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Are churches failing the poor?

By Jacob Lupfer/Religion News Service
On June 1, 2015

President Obama participates in a discussion about poverty during a summit on poverty at Georgetown University earlier in the month. Obama and Georgetown professor Robert Putnam (3rd from left) had similar criticism on the Church’s lack of focus on poverty.
Credit: Pete Souza/White House

(RNS) – Against the backdrop of persistent poverty and dramatically increasing income inequality, a question arose: are churches failing the poor?

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat took President Obama to task for stating that churches are more focused on fighting abortion and same-sex marriage than on relieving poverty.

The comment was made at a recent Georgetown University summit on poverty. One of Obama’s fellow panelists, Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam, made similar comments before the event.

It turns out that churches contribute only a fraction of their money toward culture war issues. And twice as many churchgoers report hearing clergy speak out about hunger and poverty than about abortion and gay marriage.

Aside from whatever spiritual benefits accrue, churches are engines of social capital that nurture a variety of goods benefiting poor people – if they participate. Douthat laments the decline of religious participation among the poor.

While Douthat has been less willing than some to heap moral judgment on the poor, this much is certain: poor people need more money, and churches lack the scale and competence to meet that need. There is much churches are doing, and Douthat righty challenged them to do more.

On the question of whether Christians are failing the poor, Douthat implies that the answer is no. But the poverty and inequality we see today are due to policy choices we – Christians included – have made over the past two generations.

Attacking unions; sanctifying entitlements for the middle class while demonizing entitlements for the poor; tolerating a level of income and wealth inequality that many people consider obscene – all these changes happened while conservative Christians were silent or, even cheering them on.

The social isolation of poor people is a major theme in Putnam’s new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” Maybe having social connections to professional-class churchgoers would help poor people eventually. But people who experience constant economic insecurity in the richest nation on earth need help now.

Douthat suggests that churches can transmit bourgeois sensibilities to poor people in the pews, where virtues that lead to upward mobility are cultivated alongside worship and prayer.

In showing what Christians do for the poor, conservatives can also point to the Roman Catholic Church’s strong support for robust welfare spending. But that sounds especially disingenuous coming from people who oppose such spending.

It is unfortunate that the president and a leading social scientist perpetuated the uncritically accepted myth that churches do more on sex issues than on poverty. But if “doing” is shorthand for political activism, then the critique has some merit.

When has the religious right gone to the mat for social assistance programs that keep people from going hungry, cold or homeless?

The Circle of Protection is a coalition of Christian groups asking Congress not to cut spending on programs that help the most vulnerable. The coalition seeks to protect food stamps, unemployment benefits and a few other vital programs.

Breadths of denominational and ecumenical organizations have joined the Circle of Protection, but many leading White evangelicals are missing from the effort.

Even if churches were better bulwarks against the social isolation of the poor, it takes significant public investments to combat poverty.

The context of Obama and Putnam’s ill-considered remarks was a summit of evangelical and Catholic leaders seeking to make overcoming poverty a moral imperative and a national priority.

Even though Christians can be as ideological and polarized as anyone else, the Georgetown summit acknowledged both the cultural and economic factors that cause poverty to persist.

What do Christians owe the poor? Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. Surely comfortable churchgoers must do more than say, “Be more like me.”

Private charity remains a religious obligation that benefits the giver as well as the recipient. And Christians generously help disadvantaged people in their congregations and around the world.

But without concrete political support for poor people across town and across the country, Christians will continue applying Band-Aids to social injustices.

Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com.

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