Hearts & Minds

Terms of Engagement

A dramatic story occurred behind the scenes as Congress debated the tax cut bill this spring. Several faith-based organizations did something very important—they helped make sure that America’s poorest families were included in the benefits of the new tax cut. Religious leaders joined to support the valiant efforts of child advocates and low-income people’s organizations who were able to insert a refundable child tax credit into the legislation, one aimed at helping the nation’s poorest children who had been completely left behind by the original White House tax cut proposal.

Not making enough even to pay income taxes, many poor working families would have received nothing from the big tax cut, even though they pay payroll and other taxes. It’s clear that they need more support than the top 1 percent of America’s income earners and taxpayers—the ones who benefited the most from this tax cut. The tax cut increases the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000 over several years—a good pro-family initiative. But a single working mother with two kids making $24,000 per year would have received absolutely no help in the White House plan. By making the child tax credit partially refundable—like a tax rebate—now she does.

The refundable child tax credit will reach nearly 17 million low-income children, and help lift 500,000 children out of poverty, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, who helped lead the fight for it. But it really was a fight.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2001
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Eyes on the Prize

In the short period since the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was established, most of the nation has learned the meaning of a new term—FBO, which stands for "faith-based organization." Until recently, most of those working out of local churches and religiously affiliated organizations to solve the problems of poverty and violence didn't even know they were "FBOs."

But despite the flurry of news headlines and media stories, much of the public is still confused about the issues at stake in this discussion of religion and public life. We have been bombarded with both polemics and fear, from the Left and the Right, when what we need is a healthy debate about how new civic partnerships between FBOs and government on all levels should and should not be forged.

We have heard alarming predictions of how the wall of separation between church and state is about to be torn down, or of massive secular conspiracies to discriminate against the religious. Some say churches will have to deny their faith to receive public funds, and others claim overzealous evangelical groups would use government money to proselytize Jews or vulnerable homeless people.

We're either about to turn into a theocracy, if you listen to critics on the Left, or into a government that refuses to let church groups help the needy because of "Christophobia," if you heed the charges from the Right. Will witches, cults, and strange religions soon get taxpayers' dollars? Will effective church-related programs be strangled by government bureaucracy? Will government abdicate all its responsibilities and leave hopelessly under-resourced churches and charities to fight poverty on the cheap by forcing them to make bricks with straw?

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2001
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The Conscience of the State

President Bush's support for faith-based initiatives has sparked a raging debate about the separation of church and state. But are we worrying about the right things?

My deeper concern is the prophetic integrity of religious groups who might appropriately receive some government funding. Why? Because those in power often prefer the service programs of faith communities to their prophetic voice for social justice.

In the early days of the Clinton administration, the president expressed support for the work many of us in the religious community were doing to solve social problems. I remember personal notes from the White House and talk about "working partnerships." But in 1996, President Clinton signed a welfare reform bill that lacked crucial supports needed by single mothers and their children to move out of poverty. Some of us spoke out. Police arrested 55 inner-city pastors in the Capitol Rotunda as we read the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Woe to the legislators of infamous laws who cheat the poor among my people."

The personal notes from the White House and discussions of partnerships suddenly stopped. Dialogue with the president apparently didn't include criticism. But in the tradition of biblical prophets such as Isaiah, the religious community is called to speak truth to power. Having had breakfast in the White House and been arrested for protesting its policies, I've learned the former is more dangerous to the prophetic vocation.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2001
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It Was a Tie

President-elect George W. Bush, as a victor who lost the popular vote and won the presidency with a 5-4 Supreme Court decision, will face a divided nation—a House of Representatives with a razor slim Republican majority, a Senate split 50-50, a judiciary which has revealed deep chasms and taken blows to its credibility, and an executive branch struggling with perceptions as to its legitimacy. The electorate itself showed it was almost evenly divided on election day 2000, with millions of citizens feeling deep disappointment and even anger at the result. The racial dimensions of that alienation and disaffection are especially troubling.

It's time to ask what moral and political lessons must be learned from all this. First, the nation's electoral apparatus is terribly flawed, as this closest election in American history has painfully demonstrated. We've fallen well short of the democratic promise of universal suffrage, won through decades of struggle. The religious community should now play a leading role in the call for election reform as a moral issue, as we have so often in the past. From women's suffrage to the civil rights movement, people of faith have often been in the forefront of efforts to expand and extend democracy. The time for a new electoral reform movement has arrived. What would it take to address the problems we're now aware of? Here's a short list:

Congress should institute minimum and universal national standards for voting equipment, ballot design, and ballot counting. While the battle focused on a few thousand ballots in Florida, some 2 million votes nationwide were not counted for a variety of reasons. Even the majority opinion in the Supreme Court pointedly noted, "After the current counting, it is likely legislative bodies nationwide will examine ways to improve the mechanisms and machinery for voting."

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2001
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Lifting All Boats

Let the good times roll! President Bill Clinton was absolutely beaming as he reported the U.S. Census Bureau's annual poverty statistics. "We have proved that we can lift all boats," Clinton proclaimed with presidential emphasis and authority. Well, not so fast, Bill. The big yachts are still doing a whole lot better than the little rowboats.

There was some good news in the 1999 report. The total number of people in poverty did indeed drop, from 34.2 to 32.3 million people. And the number of children in poverty dropped from 13.5 to 12.1 million. The poverty rate declined for every racial and ethnic group, and the rate for African Americans was the lowest ever. Clearly, that's a step in the right direction.

But all Americans did not share in the unprecedented prosperity of the 1990s. The 1999 Census report is one of the first signs of wider benefit. The booming economy is certainly a cause of the improvements, as is an increase in the minimum wage and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The increased efforts of churches and faith-based programs to overcome poverty are certainly a part of this story, too.

But here's the rest of the story. The poverty rate for black Americans continues to be three times higher than the rate for "non-Hispanic whites" (23.6 percent to 7.7 percent). Thus, race remains intimately connected to poverty in America. Female-headed households are the majority of poor families (53 percent), and fully half of children under the age of 6 in fatherless homes live in poverty (compared to a 9 percent poverty rate for married-couple households). Therefore, family life and structure is a major factor in poverty rates, and children living in healthy two-parent families is still one of our best anti-poverty programs.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2000
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Poverty Is Not a Left-Wing Issue

In the Faith Works book tour this spring, perhaps the greatest surprise and satisfaction came in many interviews on "Christian radio." The talk shows on National Public Radio stations, network affiliates, and various community radio outlets were more typical for me. But I was greatly encouraged by the interest from local and national Christian radio, and even more heartened by the response.

What I found on conservative Christian radio shows was a deepening concern for people who are poor, on the part of both interviewers and callers. Most significant was the breaking out of old ideological categories. In an interview on the Salem Network (the largest chain of Christian radio stations in the country), the host said to me and to his audience, "You know, poverty is not a left-wing issue; it’s a Christian issue, and it’s time for us all to recognize that." Another show’s host acknowledged, "You know, Jim, most of us wouldn’t have had anything to do with you just a few years ago. We thought talking about poverty was left wing. But many of us are coming around and want to be with you now." Comment after comment and caller after caller expressed similar views.

Christian radio is changing; but maybe I am, too. I now believe that if poverty is to be overcome, it will take the insights and energies of both conservatives and liberals. As long as poverty fighting is seen as merely a left-wing issue, we will never succeed. And it’s not just a matter of perception, it’s also a question of content.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2000
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Not Your Average Book Tour

The last city on my recent Faith Works book tour was Milwaukee. There I visited an "overflow shelter" run by the Red Cross and the Milwaukee Interfaith Conference, the sponsor of the "Faith Works Forum" here. At about 1:30 p.m., the makeshift gymnasium was still empty and quiet.

By 7 p.m. it would become a very noisy place, as 50 bunk beds would be filled with homeless women and their children.

On many of those beds I saw little stuffed animals and toys marking the places of the homeless kids who sleep there every night. They looked like my son Luke's animals and toys. By this time I should be used to poverty, but now I'm a dad and I felt like crying.

The Red Cross often runs shelters such as this after natural disasters like floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes. What was the natural disaster in Milwaukee and the other 16 cities we visited in the last six weeks? Virtually every city had overflowing shelters and food banks and soup kitchens stretched beyond capacity. This disaster is called prosperity. It's a prosperity that has left far too many people behind, then made things worse for them - such as housing costs that have risen so steeply that even poor working families can't find a place to live. To put it in the plainest moral terms, this just isn't right. In a record-breaking economy, one out of five children in America are still poor. Something is terribly wrong with this picture.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2000
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If Not Me, Who?

Seattle now has nine billionaires and 10,000 millionaires, according to a National Public Radio report a few weeks ago. A recent U.S. News cover story proclaimed, "The Rich Are Getting Richer." Housing prices in economic boom towns like San Francisco leave us in stunned disbelief, as do amazing news reports of investors who gain or lose $6 billion in one week’s stock market trading. Even the overused phrase "record breaking economy" seems old hat now when there are new milestones reached and records broken almost every day.

Clearly the "permanent boom" has done a lot of individual good for many people. But what will it mean for the common good? The same NPR report told of the ever-widening gap between rich and poor and the crumbling of public institutions such as schools. The rates of evictions and homelessness in San Francisco are also skyrocketing, and a very troubling moral picture is emerging. In the same news program, we hear that NASDAQ has reached an all-time high, then learn that new studies show alarming child-poverty rates. We learn that the number of U.S. millionaires has quadrupled from 2 million to 8 million in the last 10 years, but that 1.3 million people will become homeless sometime this year and 30 million people will experience "food scarcity," otherwise known as hunger. A recent New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story speaks of "The Invisible Poor," while a front page piece the same week in the Times explores the consequences of a new syndrome called "affluenza" on the children of the rich.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2000
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Seattle: Changing the Rules

From the pulpit, I looked out over the standing room only crowd and could feel the electric excitement in Seattle’s St. James Cathedral. It was Sunday night, just before the week of scheduled protests that would rock the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting and the world. We were all gathered for a religious service organized by Jubilee 2000, the grassroots campaign to cancel the debt of the world’s poorest countries. Just before I preached, a text was read from Leviticus 25, which proclaims the biblical jubilee—a periodic economic redistribution in which slaves are set free, land is returned, and debts are forgiven. Jubilee is a call for a regular "leveling" of things, given the human tendency toward over-accumulation by some while others lose ground. The Bible doesn’t propose any blueprint for an economic system, but rather insists that all human economic arrangements be subject to the demands of God’s justice, that great gaps be avoided or rectified, and the poor are not left behind. As I listened to the prophetic scripture being read, I marveled at how it was being used that night—as a relevant contribution to a public discussion on the rules of global trade!

However, the official discussion planned in Seattle was never meant to be public. A quiet and private WTO meeting of a very elite group had been scheduled to determine the rules of the global economy. But the events of the next several days would shout a message heard around the globe—that the talk about how to conduct international trade would no longer be a private conversation. Instead of a small, behind-the-scenes meeting to determine the rules of global trade, a very noisy public debate ensued, asking who makes those rules, who benefits, and who suffers.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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45 Predictions for the New Millennium

Everyone says, Don’t make predictions, so I couldn’t resist. Of course, America has missed any real chance to celebrate the coming of the new millennium in a significant way as other people are doing around the world. We’ve been too busy worrying about Y2K, stocking up on cans of Spam, or booking ourselves into expensive Las Vegas parties awash with celebrities.

In England, every community received a grant to improve or create something new in their public common space to mark the millennium. We didn’t do anything like that in America.

We could have done so much more. The nation could have used the historic occasion to candidly acknowledge the deep injustices that attended the founding and formation of our country—Native American displacement and genocide, slavery, racial and gender discrimination, and labor exploitation—then gratefully celebrate progress made in civil rights and women’s enfranchisement and commit ourselves to fulfilling the promise of our democracy. We could have celebrated the richness of American literary, musical, and artistic expression by teaching young people to value books and culture over mindless materialism. Churches could have marked the 2000th birthday of Jesus by asking their members to examine seriously how his teachings might really be applied to our lives and society. Another missed American opportunity. Well, let’s at least make some predictions:

1. Faith in the new millennium will be defined much more by action than by doctrine.

2. At the same time, religious fundamentalism will continue to rise in the face of moral decline.

3. Bible study will continue to grow in popularity among a wide variety of people.

4. Prayer will be even more important than it is now.

5. The Religious Right will pass from the scene.

6. The secular Left will give up its hostility to religion and spirituality or die.

7. The Spice Girls won’t be remembered, and Martin Luther King Jr. will.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2000
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