(Photo: Reuters / Larry Downing)
Amid ongoing negotiations on Capitol Hill over the national debt limit, Christian leaders are looking to make allies with Congress and the White House in order to ensure benefits and entitlements for the poor at home and abroad.
On Wednesday, faith leaders met with President Obama to pray, read scriptures and urge him to protect the poor. Before meeting the president, the leaders met with Republican Rep. Paul Ryan. They are now setting their sights on sit-downs with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell.
"We are not among those who want to kick the can down the road," said Galen Carey, vice president of Government Relations for the National Association of Evangelicals.
Carey and members of the faith coalition Circle of Protection believe the budget is a moral issue that they must address now rather than later.
Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of the United States Catholic Bishops Conference told reporters in a press call Thursday that he and others are not promoting one political plan over the other. They simply want to ensure that the final plan protects programs, benefits and aid crucial to the poor in America and overseas.
"We are not worried who will win but we are concerned with who will lose," said Ramirez.
The Circle of Protection is the newest and most diverse coalition in a string of faith-based coalitions against cuts to funding dedicated to "the least of these."
Unlike Sojourners' "What Would Jesus Cut" campaign and the Evangelicals for Social Action's "Call for Intergenerational Justice" coalition, the Circle of Protection brings together right-wing and left-wing evangelicals, Catholics and Protestants, and black churches and white churches.
Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-facilitator of the National African American Clergy Network, said of the diversity, "I believe that it added to the spiritual dynamic" during the meeting with President Obama.
However, fiscal conservatives accuse these groups of opposing any and all budget cuts to costly entitlement programs and favoring raising taxes for the rich.
The faith leaders said that they approve of an approach that incorporates tax increases as well as entitlement reform and cuts as long as the burden of those cuts does not land disproportionately on the poor.
They did, however, express support for food stamps, which they believe would alleviate the burden of the "new poor" – the recent college graduates and white-collar professionals who are struggling with unemployment and underemployment.
The coalition leaders also shared Obama's concern for Medicaid health care coverage for low-income people and their families.
Carey, whose evangelical organization represents more than 45,000 local churches from over 40 different denominations, said cuts to Medicaid may mean less hospital care to the needy who can't afford the expense.
Republicans assert their plan does not cut funding for low-income America, but replaces it with grants that would give users more control over their care decisions. Additionally, they claim the plan will not cut health care benefits to older Americans.
Obama told the faith leaders they should be concerned with Medicaid cuts made on the national level and in states. His administration recently threatened to cut Medicaid funding to states redirecting federal funds away from clinics operated by abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood.
The Circle of Protection leaders insist their primary focus is on the poor.
During the meeting, Williams-Skinner said she held hands with the president and prayed for wisdom. They also read Matthew 25, which exhorts the reader to use their resources wisely as well as beckons the reader to care for the "the least of these." To do so is to care for Jesus himself, the chapter reads.
Williams-Skinner said the president was receptive to their prayers and showed familiarity with Matthew 25.
Carey added, "We clearly understood from the president that he is aware of the issues.”