John Carr

Obama: Defeating Poverty Takes Money and ‘Transformative Power’ of Faith Groups

Photo via Georgetown University / RNS
President Obama appeared at Georgetown University on May 12, 2015. Photo via Georgetown University / RNS

The African-American boy who grew up without a father, who started his work life as a community organizer on the payroll of a Catholic agency, and who later became U.S. president had plenty to say about poverty in our “winner-take-all” economy.

President Obama spoke May 12 of “ladders of opportunity” once denied to blacks and now being dismantled for poor whites as their difficult lives get that much more difficult.

“It’s hard being poor. It’s time-consuming. It’s stressful,” he said.

Obama joined two policy voices from the left and right in a rare moment of participating in a panel discussion, part of a three-day symposium at Georgetown University on combating poverty. The audience of 700 included 120 Catholic and evangelical leaders.

Robert Putnam Fights America’s ‘Opportunity Gap’ with Religious Fervor

Photo via REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque / RNS
Barack Obama awards Robert Putnam the 2012 National Humanities Medal. Photo via REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque / RNS

Harvard professor Robert Putnam jokingly calls himself “a nice Jewish formerly Methodist boy.”

But the public policy expert’s new book, Our Kids, reads more like a tent meeting revival, complete with an “altar call” at the end. His private meetings and public appearances at the White House and Capitol Hill, and meetings with civic and faith leaders across the country, carry the same fervor.

While evangelists convict people of their sinful ways and then convert them to the path of salvation for the hereafter, Putnam’s focus is more on this side of heaven.

His goal: to awaken and inspire Americans to “save” young people from a future trapped in a spiral of fractured families, poor schooling, and a grim economic future that Putnam says will cost taxpayers trillions of dollars. Trillions.

He is not only aiming for political, social, and religious elites. He’s also aiming at the everyday reader from Boston to Dubuque with a message that failure to act will “undermine democracy and political stability for all.” That’s why the book is subtitled, “The American Dream in Crisis.”

“I’m writing for ordinary people, not the political class. I’m holding up a mirror of American society to the ‘haves’ to say ‘look what we’ve become,’” he said.

'Simple is the New Chic'

RIGHT FROM THE beginning, John Carr saw Pope Francis as a “great sign of hope.”

Carr, who spent more than two decades as the U.S. bishops’ top peace and justice officer, was home, working at his kitchen table, when the white smoke came up announcing the selection of the new pope. “I thought, ‘Oh, my,’ and this guy I didn’t recognize came out,” Carr said. “When he said the name ‘Francis,’ I thought ‘it’s going to be okay.’”

As executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development at the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference, Carr carried a rather large portfolio. He often tells the story of being introduced by a man who said, “He’s in charge of social development and world peace.” The man’s wife, in Carr’s telling, looked at him and said, “You need to do a better job.”

Since leaving the bishops’ staff last year, Carr has launched a new initiative, based at Georgetown University, aimed at helping lay people “become more informed and engaged in their vocation to be ‘salt, light, and leaven’” in public life. Carr, who visited Sojourners’ office this spring, is encouraged that the election of Pope Francis “has provided incredible visibility, urgency, and passion” around social issues. “When he was going to be elected, his friend said, ‘Don’t forget the poor,’” Carr explained. “A church that moves to the edge to care for the weak and vulnerable is a church you want to be a part of.”

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