The Common Good

What Happened to You, Mr. President?

Sojomail - September 27, 2007


"You bet your sweet bippy I will."

- Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), when asked whether he would vote to override President Bush's threatened veto of a bill to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Sen. Hatch called the agreement "an honest compromise that improves a program that works for America's low-income children." (Source: The New York Times)

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What Happened to You, Mr. President?

Dear Mr. President,

When I first heard that you were vowing to veto a bipartisan bill to expand child health care, my immediate thought was more personal than political: What has happened to you?

I vividly remember a call at the office, only one day after your election had been secured. It was an invitation to come to Austin to meet you and to discuss with a small group of religious leaders your vision for "faith-based initiatives" and your passion for doing something on poverty. I had not voted for you (which was no secret or surprise to your staff or to you), but you were reaching out to many of us in the faith community across the political spectrum who cared about poverty. I was impressed by that, and by the topic of the Austin meeting.

We all filed into a little Sunday school classroom at First Baptist, Austin. I had actually preached there before, and the pastor told me how puzzled he was that his "progressive" church was chosen for this meeting. You were reaching out. About 25 of us were sitting together chatting, not knowing what to expect, when you simply walked in without any great introduction. You sat down and told us you just wanted to listen to our concerns and ideas of how to really deal with poverty in America.

And you did listen, more than presidents often do. You asked us questions. One was, "How do I speak to the soul of America?" I remember answering that one by saying to focus on the children. Their plight is our shame and their promise is our future. Reach them and you reach our soul. You nodded in agreement. The conversation was rich and deep for an hour and a half.

Then when we officially broke, you moved around the room and talked with us one-on-one or in small groups for another hour. I could see your staff was anxious to whisk you away (you were in the middle of making cabinet appointments that week and there were key departments yet to fill). Yet you lingered and kept asking questions. I remember you asking me, Jim, I don't understand poor people. I've never lived with poor people or been around poor people much. I don't understand what they think and feel about a lot of things. I'm just a white Republican guy who doesn't get it. How do I get it? I still recall the intense and sincere look on your face as you looked me right in the eyes and asked your heartfelt question. It was a moment of humility and candor that, frankly, we don't often see with presidents.

I responded by saying that you had to listen to poor people themselves and pay attention to those who do live and work with the poor. It was a simple answer, but again you were nodding your head. I told my wife, Joy, also a clergyperson, about our conversation. Weeks later, we listened to your first inaugural address. When you said,

"America, at its best, is compassionate. In the quiet of American conscience, we know that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation's promise. And whatever our views of its cause, we can agree that children at risk are not at fault ... many in our country do not know the pain of poverty, but we can listen to those who do,"
my wife poked me in the ribs and smiled. In fact, you talked more about poverty than any president had for a long time in his inaugural address—and I said so in a newspaper column afterward (much to the chagrin of Democratic friends). They also didn't like the fact that I started going to other meetings at the White House with you or your staff about how to best do a "faith-based initiative," or that some of my personal friends were appointed to lead and staff your new Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives at the White House. We brought many delegations of religious leaders, again from across the political spectrum, to meet with representatives of that office. Some of us hoped that something new might be in the air.

But that was a long time ago. We don't hear much about that office or initiative anymore. Most of my friends have long left. I don't hear about meetings now. And nobody speaks anymore about this new concept you named "compassionate conservatism." And now, you promise to veto a strongly bipartisan measure to expand health insurance for low-income children. Most of your expressed objections to the bill have been vigorously refuted by Republican senators who helped craft the bill and support it passionately. They vow to try and override your veto. During your first campaign, you chided conservative House Republicans for tax and spending cuts accomplished on the backs of the poor. Now Congressional Republicans are chiding you.

What happened to you, Mr. President? The money needed for expanding health care to poor children in America is far less than the money that has been lost and wasted on corruption in Iraq. How have your priorities stayed so far from those children, whom you once agreed were so central to the soul of the nation? What do they need to do to get your attention again? You will be literally barraged by the religious community across the political spectrum this week, imploring you not to veto children's health care. I would just ask you to take your mind back to a little meeting in a Baptist Sunday school classroom, not far away from where you grew up. Remember that day, what we all talked about, what was on your heart, and how much hope there was in the room. Mr. President, recall that day, take a breath, and say a prayer before you decide to turn away from the children who are so important to our nation's soul and to yours.

God bless you,

Jim Wallis

Take action:

+ Click here to ask President Bush what happened to his "compassionate conservatism" - and urge that he sign this bill.


+ See what's new on the blog of Jim Wallis and friends

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To everyone who took action and emailed the Bureau of Prisons, thank you! On Sept. 14, Sojourners helped break the story that the federal government had created a list of acceptable religious books and purged all other books from the religious libraries. Often these stories fade away and are quickly replaced by the latest crisis, but because of our readers' dedication and persistence (demonstrated by sending over 21,000 emails in just over a week), the Bureau of Prisons has reversed its policy!

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Before it began, many evangelicals were strong supporters of a war with Iraq. As the death and destruction have continued, some are rethinking that view and coming to oppose the war. David Gushee, professor at Mercer University, has an important piece – Our Teachable Moment - on Christianity Today online.

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Top Stories:

Prisons to Remove Unapproved Religious Books
"In response to concerns expressed by members of several religious communities, the Bureau of Prisons has decided to alter its planned course of action with respect to the Chapel Library Project. The Bureau will begin immediately to return to chapel libraries materials that were removed in June 2007, with the exception of any publications that have been found to be inappropriate, such as material that could be radicalizing or incite violence."

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The bureau, the target of a class-action lawsuit by prisoners because of the book purge, is hearing criticism from a broad array of religious groups and leaders. Sojourners, a liberal evangelical group based in Washington, sent an alert to its members, who within 48 hours sent the bureau more than 15,000 e-mail messages urging it to scrap the policy. The issue is also a hot topic on conservative Christian talk radio shows.

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