John Gehring, Faith in Public Life’s Senior Writer and Catholic Outreach Coordinator, joined FPL after three years at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He blogs about Catholics in public life.
Forty years ago this summer, social justice activists, labor unions and faith leaders celebrated a historic victory when the United Farm Workers of America ended a grape boycott after growers agreed to sign their first contract with the union. The news from California these days is not as sunny.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ignored calls from Catholic priests, labor unions and workers’ rights groups when he recently vetoed a bill passed by both houses of the state legislature that would have made farm workers eligible for overtime pay if they worked more than an eight-hour day. The bill would have also given the workers the right to take one day off out of seven. (I’m not a Biblical scholar, but even God rested on the seventh day!)
Instead, the governor – who as a newly arrived immigrant in the United States was no stranger to hard labor as a bricklayer – sided with the state’s influential agribusiness lobby, citing his concern that he would put the growers at a competitive disadvantage.
This is another sad example of how a commitment to human dignity is sacrificed for corporate profits, a characteristic sign of a capitalist system that has lost it moral bearings. For more on this, read Pope Benedict’s latest encyclical – a timely reflection on economic justice and the ethical limits of free-market fundamentalism. As Interfaith Worker Justice points out, farm workers have one of the most punishing jobs possible. Exposed to hazardous pesticides and long hours, many live in company-owned labor camps.
Next time you’re enjoying peaches or corn this summer take a minute to remember how this bounty made it to your table.
Peace and justice activists from diverse religious traditions have decried bloated military budgets for decades. Now it seems their prophetic witness is picking up some traction in Washington. The National Catholic Reporter has an important front page story looking at this development.
As Capitol Hill is consumed by a fierce and often fact-free debate over our growing national debt, two public officials have forged an unlikely partnership. Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas), are calling for “substantial reductions in the projected level of American military spending as part of future deficit reduction efforts.” The subject of military spending “has been glaringly absent from public debate,” they wrote in a recent statement. “Yet the Pentagon budget for 2010 is $693 billion — more than all other discretionary spending programs combined.”
David Robinson, Executive Director of Pax Christi USA, the leading national Catholic peace group, thinks it’s about time deficit hawks start applying common sense to this issue.
“The deficit is going to be the battleground, budget-wise, in Congress for the next 18 months, and having the wisdom to include defense spending is going to be critical,” he told NCR. Deficit reduction measures normally fall hardest “on the poor and vulnerable,” Robinson said, “and people hurting now are going to be hurt further if military spending is not folded into the deficit reduction debate. By introducing defense spending — which I would argue is the real culprit behind deficit spending — poor people will take less of a hit.”
For those tempted to dismiss these arguments as mere peacenik propaganda, remember it was Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in World War II, who in 1961 presciently warned about the growing dangers of a “military industrial complex.” Recently, even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has spoken out against excessive spending on unnecessary weapons systems and Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University and retired U.S. Army Colonel, has emerged as a trenchant critic of how Democrats and Republicans alike have eagerly fed the machinery of war with a remarkably bipartisan spirit. His most recent book is aptly titled: “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.” Check him out on the Rachel Maddow Show last night:
Not long ago, many Democrats stumbled when talking about faith. While Republicans embraced Biblical language, built grassroots networks with influential pastors and took faith outreach to unprecedented levels during the 2004 election, Democrats largely failed to articulate moral convictions in a way that resonated with religious voters.
This storyline has changed over the last few years, as chronicled by Time magazine’s Amy Sullivan, whose 2008 book The Party Faithful shows how Democrats are learning to connect with voters by articulating their values and identifying common concerns rather than relying simply on wonky policy arguments. Over the last few years, we’ve seen the Democrats recruit candidates more comfortable with religious appeals, endorse common-ground efforts to reduce abortion and recognize that ceding the values debate to the Christian right makes for both bad policy and bad politics.
Today on Capitol Hill, ten Democratic senators – including Debbie Stabenow, Sherrod Brown, Dick Durbin, Amy Klobuchar and Sheldon Whitehouse – fielded questions from religion reporters as part of an hour-long roundtable discussion organized by the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee. The wide-ranging forum included observations about how faith-based organizations impact legislative debates and the personal struggles Members of Congress face when they publicly disagree with Church leaders.
Sen. Stabenow, who chaired the meeting, acknowledged that without the tireless advocacy of many faith-based groups health care reform would have fizzled. On difficult issues such as abortion, she said, Democrats are seeking common ground across ideological lines even as they emphasis a broad social justice agenda. “It’s very easy to stereotype issues and narrowly define them,” Stabenow said. “But there is a broadly shared set of values.”
Sen. Durbin, a Catholic, acknowledged his personal disagreement with aspects of Catholic teaching, and also lamented the Catholic bishops’ opposition to the final health care bill. He praised the work of Catholic sisters who supported reform. “I struggle with my Church on many issues,” he said. “For me it comes down to conscience. It’s not about dogma…My Church teaches it’s wrong to give out condoms in Africa. I can’t explain or justify this.” This prompted Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Lutheran, to reflect on his support for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s recent vote to allow gay ministers. He also added a word of praise for the Catholic Church. “There is no one who has done more for economic justice in the world than the Catholic Church,” Brown said.
It’s clear that Democrats have made strides in talking about faith. They still have work to do. The meeting opened with a full-throated defense of the Democrats’ economic policies (complete with a detailed graph on display) that sounded more like the day’s standard talking points than the values message the Senators came to discuss. Ten minutes into the presentation, religion reporters’ eyes were glazing over until someone finally mentioned the words faith and values.
Michael Sean Winters, one of the most intriguing and even-handed writers exploring the intersection of faith and politics, has been running a series of interviews at his recently launched National Catholic Reporter blog, Distinctively Catholic. Among commentators recently profiled on his blog include FPL Executive Director Jennifer Butler, who recently spoke about the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform.
Winters’ Q & A this morning with Sister Mary Ann Walsh, Director of Media Relations at the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, caught my eye. (Full disclosure: Walsh was my boss when I worked at USCCB.) Winters asked her “what the Shirley Sherrod episode tells us about race and politics in the age of Obama.” Sister Mary Ann blasts what she calls “pseudo-journalists” like blogger Andrew Breitbart, who “broke” the Sherrod non-story, and reminds us that in-the-gutter reporting is not just a recent phenomenon, but a modern-day incarnation of yellow journalism practiced during the late 19th century when newspaper publishers like Hearst and Pulitzer battled for readers.
Walsh compares today’s pervasive “journalistic hit squads” to fringe groups that often claim the mantle of Church teaching and orthodoxy to do their dirty work. In particular, she condemns the Catholic News Agency’s recent claim that Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S bishops’ conference, criticized the Catholic Health Association and Catholic sisters in a closed-door meeting for supporting health care reform:
Journalistic travesty includes more than anonymous attacks. In June, a news agency pursued its agenda by inventing quotes and ascribing them to Cardinal Francis George. When first called on it, the agency defended the story. When top editors realized they’d done wrong, they still did not issue a public correction or apology.
Many such groups claim the word “orthodox” for themselves. They dismiss those who do not agree with them or their approach as “unorthodox.” People of a different opinion or approach are accused of setting up a “parallel magisterium.” These are serious condemnations in a church which holds fidelity to its teachings as paramount. Despite the fact that theology and canon law are matters of careful analyses, these groups bring the subtlety of a meat cleaver to church discussions. In what is not unrelated, many of these groups use such attacks as part of their fundraising apparatus.
As we noted when this story emerged, CNA is more of a right-wing propaganda outlet than a legitimate news source, but such powerful condemnation is rare from the U.S. bishops – influential religious leaders whose teachings are often hijacked by self-righteous zealots with partisan agendas. Deal Hudson, Bill Donohue and Co. should consider themselves put on notice.
NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby on Capitol Hill, has long been a tireless advocate for those whose voices are rarely heard in Washington’s marbled corridors of power. Their small staff of Catholic sisters and lay Catholics, along with the Catholic Health Association and women religious across the country, literally helped save health-care legislation when prospects for passage seemed bleak.
Yesterday, NETWORK released a sobering new report that should be read by any elected official or citizen concerned about our nation’s fraying social safety net. TANF Tested: Lives of Families in Poverty during the Recession paints a bleak picture of what happens when the good intentions of “welfare reform” crash into the realities of the worst economy since the Great Depression. For the past 14 years, NETWORK has tracked the monumental public policy experiment that began in 1996, when “welfare as we know it” (as Bill Clinton phrased it ) was replaced with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which imposed a strict five-year deadline on assistance and required recipients to enroll in welfare-to-work programs. Welfare rolls declined dramatically in many states. Centrist Democrats and Republicans declared victory. Advocates who work with the poor everyday witnessed a different reality.
This report is NETWORK’s third close look at TANF, and first since the economy tanked and unemployment soared. More than 800 interviews were conducted at 70 social service agencies, including food pantries, family centers and homeless shelters in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The findings are instructive if unsurprising. TANF’s “work first” emphasis poses major challenges when jobs are scarce. If middle-class college graduates are struggling to find work, a single mother without a high school degree is going to have serious difficulty. Over two-thirds of respondents were not working at the time of the survey, and one-fourth reported being laid off in the past year. Lack of child care and transportation were identified as major barriers to finding and keeping work.
NETWORK staff offers sensible recommendations to strengthen TANF, most notably changing its measure of success from reducing caseloads to reducing poverty. They also call the five-year limit on benefits “unrealistic” – especially during a time of high unemployment. Increasing access to education is also highlighted as a significant need that must be met if those on public assistance hope to improve their chances of finding work.
At a time when the debate on Capitol Hill is dominated by calls to reign in a ballooning deficit and cash-strapped states are tightening fiscal belts, politicos often forget about those barely holding on. “It’s easy for those in Washington to talk about numbers, percentages and graphs,” said Simone Campbell, NETWORK’s Executive Director. “But this is not just about numbers or a mythical safety net. It’s about the real struggles of families.”