Christians on the right and the left generally approach poverty from different perspectives, but challenging economic times are generating efforts at collaboration.
A coalition of leaders from across the political spectrum, including Chuck Donovan of the conservative Family Research Council, as well as Jim Wallis of the left-leaning Christian ministry Sojourners, recently announced the formation of a new Poverty Forum. The forum is the latest in a series of efforts to throw moral weight behind initiatives to address poverty and social justice.
In a statement to the National Press Association last week the forum laid out plans to push beyond traditional ideologies that have divided conservatives and liberals in their respective approaches.
Those approaches center largely on whether efforts to combat poverty should be left up to individual philanthropy or systematic government programs, as well as whether spiritual poverty is related to financial poverty.
According to Darby Ray, professor of religious studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, the right approaches poverty from the broad platform of “family values.” Promoting healthy marriages and building strong domestic units figures largely in the effort to overcome what’s often been called the culture of poverty.
Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, said most Americans agree that family values are the best way to keep homes together. “Children need a mother and a father, sex should be between married people, moral values such as we get from the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount are universal,” said Wildmon.
Translated into the theological spectrum, the right’s approach means standing against far-reaching government programs for addressing poverty, advocating instead for individual generosity as the best means for helping the poor.
“The dilemma has been between how much to give people as charity and how much to expect them to do for themselves,” said Wildmon.
This approach, Ray said, reflects a kind of “spiritualization” of poverty. “There’s a lot of concern with the poverty of the soul,” said Ray. “In a sense, the real poor are those without Jesus in their hearts.”
Ray said some conservatives interpret Jesus’ words in Matt. 26:11 literally, “The poor you will always have with you; you will not always have me.” Therefore, the urgency to save souls outstrips the urgency to promote economic equality.
But not all Christians share the literal biblical perspective of the Christian right, and many contend that the concept of family values is increasingly hard to define. According to Bishop Clarence Parks of Temple of Compassion and Deliverance in Tupelo, particularly within the African-American community, the idea of a “normal” family varies.
“Sometimes, because of the culture or the situation that people are brought up in, their idea of family is very different from what others would see as normal,” said Parks, adding that efforts to combat poverty shouldn’t start with ideological presuppositions but with practical application.
“We have to deal with issues as they are in the world,” he said.
Ray said the left has been more concerned with poverty per se but has done a poor job of articulating a coherent theological rationale for addressing it. She said that as the Social Gospel gained prominence among Christians on the left, with its humanistic emphasis, Christians on the right saw the movement both as irreligious and as “big government.”
“The left’s approach has been seen almost as a secular agenda,” said Ray.
Among other initiatives the Poverty Forum will promote conservative priorities like extending the child-care tax credit to stay-at-home mothers and liberal goals such as raising the minimum wage. The forum will also call for stronger efforts to promote marriage, more subsidies for AIDS medication, and more federal spending to help teens and ex-convicts find work. Wildmon said that, at least in theory, he could get behind most of the agenda.
“Who wouldn’t want to raise minimum wage?” asked Wildmon. “AIDS research gets a disproportionately large sum of funding compared to diseases that actually kill more people like heart disease and cancer. Still, these all seem like good points.”
The U.S. Census reports that one in eight Americans, more than 37 million, live below the poverty line. For a family of four that’s just over $22,000.
In Mississippi one in five people is officially poor. Add to that the fact that in 2008, 53.7 percent of babies in Mississippi were born to unwed mothers – as opposed to 40 percent, nationally – and statistics don’t bode well for one of the poorest states. Nationwide, according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, as many as 10 million more people could slip below the poverty line before the recession ends.
The urgency of the situation is causing many Christians to seriously evaluate their differences.
The Rev. Paul Stephens, rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church said it’s “unfathomable” how conservatives and liberals have so long allowed their differences to divide them.
“We all agree that what we’re doing should be driven by the gospel,” said Stephens. “Very simply, we’re guided by Jesus’ love. We see people in need and we’re called to help them.”
Ray of Millsaps said the real breakthrough the Poverty Forum promises is just getting the left and right to agree that poverty is a moral issue. She considers Wallis at Sojourners’ a catalyst in bringing together committed conservatives and liberals to fight poverty. “He’s helped redefine the Christian issues of our time,” she said.
Stephens said he’s seen practical examples of people from the right and the left putting aside their differences in time of urgent need. Before coming to Tupelo he worked extensively with Camp Coast Care, a joint effort of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America cleaning and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.
Stephens said in addition to Episcopalians and Lutherans there were many people of more conservative ilk pitching in to help. In tough times, Stephens said, ideological tags like conservative and liberal don’t mean much.
“In the Episcopal Church, what we pray is what we believe, that Christians should be willing to open our hearts and to work together,” said Stephens. As for the potential of the Poverty Forum to bring together conservatives and liberals over the issue of poverty, Stephens said, “We pray we’ll be empowered to do what the gospel challenges us to do.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org