The Common Good

Mainline Churches Lose Overall on Budget but Emerge With Clearer Voice

Source: Beliefnet
Date: August 16, 2011
Washington - When mainline Protestant leaders came here last March to denounce President Bush's proposed budget as "unjust," they were received much like the Old Testament prophets they look to for inspiration.

Another lonely voice, crying out in the wilderness.

By year's end, the budget they rejected as immoral had passed through Congress, although only by the narrowest of margins -- Vice President Dick Cheney was called in to break a 50-50 tie in the Senate.

And even though they lost the budget battle, activists say they have succeeded at something more important and long-lasting. They have finally been heard, they say, and have discovered a way to portray arcane budget debates into stark moral choices that test the nation's commitment to the poor.

"I think what's changed is over a period of years ... there has emerged a wide agreement that poverty is a central biblical concern, and that did not used to be the case," said the Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, the general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. "That's a gigantic shift."

The biggest win church-based activists could claim in the budget battle is a proposed $575 million cut to food stamps that was scrapped by the Senate. The final budget passed on Dec. 21 by the Senate -- awaiting a final vote in the House -- contains nearly $40 billion in overall cuts, including Medicaid, student loans and child care.

On a related issue, Episcopalians claimed victory when the Senate rejected, then added, then rejected again, a plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The church opposes the plan because the Gwich'in tribe, which relies on caribou herds in the region, are overwhelmingly Episcopalians.

Still, activists were quick to claim credit where they could.

"When we began this year, no one would have guessed that the vice president would be needed to break a tie on the budget," said Maureen Shea, director of the Episcopalians' Washington office. "Our advocacy made a difference."

Added the Rev. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: "Our voices of opposition were heard, and have provided a tangible sign that the church is living out the gospel of Jesus Christ ... in our own day."

For years, Catholic and mainline Protestant churches have lobbied for social service programs to aid the poor. In the 1980s, it was the Catholic bishops who said the U.S. budget is -- or should be -- a moral document.

But this year was the first time they came together in a concerted, coordinated effort to save those programs. The poverty exposed by Hurricane Katrina, combined with millions in tax cuts that critics argue benefit the wealthy, helped focus the debate.

Experts say it may have been the 2004 elections, which saw the emergence of "values voters" and the awakening of a moribund progressive community, that helped focus activists' attempts to paint the budget as a values issue.

"The basic concern about the poor and preventing budget cuts is not a new concern," said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "They're just more vocal and active about it than they have been in a long time."

On Dec. 14, 114 activists convened by Call to Renewal, a progressive Christian anti-poverty group, were arrested outside the U.S. Capitol in a peaceful protest against the budget. Such a direct confrontation over the budget was a new strategy for activists, and it got them noticed.

"These voices were heard, and they were heard as voices that had a real religious integrity to them, and that's the first step," said Granberg-Michaelson, who attended the protest but did not get arrested.

The protest, organized by Call to Renewal founder Jim Wallis, included young and old, black and white, evangelical and liberal. Wallis said his young turks -- and many of them were young -- had taken the debate beyond traditional "liberal-conservative" lines.

But a major challenge that remains is broadening that message to other faith groups that are more galvanized by hot-button social issues like gay marriage and abortion.

Indeed, the influential Family Research Council urged a vote in support of the budget bill, and Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, called the budget boring and dismissed the debate as more "liberal social gospel."

Green, an expert on religion and politics, said church groups have succeeded in "laying down a marker" in future budget debates and even the 2006 elections, but must find a way to widen their appeal.

"This group is preaching to the choir and not to the whole church yet," Green said. "That's a real challenge that they face, how to broaden their message to other groups."