Dan Nejfelt, Faith in Public Life’s Messaging and Trainings Manager, 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.
Political arguments over the last several days crystallized the contrasting worldviews in our economic debates. Last week President Obama forcefully deconstructed Rep. Paul Ryan’s federal budget proposal, calling it a “Trojan horse for a radical agenda” and “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” It’s an apt description, given that Ryan’s budget A) has $4.6 trillion in tax breaks that disproportionately benefit the wealthy, B) makes harsh, immediate cuts to protections that keep families out of destitution, and C) ultimately phases out most of the government’s capacity to protect the common good.
Then on Easter Sunday, ABC News aired an interview with Rick Warren of Saddleback Church (which provides much support for impoverished people), in which Warren echoed an argument Paul Ryan has made many times – that safety-net programs are ineffective and unwise because they create dependency that robs people of their dignity.
While such concerns might be well-intended, they’re overblown. The threat families face right now isn’t from a government encouraging complacency, it’s from a weak economy and conservative leaders trying to gut the safety net even if it causes people to suffer. Consider:
For every job opening in this country, there are four people looking for work. The problem isn’t a government that encourages idleness, it’s the fact that there aren’t enough jobs. And the GOP’s claim that this shortage is caused by “over-regulation” is baseless.
Private charity isn’t enough. As Ron Sider says in his new book, Fixing the Moral Deficit, the government provides 94% of funding of anti-hunger efforts, and each of America’s 325,000 religious congregations would have to contribute an additional $1.5 million to replace federal anti-poverty programs. That just isn’t feasible.
The conventional wisdom that “welfare reform worked” is wrong. An important New York Times article this week illustrated that federal welfare reform has left many poor families in a state of desperation, and research shows that the Earned Income Tax Credit and the strong economy of the 1990s were primarily responsible for reducing poverty in the wake of welfare reform.
It’s important to spell these things out. Many people of good will who genuinely care about helping those less fortunate are appealed to by politicians who use reasonable-sounding arguments to make social Darwinism sound like social justice. But these claims just don’t hold water.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported in a front-page story last weekend that hundreds of U.S. churches have gone into foreclosure in recent years. Several real estate research services quoted in the story each offered different estimates of how widespread church foreclosure has been, but the lower estimate said 270 have been sold by banks since 2010. Here’s more:
“Churches are full of members who lost jobs, who face home foreclosures themselves,” Jackson said. “Church is their place of refuge. If the refuge closes, they have no place to go.”
Financial issues span denominations but often are most acute for small to mid-size evangelical churches that are relatively new and are located in areas hard hit by the economic downturn.
They are not unlike struggling homeowners: When the economy was booming, some churches took on extra debt to expand, rehabilitate or move to larger spaces. Risky lending fueled the situation.
Once the recession hit, many cash-strapped parishioners moved or reduced their contributions, so church incomes were cut. At the same time, the real estate downturn meant religious properties were worth less, making them harder to refinance.
The story describes several congregations’ heartbreaking journeys from expansion to insolvency – some as a direct result of the economic collapse, others as a result of predatory lending practices by banks (which is hardly surprising, given the big banks’ record of preying on hard-hit families). These churches are losing not only the spaces where they worship, educate, baptize and eulogize, but also facilities where they provide crucial services to people at the margins, such as impoverished families, addicts, ex-offenders and the homeless. Losing a church building is a crisis for church members and the broader community alike.
This kind of compound trauma demonstrates why we need a robust safety net for struggling families during hard times. The economic crises that wreak havoc on the most vulnerable can also weaken churches’ capacity to provide care and support for them.
Former Orlando Sentinel religion reporter Mark Pinsky had a column on CNN’s Belief Blog last week wrestling with an important question: “Where’s white church outrage over Trayvon Martin?”
Although the Florida Council of Churches, which includes many white clergy among its leadership, released a letter condemning the killing and calling for justice, and last night’s rally led by Rev. Al Sharpton in Sanford, FL, was reportedly a very multiracial event, there’s no denying that black clergy have not yet had strong public support from white clergy in the effort to bring Trayvon’s killer George Zimmerman to justice.
Few if any white clergy have spoken up to demand that the killing be fully investigated. None can be seen standing by the African-American preachers calling for justice, or marching with Martin’s family members. Why?
As someone who covered this area’s faith community for 15 years, I don’t think the answer is racism as much as it is cultural callousness. Week in and week out, the violent deaths and disappearances of poor, black and brown people – especially immigrants – merit a one- or two-paragraph story in The Orlando Sentinel’s (my old newspaper’s) police blotter. So when a middle-class black teen is gunned down, the reaction tends to be a shrug of the shoulders.
In other words, different racial groups’ radically divergent experiences with violent crime and the justice system creates insularity in the white community that inhibits true empathy. I don’t mean to overgeneralize here. There are certainly other explanations for various individual faith leaders. For instance, yesterday I spoke to an Orlando-area white pastor who is concerned and outraged but has been traveling abroad for all month. And I can’t act holier than thou. There have been 104 murders in DC over the last 12 months, and I don’t know any of the victims’ names, and all I really remember is that the victims are disproportionately young black men gunned down in Wards 5, 7 and 8.
But I’ve thought a lot about Trayvon’s death. What was his last thought? How bad was the pain? Could he feel God by his side as his life faded away? Why on earth is his killer walking free? I hope those of us – clergy and laypeople alike – who in the past haven’t noticed tragedies like Trayvon’s will be changed by this miscarriage of justice. We won’t solve the racism of our criminal justice system and our culture until we realize that it’s everyone’s problem.
Paul Ryan is Catholic, and he seems to care what leaders of his church think about his federal budget priorities. Last year, he took the time to send then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan a detailed (yetshoddy) theological defense of his federal budget plan, which flouted Catholic social teaching on poverty, economic inequality and health care. Dolan’s response was so indirect and tepid that some in the media misconstrued it as an endorsement of Ryan’s proposal.
Fast-forward to 2012. Two weeks ago the US Conference of Catholic Bishops sent Congressional leadership a letter calling on Congress to put defense cuts on the table and to spare food stamps, health care, and other crucial protections from harmful budget cuts.
Yesterday, Ryan unveiled a federal budget plan that increased military spending, made explicit, draconian cuts to food stamps and Medicaid, and called for overall spending reductions that would necessitate gutting every domestic program that protects the vulnerable. He seems to have blown off their request altogether.
The bishops were wise to spell out clear moral priorities in advance of the budget’s release. Their voices are needed in this debate. I’m anxious to see how they respond to Ryan’s direct disregard of their counsel and Catholic social teaching. The contraception debate has shown that Church leaders are capable of mounting aggressive and formidable political efforts. Will they put as much political muscle into protecting the poor from devastating cuts as they’re putting into ensuring that Catholic Taco Bell owners can deny their employees coverage of contraception?
Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2013 federal budget proposal is the talk of the town in Washington today, and for good reason. As Greg Sargent pointed out this morning, the debate over Ryan’s plan will “…ultimately, force the American people to make a big choice between two starkly different sets of priorities and ideological roadmaps for the country’s future.”
Ryan seems to embrace this struggle, justifying his budget plan in moral terms. The crux of his argument is that we have a foreseeable, catastrophic debt crisis on the horizon, and that rejecting his solution represents an immoral dereliction of leadership. Here’s Ryan speaking at the American Enterprise Institute this morning:
Ryan seems to believe it’s morally necessary to gut protections for the poor and vulnerable right now in order to avoid gutting protections for the poor and vulnerable in the future.
What Ryan doesn’t address, though, is his own culpability in exploding the debt that he thinks necessitates these cuts. Let’s take a short walk down memory lane:
Ryan voted for Wall Street deregulation that led to the economic collapse of 2008, which exploded the debt and destroyed millions of jobs.
Ryan voted for tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 that helped turn Clinton-era surpluses into huge Bush-era deficits and overwhelmingly benefited millionaires and billionaires.
Ryan voted for a Medicare prescription drug benefit that added almost $300 billion to the deficit and prohibited the government from negotiating withpharmaceutical companies for fairer prescription drug prices.
Ryan consistently voted for the deficit-financed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which in addition to killing over 100,000 people added over $1 trillion to the debt.
Ryan is arguably as responsible as anyone in Washington for running up the national debt, yet he doesn’t hesitate to preach about the moral imperative to get behind his plan to solve the debt problem he helped create. Even if his plan were a serious solution instead of an Ayn Rand-inspired ideological agenda, Ryan would do well to repent of his own complicity in the debt before moralizing to the rest of us about it.