WASHINGTON – Political leaders need to make poverty a priority, a group of Christian political leaders urged Wednesday. On the day that the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual figures on poverty, Circle of Protection announced the release of videos by both of the major parties' presidential candidates, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, addressing poverty.
Circle of Protection requested the videos from both the candidates. The organization of religious leaders formed to bring attention to the issue of poverty does not endorse either candidate, nor did the members at Wednesday's press conference suggest that one candidate's remarks were preferred over another. Rather, the stated goal was to encourage political leaders, at all levels of government, to make concerns about the poor central to policy debates.
"Today, our nation got a report card, a Matthew 25 report card. And friends, the news isn't good," said Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-facilitator of the National African American Clergy Network. "We are here this morning because our scriptures give us a clear measurement on how we should judge the health of our nation and that ruler to which we hold ourselves is how 'the least of these' are doing."
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable in which, on the day of judgment, God separates the righteous from the unrighteous based upon how they treated the hungry, strangers and prisoners. God will answer, "truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me," Jesus said.
Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners, also referenced Matthew 25 in his remarks.
"The biblical prophets clearly say that a nation's righteousness is determined by how it treats its poor and vulnerable. And Jesus could not be more clear in the 25th chapter of Matthew, the ways that we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the homeless, the sick, the prisoner -- all those left out and left behind -- is the way we treat him."
Wallis and Williams-Skinner were joined at the press conference by Bishop Stephen Blaire, chair of the committee on domestic justice and human development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Rev. Michael Livingston, former president of the National Council of Churches, the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, and Galen Carey, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals.
Several of the speakers noted that poverty was barely mentioned at either the Republican or Democratic national conventions. Both campaigns have focused their attention on middle class voters.
In the videos, both candidates sounded some of their familiar talking points while also speaking to the problem of poverty. Obama spoke about preserving tax cuts for the poor and middle class. Romney spoke of the need for job growth.
The United States "can't ask the poor, the sick, or those with disabilities to sacrifice even more, or ask the middle class to pay more, just so we can offer massive new tax cuts to those who've been blessed with the most," Obama said.
"When our economy is weak, lives are shattered, hearts ache, parents wonder how they'll make ends meet, and how they'll provide better lives for their children," Romney said.
Beckmann noted that there was a lot of agreement between the two candidates, but also one omission -- neither candidate spoke about poverty outside the United States.
"I was really encouraged that the candidates said good things about poverty. They, in fact, agreed on a lot of things -- the importance of jobs, the importance of charity, the importance of government programs. But they also both agreed to not talk about poor people in other countries and there are 1.3 billion extremely poor people in other countries. For us, as people of faith, compassion doesn't stop at the border," Beckmann said.
The Circle of Protection was formed in 2011 and has over 65 leaders of Christian organizations, including denominations, relief agencies and political advocacy organizations.
Both videos can be viewed below, or at the Circle of Protection website.