This semester I’m teaching a course called “Faith and Politics” at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. It’s been a fascinating class for me, and I’m blessed to have very bright students who are required to volunteer for an actual political campaign and keep a journal of their experience.
Their final assignment is to write a paper proposing strategies for healing our divided nation. Our assumption is that all of the major faith traditions have important resources to bring to conflict transformation and reconciling opponents.
There are a few lessons from my class that might be useful for politicians and for the entire nation as we move toward the election.
Robert Putnam, who spoke this Monday at Georgetown for the Catholic-Evangelical Summit on Overcoming Poverty, gives a great stump speech for poor kids who are falling through the cracks in our society. So much so that moderator John Carr described Putnam as an Old Testament prophet with charts — Isaiah, with a good grasp of Powerpoint.
Our culture has been terrible at providing opportunities to poor children. Putnam’s data finds that poor children have fewer chances to do well in school and less parental involvement, and are generally isolated from society and even from church. With this background, we shouldn’t be surprised that children who are born into poverty have trouble finishing college and building a stable, prosperous life.
Putnam calls this the "chief moral crisis of our time."
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.
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.