Churches should stop spending so much time fighting against abortion and gay marriage and do more about poverty and suffering, some say. There are three important points to keep in mind when you hear this claim.
Hosted by the National Association of Evangelicals and Georgetown's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, the May 11-13 Catholic-Evangelical Summit on Overcoming Poverty brought together both Evangelicals and Catholics, liberals and conservatives, to discuss how churches can better address poverty. There were 17 sessions in all. Solutions offered dealt not only with what local churches can do, but the roles government, business and labor can play as well.
The spirit of the conference was one of mutual cooperation — where can these diverse voices work together on points of agreement to deal with a serious problem. In that sense, the conference was a breath of fresh air, given the divisive rhetoric that often dominates our public debates. Sadly, some of the media coverage of the event was not consistent with this spirit.
Speakers included members of Congress and representatives from a number of religious groups, nonprofit organizations and think tanks. The most high profile speaker, and the one that, of course, got the most media coverage, was President Barack Obama, who appeared on a panel with Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks.
To be fair, several of Obama's comments were not in keeping with the spirit of the conference either.
He started well, noting that much of our poverty debates use straw man arguments: Liberals "just want to pour more money into social programs, and don't care anything about culture or parenting or family structures." Conservatives are "cold-hearted, free market, capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and think everybody are moochers."
"The truth is more complicated," Obama said.
As the discussion progressed, however, Obama engaged in some of the stereotyping he rightly condemned. The real obstacles to fighting poverty are Republican leaders and Fox News, he insinuated. He even used an argument that he already identified as straw man and blamed Ayn Rand-reading CEO's for poverty. His comments about Fox News, especially, got a lot of media attention. (Fox News itself seemed particularly appreciative of the mention.)
Obama also suggested that churches should spend less time on the issues of abortion and gay marriage and more time on the issue of poverty.
"This may sound self-interested because these [poverty issues] are areas where I agree with the evangelical community and faith-based groups, and then there are issues where we have had disagreements around reproductive issues, or same-sex marriage, or what have you. And so, maybe it appears advantageous for me to want to focus on these issues of poverty, and not as much on these other issues. ...
Obama continued: "There is great caring and great concern, but when it comes to what are you really going to the mat for, what's the defining issue, when you're talking in your congregations, what's the thing that is really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians, or as Catholics, or what have you, that this is oftentimes viewed as a 'nice to have' relative to an issue like abortion. That's not across the board, but there sometimes has been that view, and certainly that's how it's perceived in our political circles," he said.
The day before, The Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein published an interview with Putnam in which he made a similar point.
After Boorstein asked, "where have the churches been?" Putnam answered, "The obvious fact is that over the last 30 years, most organized religion has focused on issues regarding sexual morality, such as abortion, gay marriage, all of those. I'm not saying if that's good or bad, but that's what they've been using all their resources for. This is the most obvious point in the world. It's been entirely focused on issues of homosexuality and contraception and not at all focused on issues of poverty."
The "entirely focused" quote naturally received a lot of attention from conservative Christians. The answer was odd, however, given that much of Putnam's own work over nearly two decades, and his answer to the question right before that one, showed the exact opposite.
In Bowling Alone (2000) and American Grace (2013) (with David Campbell), he wrote much about the important role churches have played in alleviating poverty. And his most recent book, Our Kids (2015), continues that trend. So Putnam should be forgiven for one awkwardly worded sentence.
Putnam does not stop with his praise for the work of churches, he also talks about what more churches can do, given that poor children have become increasingly isolated from churches.
In an April interview with The Christian Post about Our Kids, he said: "Religious communities are really important. I've written a whole book about how important religious communities are, as a source of social support. I think the fact that working class people and working class kids have fallen away from religious communities is really unfortunate. So, I think there is a major role for churches to play, and not just with respect to family structure and marriage, but also with respect to helping these kids. They are desperately alone, these kids are."
Besides the misrepresentations, and mis-emphases, that have occured in this current debate over whether the culture wars have distracted the church from fighting poverty, there are three important points to keep in mind.
1. Churches have done much, and can do more.
This point sounds so obvious one wonders why it needs to be said. After all, as long as there is poverty, churches can, and should, do more.
It needs to be said, though, because too often in these churches and poverty debates the message "churches need to do more" is interpreted as "churches have not done much," and "churches have done a lot" is interpreted as "churches have done all they can."
2. Liberals are making it harder for Christians to care for the poor.
One of the reasons churches and Christians have gotten involved in the culture wars is to defend their ability to continue caring for the poor.
There was some irony in Obama's claim that "reproductive issues" were distracting the church from fighting poverty when his own administration is attempting to punish the Little Sisters of the Poor over "reproductive issues."
The "little sisters" are not Christian Right culture warriors. It is a Catholic nonprofit social service agency that cares for poor elderly people.
The Little Sisters sued the Obama administration because the birth control mandate violated its religious beliefs. If Obama had his way, the Little Sisters would be paying fines that would otherwise be going to help the poor. If he really does not want "reproductive issues" to get in the way of caring for the poor, he could give the Little Sisters an exemption from the birth control mandate.
It is not just the Little Sisters, however. This same dynamic, of liberals prioritizing abortion or gay marriage above the poverty-alleviating work of Christian social service organizations, is playing out across several federal, state and local policies. In Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, for instance, Catholic adoption agencies have been forced out because they only place orphans in homes with a married mom and dad.
As state-recognized gay marriage spreads to more states, and may become national policy with a Supreme Court decision next month, Christian social service organizations could continue to be forced to choose between their faith and serving the poor, if exemptions are not provided. And as we have seen in states like Indiana and Louisiana, liberals have been fairly hostile to the notion of providing exemptions to Christians who do not follow liberal orthodoxy.
3. Fighting for marriage is an anti-poverty fight.
Lastly, one of the reasons Christians are so concerned about marriage is because they are concerned about poverty. If marriage is redefined in public policy, and that link between marriage and procreation is broken, the poor will suffer the most from the change, they point out.
Whether one agrees with this reasoning or not, there is no doubt that traditional marriage defenders are motivated out of a concern for the poor.
Listen, for instance, to Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, speaking at the Institute on Religion and Democracy's 2014 Diane Knippers Memorial Lecture on Oct. 16, 2014. The video was taken during the Q&A, after George delivered his prepared remarks.
One can see in his body language, and hear in his voice, that he is speaking from the heart when he says he is in the marriage fight "precisely because I want to fight poverty. Because I want young people to grow up with the kinds of material, moral and spiritual advantages that you have only where there's a healthy marriage culture."