a little too vague to dismiss altogether, but the primary way debt retards growth and jobs is by forcing up interest rates. That’s just not happening right now.
“As a result, more and more of society’s most vulnerable remain mired in public-assistance programs whose outdated structures often act as a trap that hinders upward mobility.”
Although Ryan doesn’t name specific programs here, it’s safe to assume he’s talking about ones he intends to slash, such as food stamps and Medicaid. However, neither of theseprograms fit Ryan’s description. I’m curious about how Ryan thinks making food and healthcare unaffordable for the working poor, children, seniors and the unemployed increase their upward mobility? Hunger and sickness aren’t exactly conducive to success.
“For example, in a misapplication of solidarity, politicians in both parties expanded big government for decades. These policies have had dismal results. One out of every six people in the United States is now living below the poverty level — the largest number of poor people on record.”
Clever, but mendacious. If you’re going to argue that “big government” is the reason 1-in-6 Americans is in poverty, offer some credible evidence. If anything, “small government” ideology – as manifested in laying off public employees instead of raising new revenues, Wall Street deregulation that led to the economic crisis, and blocking economic stimulus such as the American Jobs Act – is what’s yielded “dismal results.”
“Our budget builds on the successful welfare reforms of the 1990s, using federal subsidium to empower state and local governments, communities and individuals — those closest to the problems of society.”
Wrong again. As Ed Kilgore deftly pointed out, Ryan’s budget cuts are completely different than welfare reform. Leaving aside the long-term failure of welfare reform for a moment, at least that program replaced one form of assistance (AFDC) with another (TANF and expansion of food stamps). By simply slashing protections for the poor, Ryan is replacing something with nothing.
“President Barack Obama’s health-care law puts a board of 15 unelected bureaucrats in charge of cutting Medicare. This is wrong. I do not believe we should turn the fate of our parents and grandparents over to an unaccountable board and let it make decisions that could deny them access to their care.”
This one’s just a plain old lie. The Independent Payment Advisory Board, which Ryan is referring to here, explicitly does not have the power to cut Medicare. It can only make recommendations, which Congress either accepts or rejects. This distortion is merely a gentler version of the “death panels” attack on the IPAB during of the health care debate.
“Our budget has been criticized for giving tax cuts to the wealthy at the expense of the poor. It does no such thing.”
“But revenue would still rise every year under our budget because our economy grows and because our budget proposes to eliminate special-interest loopholes that go primarily to the influential and well-off.”
Shenanigans. Ryan refuses to say which of these loopholes he’d close and explicitly rejects closing the preferential tax rates on capital gains and dividends, which allow people like Mitt Romney and Warren Buffett to pay lower taxes than I do.
In addition to all he does say about the debt, Ryan continues his pattern of omitting the significant role the Bush tax cuts have played in ballooning the deficit and the debt. Ryan’s consistent silence on this amounts to simply pretending these budget-busting, 1%-centric tax cuts didn’t happen, and his failure to even entertain the possibility of increasing revenues shows that he isn’t serious about responsibly addressing the debt. Rather, he’s serious about using the debt as an excuse to enact a radical agenda that brings more money for the richest Americans, more suffering for the poor, and less security for the middle class. For the life of me, I cannot understand why Ryan is treated as such a morally serious leader.
Yesterday the US Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned some of the GOP’s immoral budget cuts to programs protecting struggling families. Today House Speaker John Boehner responded with predictably dishonest spin:
“I want them to take a bigger look,” Boehner said. “And the bigger look is, if we don’t make decisions, these programs won’t exist, and then they’ll really have something to worry about.”
Boehner gave a detailed defense of the GOP plan, which to achieve most of its savings would cut billions from programs helping poor Americans.
“What’s more of a concern to me is the fact that if we don’t begin to make some decisions about getting our fiscal house in order, there won’t be a safety net,” Boehner said.
“There won’t be these programs, and I don’t know how often some of us have to talk about the fact that you can’t spend $1.3 trillion more than what you bring in — that’s what’s going to happen this year, $5 trillion worth of debt over the last five years — and think that this can continue,” Boehner said.
“When you look at the fact that we have to make hard decisions, it’s about trying to make sure that we’re able to preserve these programs that are critically important for the poorest in our society.”
Absent from Boehner’s response is acknowledgement of debt-reduction policy options other than gutting the safety net, such as raising revenues or reining in military spending – both of which the Catholic bishops have mentioned as critical elements of a morally responsible debt-reduction plan.
Boehner seems to be telling the bishops we face an inescapable choice between slashing the safety net now and decimating it later. He knows it’s a losing argument to claim that tax breaks for rich people are more important than programs that feed poor children, so he simply pretends the possibility of ending those tax breaks doesn’t exist.
The Ryan budget gave Boehner a clear choice between the social teachings of his Catholic faith and the radical values of Ayn Rand. By voting yes he chose the latter. He should spare us his crocodile tears about the poor.