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God's Politics

Part five of a dialogue between Jim Wallis and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed on the question: “What should values voters value most?”

Jim WallisI agree, Ralph. Let’s talk about public policy. I’m not going to respond point-by-point, but I’ll highlight several where we fundamentally disagree.

You note the good works of charity that many conservative Christians carry out. That is certainly true, and I commend all those efforts. But charity is not justice – that’s where good public policies come in. Churches were among the first to respond in service to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, more effectively than the government. But churches can’t rebuild the levees of New Orleans or provide health insurance for 47 million Americans who don’t have it.

You praise the 1996 welfare reform by noting that it moved “8 million people from welfare to work.” It did that. But, as Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page noted on the anniversary of that law, “Unfortunately, a disturbing number of former welfare recipients have merely moved to the ranks of the ‘working poor,’ still struggling to make ends meet with a subpoverty income.” And that trend is accelerating; there are now 37 million Americans living below the poverty line – five and a half million more than when George Bush took office.

We need public policies committed to the proposition that people who work shouldn’t be poor. Those working responsibly should have a living family income which provides a decent standard of living. This requires policies that provide support for transportation, child care, nutrition, health care, and other basic needs.

You go on to praise the president’s faith-based initiative which you say aided “faith-based organizations delivering social services to the poor.” Again, Ralph, there’s the difference between charity and justice. I supported the faith-based initiative, and in the first two years of the administration, met several times with President Bush and his advisors at the White House. I do believe there is a role for partnerships between government and FBOs. But then we saw policies that matched tax cuts for the wealthiest with budget cuts to the very services faith-based organizations were trying to provide.

I led a delegation of religious leaders to visit the White House domestic policy advisers in the summer of 2003. We delivered a letter to the president signed by 34 leaders, including those – such as the Salvation Army and Christian Community Development Association – who run the organizations you’re praising. We said in that letter, “We believe a lack of focus on the poor in the critical areas of budget priorities and tax policy is creating a crisis for low-income people. We believe the budget your administration has put forward fails to protect and promote the well being of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens. The tax cut just passed by the Congress with your support provides virtually no help for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, while those at the top reap windfalls. The resulting spending cuts, at both federal and state levels, in the critical areas of health care, education, and social services, will fall heaviest on the poor. Budgets are moral documents.”

Three years later, that is even more true. So last year we launched another “Budgets are moral documents” campaign trying to stave off further cuts in basic services to those in poverty. It culminated with the arrest of 115 religious people praying on the steps of a House Office Building the week before Christmas. Among those was 75-year old John Perkins – the founder and longtime president of the Christian Community Development Association – and one of the saints of Christian ministry to the poor. John knows that we need justice, not only charity.

And then there’s the war in Iraq. You start with a paragraph on terrorism, with which I would mostly agree. But then you slide into the false connection of a defense of the war in Iraq as part of a “war on terrorism.” Come on, Ralph, virtually no one except George Bush and Dick Cheney believes that any more. You go way back to the Iraq war against Iran, but don’t mention that the Reagan administration supported Saddam Hussein in that war. Remember the famous (now infamous) photo of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam in 1983? You note Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, but fail to note that the U.S. provided battlefield intelligence for the Iraqi regime. Back then, he was accomplishing the U.S. objective of weakening Iran.

I was against Saddam Hussein before the U.S. government was. But this disastrous war, which grows more deadly violent every day for Iraqis and American troops, is far from a success in fighting terrorism. And many now believe, including a chorus of tough-minded former military leaders, that Iraq has become a great distraction from the real battle against terrorism and has even made things worse. It has created and exacerbated terrorism and helped inflame anti-American sentiment around the world. Did you see the latest U.N. report on Iraq in this morning’s news? The New York Times wrote that: “Across the country, the report found, 3,590 civilians were killed in July — the highest monthly total on record — and 3,009 more were killed in August.” And the Los Angeles Times noted that “a top U.S. military spokesman said attacks against American troops had increased recently.” There are now nearly 2,700 American deaths. Yet, we’re told that the threat to America from terrorists is greater than ever. Bush’s policies have made the world more dangerous, not less, and he has made our children less safe, not more.

Finally, you write of those who “work on the single issue of protecting the state of Israel.” I am a strong supporter of Israel – its people have the fundamental right to live in peace and security without the fear of terrorist attacks. But it’s another thing to ignore the same right of the Palestinian people, including Palestinian Christians, living under the Israeli occupation. You (and many of your conservative friends) forget about them.

So, yes, Ralph, let’s debate public policy. And as Christians, let’s look for policies that are grounded in biblical principles of justice rather than in Republican ideology.

TONIGHT: JIM WALLIS on the CBS EVENING NEWS WITH KATIE COURIC: Tune in tonight for a feature segment with Jim Wallis and Tony Perkins (of the Family Research Council) talking about the moral direction of the United States.

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