Last year amid the heated debates over the 2012 federal budget, a group of liberal Christian clergy and activists formed the “Circle of Protection” in an effort to “protect programs for the poor.” This week, the Circle debuted video responses from each presidential candidate stating how they would address poverty in America if elected. The group made clear they do not officially endorse either candidate, and view these videos as an opportunity to start a “dialogue” about poverty in America.
President Obama’s message seemed to align with the Circle of Protection strategy to address poverty by protecting and even expanding existing programs. He explained that although “government can’t solve every problem … that’s not an excuse to tell our fellow Americans that they’re on their own. We are all in this together as one people, one American family, one nation under God.”
Governor Romney acknowledged the need for some safety net programs, but emphasized the importance of jobs and creating an economy with “fewer people on the welfare rolls and more people on the payroll.”
At a press conference where the videos debuted, a panel of Circle of Protection signers offered comments and answered questions about considering poverty in the 2012 election. Galen Carey, of the National Association of Evangelicals “we need a robust debate about how to best allocate our resources to accomplish that goal [of ending poverty].”
Carey mentioned the role of churches in reducing poverty by “Promoting healthy marriages and families, strong character and discipline, integrity, justice, and generosity toward those in need.” He continued: “But government must also do its part. Many more people would be poor and hungry without the policies and programs and funding that provide relief to millions of Americans.”
Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners and a key member of the Circle stated: “Across the political and theological spectrum, the faith community is putting aside differences and taking up the biblical vocation of protecting the poor and bringing their stories and struggles to light. It’s because of this unprecedented unity around those whom Jesus called ‘the least of these’ that the presidential candidates felt they had to respond.”
When discussing poverty and hunger, Wallis and the Circle of Protection frequently reference Matthew 25:31-46 where Jesus clearly sets forth his expectation for his followers to care for the poor, and states: “as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me.” This is a passage all Christians must take seriously and obey. But it is at least a bit anachronistic to interpret Jesus’ command to care for the poor as a mandate that the U.S. federal budget include expansive entitlement programs.
Wallis explained: “[W]hen casting a ballot, every Christian should have ‘the least of these’ on their minds.” Christians should absolutely include moral considerations in their vote, but you cannot truly love your neighbor by voting any particular way. The love Jesus speaks of is the kind that bears your literal neighbors’ burdens, and places their needs ahead of your own. It is the kind of love that is maddeningly difficult – much more more so than telling your congressman to support food stamps or voting for a certain presidential candidate in November.
I have no doubt that the members of the Circle of Protection do indeed care for their neighbors in addition to their advocacy, and their apparently revised agenda to start a discussion among Christians about the best way to care for the poor is better than past statements that doing so necessarily means bolstering government welfare. And if, like they say, they want a genuine, productive discussion on poverty, that is good. They are right to point out that arguments from “the other side” that private charity will spring from thin air if only government would get out of the way are too simplistic – but so is depending primarily on state programs to “solve” poverty.
Poverty, its causes and solutions are more complicated than either of these purported fixes assume it to be. Perhaps a better place to start in addressing poverty is the high correlation between single-parent families and child poverty, which has been known for a long time and was reaffirmed by the recent US census report. Whatever you think about the ultimate cause of poverty, the dramatic difference in poverty rates between married families and single-parent ones should lead to deep concern, especially within the Church, about the state of marriage.
There is no easy solution to poverty. As Christians, we must recognize that and not put too much faith in either the government or the free market to care for the poor and hungry, but focus on following Jesus’ command to care for the needy in our communities.