Spotlight Exclusives

June 1, 2009: Religion and Poverty: Faith in Action, By Mark Rodgers, Principal of the Clapham Group and Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center

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Over the coming months, Spotlight will host a conversation that asks how and whether religious and faith communities should address the issue of poverty in America and explores the relationship between religion and public policy.

“The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness,” noted renowned author Sheldon Vanauken. But an even more compelling case for Christianity can be made when Christians commit to putting their faith in action and help those in need. The Poverty Forum does just that.

Recently, I helped launch The Poverty Forum, a unique effort to find consensus among a very diverse group of Christians with expertise in poverty initiatives and policy reform. The project۪s goal was to transcend ideological, partisan and institutional limitations, and identify consensus ways to reduce domestic poverty and make concrete policy recommendations to Congress and the new administration.

The initiative began last summer when a small group, including Mike Gerson, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, forged a relationship with Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners. Our concern was that the poor would be left out of the national discussion during the presidential campaign. We agreed that regardless of the outcome of the presidential race, we would find a way to present our recommendations on poverty reduction to the White House and on Capitol Hill. Who knew when we started that this effort would be launched at a time when experts are predicting that an additional nine million Americans will fall into poverty due to the current economic recession?

The Poverty Forum۪s effort to uncover an acceptable agenda was a surprising success: twenty-eight recommendations, including strengthening marriage and fatherhood, expanding individual development accounts, creating lifetime savings accounts, fully funding the Second Chance Act and eliminating the marriage penalty within the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Much of The Poverty Forum۪s accomplishment can be attributed to the fact that it is a unique endeavor that was built on an existing foundation of faith, a commitment to finding an expression of unity and the Biblical mandate for Jesus۪ followers to care for the “least of these.” Certainly, loving one۪s neighbor as one۪s self is a universal mandate accepted by all who are committed to a humane, peaceful and prosperous world. The desire to help those less fortunate is fundamental to a just society. But there was a deeper sense of commitment and a higher sense of calling in the conversations and deliberations we had than I experienced in any other policy negotiations I have been part of. This kind of unity is rare.

After 16 years of working on Capitol Hill and being entrenched in the bowels of party politics, I realized how infrequently Christian believers in Washington step out of their ideological and partisan shells to undertake the truly challenging effort of consensus building, despite Jesus۪ prayer that his followers “be one” so that non-Christians might come to believe in Him. For those participants with an evangelistic bent, what better way to share the Good News than show that it makes a difference in how we relate to one another and choose to care for those in need?

Unlike other policy discussions, this deep common commitment of shared faith, caring for the poor and being united motivated us collectively to produce lasting results. Through discussion and prayer, the group was able to arrive at more comprehensive and nuanced solutions to reducing and eliminating poverty than I believe a more pragmatic approach would have yielded.

Ultimately, the initiative was seen by participants as believers as an outlet to live out their faith. Just as Christ was sent into the world to heal body and soul, so we, who claim to be His followers, are called to do the same. The Good News goes beyond the Sunday pews and into the world at large, touching people in both temporal and eternal ways. This “cultural commission,” as Anglican theologian John Stott coined it, unites faith and works. As Stott said in his book, Issues Facing Christians Today, “evangelism and social concern have been intimately related to one another throughout the history of the Church. . .Christian people have often engaged in both activities quite unselfconsciously, without feeling any need to define what they were doing or why.” Preaching and doing good should not be mutually exclusive. Many Christians believe professing the Gospel through the written and spoken word takes precedence over being a direct witness through deeds. But faith in action speaks volumes. To truly proclaim the Gospel, we are called to do both.

Secular organizations and funders should look at The Poverty Forum and see in it a unique avenue to overcome many of the barriers that stymie their efforts to develop consensus. The Poverty Forum is a unique witness of faith in action. May others follow in our humble footsteps as we try to help those less fortunate. And may the world know we are Christians by our love for each other and for those in need.

Mark Rodgers is principal of the Clapham Group, an organization committed to promoting the good, true and beautiful in the public arenas of politics, policy and pop culture. He is also a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an institute established in 1976 to clarify and reinforce the bond between the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the public debate over domestic and foreign policy issues.

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