On issues ranging from poverty to China policy to abortion, some unexpected allies have recently emerged in Washington and around the country. Common concerns are bringing former adversaries together in ways that reveal how outmoded our old political categories and divisions have become. Indeed, new configurations of issues and constituencies hold the real promise of some positive movement forward in a number of critical areas that have long been deadlocked.
The Philadelphia Roundtable
On a sunny spring day in Philadelphia, before the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future, 59 Christian leaders who had often been at odds with one another spent nine hours together in a hotel conference room searching for common ground. They joined together, despite their differences in theological, social, and political views, because their shared Christian faith makes one thing perfectly clear: Christ called his followers to serve "the least of these." And those most in need in this country are facing a real danger in the wake of the 1996 welfare legislation.
Many of the participants, invited together by the Call to Renewal, commented that they had never before met with such a broad and diverse cross-section of church leaders and organizations (see Gathered at the Table). "This has been probably the most religiously diverse gathering of the Christian community to address the issue of poverty, certainly within this decade," said Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America and one of the church leaders present.
Given the wide-ranging guest list, the amazing thing about the roundtable is that it worked! There are several reasons why. First, the spirit of the day was confessional. The crisis facing poor people in America is finally bringing the churches back together. That in itself is reason for thanksgiving.
Second, we followed some ground rules. We stuck to the issue of poverty. We agreed to take each other at our word, meaning challenges were in order, but questioning each other’s motives was not. We pledged to listen to each other rather than make speeches, accepting that both liberals and conservatives had important things to contribute. Finally, we agreed to seek what God might be calling us to do—even together.
The roundtable searched for responses to three questions: Where do we have common ground? Where might we build common ground? And what are the biggest differences between us that need more conversation?
We agree on "the priority of the poor" and that "overcoming poverty is a biblical mandate." John Carr of the U.S. Catholic Conference reminded us that the starting point for any common ground on social policy is a commitment to basic human dignity; National Council of Churches General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell suggested true ecumenism on this issue will only be found by going back to the Bible.
We together affirmed the critical importance both of strong families and jobs that pay a living family wage. Ending the "marriage penalty" in the tax code and expanding programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, aimed at helping low-income families to work, appeared to have a broad consensus of support. All agreed that personal responsibility is central to overcoming poverty, as is combating the systemic economic and racial injustices that contribute to it. In smaller group settings, we began to explore how best to do that.
Churches must lead by example, we all agreed, but government does indeed have a responsibility for the poor and cannot abdicate that obligation to "churches and charities." The Bible calls kings, rulers, employers, and judges to account for how they treat the poor, and so should we. But rather than choosing between the government or the churches, most around the table were eager to explore new partnerships between them.
Eugene Rivers of Boston’s Ten Point Coalition and Mary Nelson of Bethel New Life in Chicago presented powerful examples of new and innovative faith-based practices emerging around the country. And Mark Publow of World Vision pointed out ways that successful models can offer tools and resources for other communities. We agreed to explore how what is already happening can be documented, evaluated, and shared, perhaps through regional and local clearinghouses or resource centers.
Churches nationwide are opening their doors to create a safe place of refuge for children, families, and those most alienated in violence-torn neighborhoods. But all the doors should be opening—suburban churches too, partnering with urban congregations. We discussed the crucial importance of both the "downstream ministries" that rescue the people who are drowning in the river, and the "upstream ministries" that deal with whatever is throwing them in.
New partnerships between government, business, and churches, everyone agreed, are a vital step toward overcoming poverty. The need to hold corporations responsible to their communities as well as their stockholders is also a crucial point of consensus. How both government and business can effectively cooperate with faith-based organizations, which are often the most successful in addressing problems facing poor people, is perhaps the most challenging task to emerge from the Philadelphia roundtable.
In particular, Dr. Stanley Carlson-Thies of the Center for Public Justice suggested that the "charitable choice" provisions of the welfare bill might allow new opportunities for church-based non-profits to play an even more significant role in providing social services and helping to shape social policy. That opportunity should be explored, participants agreed, but the complex and controversial First Amendment questions it raises must be resolved.
We all agreed that quality education should not be determined by how much money a child’s parents make or where a family lives. Education for poor children has deteriorated so much, said Dr. Bennett Smith, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, that he is ready to experiment with new options, both public and private. Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action suggested a carefully designed test of school vouchers specifically focused on the nation’s poorest children. Community policing, in conjunction with local church efforts, was lifted up as a real antidote to crime, access to health insurance for poor children was affirmed as critical, and changing bank loan policies to allow new capital formation for community-based economic development and micro-enterprise was roundly cited as essential to turning poor neighborhoods around.
It was a stimulating and exciting day, and only a beginning.
Meantime, back in Washington, more strange alliances were forming. The AFL-CIO and Democrat Rep. Richard Gephardt lined up with the U.S. Catholic Conference and Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council to oppose the renewal of most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status with China. They cited, variously, Beijing’s abysmal human rights record, persecution of Christians, exploitation of workers, oppression of Tibet, weapons sales, possible interference in American elections, and fears about restricted freedoms in Hong Kong.
None of these factors have persuaded President Clinton not to renew MFN for China again this year, or even to impose any conditions on it. The Clinton administration maintains that a policy of "engagement" with China is the best way to solve these many problems, but critics say that such a policy is nothing but "accommodation," primarily motivated by the enormous business profits in trading with the huge economic giant.
In helping to lead the fight to hold China accountable, the Family Research Council’s Gary Bauer is breaking with many of his corporate allies in the conservative movement. Bauer is fast emerging as the primary Washington spokesperson for the conservative Christian political movement, now that Ralph Reed has announced his intention to leave the Christian Coalition. Over a cordial lunch in April, Bauer said, "I am trying to be a Christian first, and a Republican second. I upset some of my corporate friends when I say that profits can’t be the only bottom line."
In a 64-36 vote in May, the U.S. Senate voted to ban what has become known as "partial birth abortion." The House of Representatives had passed its own ban earlier. In voting to outlaw the controversial abortion practice, the majority in the U.S. Congress reflected the majority view of the country, which believes this particularly abhorrent abortion procedure should be stopped. We agree (see "Outrage Over the Abortion Veto", Sojourners, July-August 1996). Despite the overwhelming legislative vote, President Clinton will still likely veto the partial birth abortion ban, even over the objections of his religious advisers Bill Hybels and Tony Campolo.
During the recent congressional debate, however, significant developments occurred. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who had established a 100 percent rating by the National Abortion Rights Action League, surprised many of his abortion rights allies when he proposed a comprehensive ban outlawing all abortions (regardless of procedure) after the fetus reaches viability, except to protect the life of the mother or where there was a risk of "grievous injury to her physical health."
Immediately, Daschle was attacked from both sides. Pro-life advocates castigated Daschle’s "deceptive" bill as a "sham"—a mere "tactic" designed to derail the partial birth abortion ban and simply provide "political cover" for pro-choice Democrats and the White House. Daschle’s longtime pro-choice allies objected to any restriction on abortion rights, and charged that Daschle’s bill would just be a slippery slope to even more restrictions.
Indeed, there were problems with Daschle’s bill, like how it would be enforced with doctors who essentially would only have to provide self-certification to perform a late-term abortion. And in offering the bill as a substitute for the partial birth abortion ban instead of as a complement, Daschle’s effort was vulnerable to charges of obstruction. Narrowing the definition of the health requirement to "grievous injury" was a positive step for the pro-life side, but it raised constitutional questions for others.
Voted down and beaten up by both sides, Daschle seemed taken aback by what he called the "harsh rhetoric and vitriolic characterizations" of his effort. "It was most instructive," he concluded. But perhaps most surprising was Daschle’s eventual vote for the partial birth abortion ban, putting to rest the accusations that his concern about late-term abortion had been insincere. After the vote, conservatives Bill Bennett, William Safire, and Mona Charen said they saw progress in the Daschle attempt and chided conservatives for failing to "take yes for an answer" to increasing restrictions on abortion.
I believe Tom Daschle was sincerely trying to reach out. In a late night conversation on the eve of the Senate debate of his proposal, he said he was looking for a "new dialogue," especially with religious leaders who could help the country find some "common ground outside the extremes" that often control the abortion debate.
I raised my questions regarding his proposal, and agreed that such conversation between concerned religious leaders and lawmakers could be a critical step forward. People on both sides of the abortion debate are looking for ways to reduce the tragic 1.5 million abortions per year, both by prevention (combating teen-age pregnancy, reforming adoption law, providing needed alternatives to women) and by adopting reasonable restrictions to discourage but not totally outlaw abortion. Around the country that discussion has already begun, and it’s time to bring it to Washington.