The last three days, I have been attending the Catholic-Evangelical Summit on Poverty at Georgetown, which was the brainchild of John Carr, who leads Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought & Public Life, Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Robert Putnam, Harvard political scientist and author of the new book “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” The event had a yet more diverse array of sponsors, from the Salvation Army to Oxfam, and a still more diverse group of participants. What united all was a concern to raise the profile of poverty as a moral and political issue and to see how the churches could not only work together in this regard, but if they could get others to work together too.
Poverty was the focus, but the undercurrent was bridge building. The classic Catholic intellectual approach of “both/and” rather than “either/or” was applied to solving the scourge of poverty. So, the panels included Democrats and Republicans, ardent capitalists and communitarians, liberals and conservatives, labor and business. Two of the sessions were public. The first night featured a presentation by Professor Putnam on the growing opportunity gap between poor kids and well-off kids, followed by a panel of leading public policy experts. The next morning, E.J. Dionne moderated a panel that included Putnam, Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, and the President of the United States Barack Obama.
Unsurprisingly, I had my difficulties with the president. He acknowledged the important work the churches do in helping the poor. And, he agreed that addressing the growing opportunity gap was an urgent national priority and that, for a variety of reasons, this particular movement was especially amenable to finding bipartisan consensus on addressing the problem of poverty. But, of course, he did not explain, still less apologize, for his administration’s penchant for sticking its finger in the eye of Church-based groups because we do not subscribe to the latest leftie orthodoxies on abortion or same-sex marriage. The president admitted his self-interest in encouraging the churches to focus on poverty rather than abortion or same sex marriage, but that admission does not excuse a politician from crossing the line when he suggests to religious leaders what their religious priorities should be. I saw no evidence he would ever be willing to stand up to the pro-choice and LGBT lobbying groups, which tells me that fighting poverty is less of a priority for him than keeping those groups, with their truly myopic agendas, satisfied.
There was a deeper problem with the president’s remarks. Apparently in the spirit of finding common ground, he stated:
Now, part of what’s happened is that -- and this is where Arthur and I would probably have some disagreements. We don’t dispute that the free market is the greatest producer of wealth in history -- it has lifted billions of people out of poverty. We believe in property rights, rule of law, so forth. But there has always been trends in the market in which concentrations of wealth can lead to some being left behind. And what’s happened in our economy is that those who are doing better and better -- more skilled, more educated, luckier, having greater advantages --
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are withdrawing from sort of the commons -- kids start going to private schools; kids start working out at private clubs instead of the public parks. An anti-government ideology then disinvests from those common goods and those things that draw us together. And that, in part, contributes to the fact that there’s less opportunity for our kids, all of our kids.
The phrase “sort of the commons” is understood here in utterly practical terms, not as an ideal, the common good, and not just as an ideal, but as the ideal against which we Christians measure the success or failure of our political and economic life. Yes, the free market produces more wealth than other systems, but that is not the measure Christians use. From the moral and spiritual point of view, the creation of wealth is not unimportant, it is material and ours is an incarnational faith: Hunger in the belly needs food, not just good intentions, and a person who takes ill needs medicine as well as prayers. But, we Christians should always keep a bit of distance between ourselves and the political calculi too. I do not fault Mr. Obama for not wondering in public if this free market system creates spiritual poverty that is precisely coincident with its creation of material wealth, but spiritual leaders must pose that question again and again.
Distance, however, should not be understood as disengagement. Indeed, engagement was another undercurrent of the entire conference. For all of the differences between Catholics and Evangelicals – different intellectual frameworks, different ways of speaking even – both of our traditions are traditions of Christian activism. This was not a conference for the Amish. The pastors discussed public policy with greater ease and familiarity than some congressmen display at hearings on the Hill. The public policy experts were unafraid to lace their presentations with scriptural quotes and other rhetorical devices we associate with preachers, not wonks. There was a practical, not to say, worldly, sensibility in the room.
The engagement was not only amongst the Catholic and Evangelical leaders. The religious leaders of both groups evidenced the degree to which they are engaged in their own communities. The people on the frontlines of helping the poor, those people know the people who live in their neighborhoods, their needs and their problems and their dreams, and those on the frontlines also know their congressman. The ministers know their mayors. At a theoretical level, we can discuss the finer points of church-state separation, or the difference between theological and sociological argumentation. At a practical level, if you are going to get your hands dirty helping the poor, you are going to know all those who can help you in that work, other religious allies, political allies, key leaders in business and labor, etc. This made the conversations very real, very tangible.
These conversations demonstrated something else. This conference was not only about building bridges across ideological and political and sectarian divides. That may be new to Washington, but in their work in their own communities, these bridges are already abuilding. This was a roomful of bridge builders and I wish the President and the other politicians could have sat in on some of those sessions to see the different cast of mind from what one usually finds in Washington. There was no “slice a dice” applied to those whose fundamental outlook was different. There was no “gotcha.” There were times the discussion became, if not heated, a little warm: There is passion in the pews. People who have dedicated their life to labor will view the world differently from people whose life experience is in business. Some of us do have more liberal, or more conservative, hearts. It was interesting, and thrilling, to me to see how much more easily the religious leaders in the rooms engaged each other than the panelists brought in from different walks of public life.
A last observation. I have never been to a conference that was so suffused with prayer and witness and I mostly credit our Evangelical friends for this. They are simply less bashful than we RCs about invoking God. That infusion of prayer and witness gave me the sense that the Spirit was helping to build those bridges too, and if it were otherwise, we would be building in vain.