Jennifer is the founding CEO of Faith in Public Life. Before leading FPL Jennifer spent ten years working in the field of international human rights representing the Presbyterian Church (USA) at the United Nations and is an ordained minister.
The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) always provides a useful window into what’s resonating with the movement’s activist base. One moment from this year’s conference, held last week in Washington, struck me as particularly important.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), who has a history of using faith to justify an agenda that takes food and health care away from struggling families and seniors, accused proponents of a strong safety net of offering “a full stomach – and an empty soul.”
He went on to tell a false story about a child in poverty to attack the free school lunch program that keeps students from going hungry.
After years of receiving powerful rebukes from faith leaders over his immoral federal budget proposals, his misuse of Catholic teaching and his allegiance to Ayn Rand, it seems that Ryan is trying to rehabilitate his image while clinging to his ideology. It’s no surprise that Ryan, a Catholic, would make a moral argument, but it’s shocking that he’d characterize safety net provisions supported by Catholic nuns and bishops as offering “an empty soul.”
This is more than just Ryan’s personal crusade. I suspect we’ll see a lot more of this kind of rhetoric from conservative politicians in the months ahead, but they still strongly oppose effective anti-poverty measures like raising the minimum wage and tax fairness policies like closing massive loopholes for big corporations that don’t pay any taxes.
What they’re left with, then, are empty moral platitudes in service of the same old extremist agenda. We have to counter that with a vision for an economy that honors the dignity of work and enables all families to flourish.
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For me, Lent is always a powerful time of reflection and prayer on self-sacrifice. Those who strive to build the beloved Community bring new life out of the ashes of sin and brokenness.
Last winter the “Fast for Families” movement put immigration reform back on Congress’ agenda. This month faith, immigration and labor leaders launched “Fast for Families Across America, a seven week bus tour that will visit 75 Congressional districts to help change the hearts and minds of members of Congress who continue to oppose long overdue immigration reform. Twenty-eight Catholic college and university presidents who fasted on Ash Wednesday reflected: “As we begin this sacred season and remember Christ’s journey of suffering the desert wilderness we pray for immigrants who hunger and thirst for justice.” You can sign up to join the fast here.
Fighting for family wages
Yesterday as I stood with faith leaders and U.S Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) to call for raising the minimum wage, I met a mom who reminded me of the sacrifices mothers and families are making in an economy that fails to honor their work with living wages. The prophet Isaiah said, “My chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands,” yet today millions of workers cannot enjoy the fruit of their labor by seeing their families thrive.
A bold rebuke in Arizona
Last week evangelical leaders issued a statement boldly calling on their own communities to oppose legislation like Arizona’s SB 1062, which would have discriminated against gay people in the name of religious freedom. Their statementsaid in part: “We believe that the current position that many Evangelical leaders are taking on issues of discrimination toward the gay community directly contradict that posture of radical love and grace that Jesus so powerfully embodied in his life and teachings.” As other states consider similar bills, they will have to contend with strong opposition across the religious spectrum.
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Saturday’s Moral March to the North Carolina state capitol was a watershed moment in the faith community’s long movement to build a more perfect union in the face of injustice. More than 80,000 people cheered in joy as Rev. William Barber II invoked the Gospel and the prophets in a message far more bold and profound than any stump speech you’ll ever hear. This was no political rally, it was a faithful call to higher ground.
In an era of political paralysis, it takes a deep moral critique such as this to change the terms of debate in the halls of power and in the media.
For example, until very recently politicians could dismiss the discussion of economic inequality – one of the defining issues of our time — as class warfare. Now, thanks in part to the witness of faith leaders like Rev. Barber, the Nuns on the Bus, and most recently Pope Francis, it’s a debate that cannot be silenced.
Instead of stale arguments about the size of government and overwrought rhetoric about austerity, political leaders must now confront a much more important issue: the soulless way our economy excludes families while showering an elite few with near boundless wealth.
The conviction that a moral economy must strengthen families and allow all people to live with dignity has taken hold, and it will only grow stronger as we continue to preach and march.
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This op-ed by Faith in Public Life CEO Jennifer Butler originally appeared at NC Policy Watch’s blog, The Progressive Pulse.
The recent criticisms leveled by newspaper columnist J. Peder Zane and others against Rev. William Barber II for using religious and moral language to inspire political change displayed a disregard for history and even contempt for the role of faith in public life.
As we commemorate the 54th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-in that sought to end legal segregation, let’s never forget that the Civil Rights movement was a religiously inspired, prophetic movement led by pastors and diverse people of faith. The late Franklin McCain, one of the Greensboro Four, said the question that inspired him and three other students at the Agricultural and Technical College (AT&T) of North Carolina in Greensboro was this: “At what point does a moral man act against injustice?”
Religious leaders have been central to movements that drive political change. The struggle to end the evil of slavery, create fair labor practices and secure equal rights for all citizens were profound moral causes. We are stronger as a country because determined people of faith challenged political and social threats to human dignity. The unfinished task of living up to the ideals of our democracy and stirring the conscience of Americans continues today.
Rev Barber is raising important and often uncomfortable questions about educational disparities, voting rights and economic injustice that impact not only North Carolinians, but the entire nation. Here are some telling signs of the times. CEOs often earn as much in a single day as their workers make in an entire year. Minimum wage jobs don’t pay enough to keep many hardworking Americas out of poverty. Half of all workers are not allowed to take a sick day without being docked pay or potentially losing their job. Congress is slashing food nutrition programs for struggling families even as corporations are coddled with tax breaks. These are moral scandals. Faith leaders will continue to speak truth to power.
The separation of church and state is meant to protect both religion and democracy. Because our government does not enforce an official religion, America has a diverse religious marketplace. Speaking from deeply held beliefs about the issues that affect us all is a healthy sign of pluralism and strength, not confining moralism. Those who argue that religious leaders should be silent in public debates have not only failed to learn the lessons of the past, they deprive us of powerful voices that can help forge a more just future.
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Earlier this week, a new study reported that as many as 17,000 Americans will die as a result of states refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. One of the authors of the report summed up the situation well: “Political decisions have consequences, some of them lethal.”
Since the Supreme Court ruled that states could opt-out of Medicaid expansion, 25 have chosen to do so. The results? As many as 5 million of the neediest Americans are missing out on vital health insurance for purely political reasons. Many of the states that would benefit most from expansion are the very states saying no.
Given the moral stakes, people of faith aren’t sitting silently while this tragedy unfolds. From Allentown, Pennsylvania to Mankato, Minnesota, they’re giving voice to a simple pro-life message: no American should die for lack of health care.
In Ohio, Faith in Public Life has worked closely with Nuns on the Bus Ohio and Ohio Prophetic Voices to pressure Gov. John Kasich to expand Medicaid against the wishes of his Tea Party state legislature, providing coverage to 275,000 Ohioans. Other Governors should heed Kasich’s thoughtful words: “Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.”
Just last week, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon met with more than 350 religious leaders at Missouri Faith Voices and invoked the words of the Prophet Isaiah as he recommitted himself to enacting Medicaid expansion. He’ll need their leadership as this life-saving policy faces heated opposition in the state legislature.”
In the darkest days of the health care reform debate in 2010, when it looked like the legislation was destined for defeat, faith groups refused to give up hope. Nearly four years later, that struggle continues as religious leaders fight for a healthcare system that puts people ahead of politics.
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