The Common Good

Some on Hill want to 'save' Christmas, but others fight for the poor

Date: December 16, 2005

 WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As Christmas drew near in Washington, the juncture of two seemingly unrelated public campaigns came to symbolize the frustrations of those working to combat poverty in the United States.

As some in Congress pushed for a resolution objecting to efforts to ban traditional Christmas greetings, 114 faith-based activists volunteered to be arrested Dec. 14 on the Hill in a protest of how the House-passed budget treats the nation's poor.

As part of a nationwide week of prayer and action, the protesters sang hymns and prayed as they blocked an entrance to the Cannon House Office Building. Their goal was to illustrate their dissatisfaction with the House version of the budget, which reduces taxes for the wealthy and cuts funding for many social service programs.

"The House budget is a blatant reversal of biblical values," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, executive director of Sojourners and convener of Call to Renewal, a network of churches working to overcome poverty. "The faith community is outraged and is drawing a line in the sand against immoral national priorities."

Cutting programs that help the poor -- including Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies, child care assistance, and enforcement of child-support payment laws -- "is not just bad policy, it is a moral disgrace," he said at a rally that drew about 300 people in bitterly cold weather, with wind chills of about 15 degrees.

"There is a Christmas scandal in this nation that has nothing to do with people at shopping malls saying 'Happy Holidays' instead of 'Merry Christmas,'" said Rev. Wallis, a nondenominational evangelical Protestant minister.

He was one of several speakers to contrast their concerns with a campaign by some religious groups and politicians to encourage the use of the word Christmas instead of more generic terms and greetings. "The scandal is the budget in Congress," he said.

The House budget, passed Nov. 18 by a two-vote margin, would cut off food stamps for more than 250,000 by 2008, cut $10 billion from Medicaid funding, and reduce support for foster care, child support enforcement and aid to disabled people by $8 billion. It also would increase mandatory work hours for welfare recipients while underfunding a related child care program, cutting off 270,000 families.

The Senate's budget bill makes far less dramatic cuts. A reconciliation of the two budgets was likely to be finished before Congress recessed for Christmas Dec. 23.

In a Dec. 13 letter, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., president of the U.S. bishops, asked senators to continue to support the Senate version.

"I wish to express deep concerns and disappointment on the impact of certain proposed cuts on our most vulnerable brothers and sisters," Bishop Skylstad wrote. The House budget falls well short of the standard proposed by the bishops that it guarantee adequate funding to assist people trying to move off welfare, to educate their children, to gain access to health care and to overcome hunger and homelessness, he said.

Meanwhile, the same day as the "Budgets Are Moral Documents" protest outside the Capitol, House members echoed some of the campaign's points in floor debate over a resolution expressing disapproval of efforts to "ban references to Christmas."

The resolution, which passed in a 401-22 vote Dec. 15, was introduced by Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., who said the measure was "important because it defends the traditions of Christmas for those who celebrate Christmas." She argued that efforts to secularize Christmas are "political correctness run amok," where "Santa Claus, Christmas trees, candy canes, they have been placed on the endangered list."

Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., questioned whether Davis' measure is "another war we fight for reasons that do not exist. ... Nobody is attacking Christmas or its symbols."

The resolution is "symbols over substance," said Ackerman, who is Jewish. He added, "I like Christmas. I like the message of Christmas. I like helping the needy and the poor and the least among us, but I did not come here to protect the symbols. ... What silliness we engage in, protecting symbols.

"If you wanted to protect the message of Christmas, come to the floor with real bills of substance," he said. "Where is your bill to house the homeless? Where is your bill to feed the needy? Where is your bill to clothe the naked? Where is your bill to protect senior citizens who will not be able to heat their homes this winter?"

A Dec. 12 statement by the director of the Catholic Alliance for the Common Good, Alexia Kelley, said: "If Jesus entered a department store today, he wouldn't be worried about whether the advertising said 'Christmas' or 'holiday.' He would care if we were so stressed out about shopping that we didn't have enough time for family and friends.

"The Catholic social tradition calls us to ask if Wal-Mart workers and shoppers are earning a family wage, if they are able to feed their families and take their kids to the doctor."

An advertising campaign launched Dec. 15 by the National Catholic Rural Life Conference also encouraged people of faith to lobby 14 members of Congress to reject budget provisions that cut funding for food stamps, Medicaid, state child support, foster care and other programs.

"When Congress says, 'Slash the budget,' what are they really talking about? The poor. The hungry. the homeless," says the ad, running in Catholic newspapers in those representatives' congressional districts. "It is the vulnerable who struggle the most -- to eat, to grow, to survive."

The ad urges lawmakers "to remember the 'least of these' in our nation. In this season of giving, celebration and hope, it is the right -- and righteous -- thing to do."