In the all too familiar script of presidential elections and debates, these words have essentially replaced the words of Jesus. Candidates campaign on platforms based on a distorted remix of Mathew 25, replacing the all important middle class with Christ's concern for the "least of these among you." I listened carefully to the entire presidential debate last night, hoping that one of the candidates would have the foresight and courage to mention the poor in the context of our economic crisis and our foreign policy priorities. The first two debates have rightfully focused on the duress and hardship associated with the meltdown of Wall Street and the crumbling of our economy. Yet somehow candidates manage to systematically ignore the 36 million Americans living in poverty and the nearly 2 billion people around the world living perilously on less than $2 a day. Too often politicians follow the lead of our society in devaluing and dismissing the needs of the poor, exacerbating their marginalization.
It's as though the words the "poor" and "poverty" are deemed taboo and off limits. In debate preparations an alarm or buzzer must go off anytime these words are uttered. Instead, every economic argument and reference is couched in terms of its impact on the middle class. Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against the middle class. I grew up in the middle class and believe that our nation's health and prosperity is tied to strengthening and expanding the middle class. However, a biblical perspective calls Christians to see the world, including our politics, through another lens. Jesus calls us to shift our gaze from our own narrow self-interest to prioritize the needs and interests of the weak, the vulnerable, and the impoverished. Times of economic collapse and strain only increase the temptation to act out of mentalities of fear and scarcity.
Both Senator Obama and McCain come close when they talk about those living on Main Street. But what about people living off of Main Street? How will the next president address the silent tragedies of people living in the struggling rural towns of Appalachia, the still economically depressed streets of the south side of Chicago, or the long-neglected Navajo reservations of Arizona?
To be fair, in stump speeches and Web site materials both candidates mention the issue of poverty. But despite millions of dollars worth of commercials sponsored by the ONE campaign to promote the cause of fighting global poverty, not a single question has been asked or answered about this issue. Despite growing momentum around the need for a measurable goal to cut domestic poverty in half over 10 years, domestic poverty has only been addressed in indirect and subtle ways. Many politicians and economists will argue that what's good for the middle class is automatically good for the poor. This statement is true in many situations. However, the one in eight Americans living below the poverty line have the least safety net to fall back on when the economy crumbles. People living in poverty have the least access to credit and are most affected by a slumping job market. There are targeted policies that we know are effective in lifting people out of the quicksand of poverty that haven't received a passing mention.
I can hear your argument already that the candidates are simply following the lead of the media, who are following the lead of public opinion. The American public is so obsessed with the economy, health care, and energy policy that the crises facing the poor rarely rise to the surface as a national priority. That's where the church must come in, standing at the intersection of the powerful and the powerless. Our nation needs and deserves leadership that is willing to stand in the gap and be a voice for those voices that constantly get drowned out.
A generation of Christians is rediscovering God's mandate to care for the least of these among us. The urgent and pertinent question is whether we can learn to apply this measurement of our faith as much to our public lives as we do to our personal lives. I'm prayerful that both candidates will dig deeper into their faith, draw greater courage from their conscience, and break the deafening silence around the poor. I pray that you will join me in challenging them to lay out their concrete plans for addressing the crisis of poverty at home and abroad. Raising our voices through the Vote Out Poverty campaign is now more important than ever on the eve of this election. We have the power to put the least of these back into this election and the debates.
Adam Taylor is senior policy director for Sojourners.