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God's Politics

Reed’s final entry in a dialogue with Jim Wallis on the question: “What should values voters value most?”

Jim, I’m glad we agree that faith-based organizations should not be discriminated against in the delivery of social services. They not only provide housing, education and job training, they provide what government alone cannot: hope, faith, and love. This change in public policy occurred because religious conservatives added the Charitable Choice provision to the 1996 welfare reform law, laying the groundwork for President Bush’s faith-based initiative.

I’m disappointed we disagree about welfare policy. Welfare reform was a strikingly bipartisan measure: 100 House Democrats and 25 Senate Democrats voted for it, and Bill Clinton signed it into law. There was a bipartisan consensus that welfare should promote work, family, and personal responsibility. On this issue at least, your disagreement is not with “Republican ideology,” as you put it, but with most Democrats.

Prior to the 1996 welfare reform law, the federal government paid people not to work, not to get married, and to bear children repeatedly out of wedlock. That policy was an abject failure. We spent $5.3 trillion on various federal anti-poverty programs, more in real dollars than we spent winning World War II. The result was that illegitimacy rates skyrocketed (67 percent of African-American births were out-of-wedlock), feeding a downward spiral of poverty.
As Brookings Institution senior fellow Ron Haskins documents in his new book, welfare reform has worked. Welfare caseloads plummeted, incomes have generally risen, and 60 percent of the women who left welfare found work. Teen birth rates have fallen. The poverty rate among African-Americans has fallen by about one-fourth, from 32.4 percent before welfare reform to 24.7 percent in 2004.

Religious conservative believe that as a matter of social justice, anti-poverty measures should be three-fold. First, encourage faith-based and charitable organizations on the front lines fighting poverty. Second, provide a safety net of assistance for those in need. Third, adopt tax and other policies that will lead to the creation of economic opportunity, jobs and wealth.

For that reason, religious conservatives support school choice, because they believe education is a civil right and it is wrong to trap the poor in schools where they cannot read, write, or dream the American dream. It is why they favor medical savings accounts that provide access to quality health care, 41 percent of which are utilized by families that previously lacked health insurance. It is also why we support President Bush’s minority home ownership initiative to help African-Americans, Hispanics, and others purchase their first home.

On fiscal policy, no one (I hope) claims that the Bible stipulates a certain marginal income tax rate. Here our disagreement is a matter of judgment about which policies best strengthen the economy and create jobs. The Bush administration’s tax and budget policies have created 5.3 million new jobs and lowered the unemployment rate to 4.7 percent, the lowest unemployment rate in over 30 years. The economy has grown at a 4.2 percent rate in 2006, faster than any major industrialized nation in the world, and real wages after inflation are up 6 percent this year. The higher taxes and more spending liberals advocate may grow government, but they will not create more jobs or opportunity.

On Iraq, we’re going to have to agree to disagree. Whatever our nation’s policies were in the 1980’s and 1990’s—and blame can be leveled at both parties when it comes to our past approach to terrorism—we need a plan for today. The liberal Democrat plan is to cut and run in Iraq. That policy would be disastrous. It would return Iraq to the safe haven for terrorists it was under Saddam Hussein and create a vacuum in the Middle East in a nation bordering Syria and Iran that would be filled by a terrorist regime hostile to human rights and democratic values.

Some liberals claim Iraq is not part of the war on terrorism. But Osama bin Laden and the terrorists don’t agree. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s number two leader, has said that his goal is to use Iraq as a base of attacks against the U.S. and as the linchpin of a caliphate stretching from India to the Mediterranean Sea. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the bipartisan decision in 2003 to take military action against Saddam Hussein (or, like John Kerry and John Edwards, has held both views at different times), the loss of Iraq would be a severe setback in the war against terrorism. We will not be safer as a nation if Iraq falls into the hands of terrorists dedicated to our destruction.

I note you did not take issue with my point about innocent human life. If Democrats vote to fund the taking of human life with tax dollars, oppose the partial-birth abortion ban, and oppose qualified Supreme Court nominees simply to placate the abortion lobby that dominates the Democratic Party, they will continue to lose the votes of conservative people of faith, as well they should.

A quick word to respond to your comment on Israel. I support the peace process and the idea of two states living side by side in peace. But it is impossible to reach peace when the Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority refuses to renounce terrorism, harbors terrorists who fire rockets on its neighbor, and just this past Friday declined to join any unity government that even recognizes the right of Israel to exist.

Jim, I’ve enjoyed our dialogue a great deal. We may disagree, but I trust that we have modeled an exchange of ideas that allows us to disagree without being disagreeable. And I believe that liberals and conservatives of faith can work together on issues that unite them, such as combating poverty, opposing racism and anti-Semitism, and improving education.

My prayer is that our exchange (and the broader dialogue it represents) advances a goal far greater than the fortunes of a political party. May it be a witness of the healing and redemptive power of faith in our individual lives and the life of our nation.

As Robert F. Kennedy said in speaking out against racial apartheid in the 1960’s, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and…those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” That is still true today, and it is a truth that is not confined to members of one party or adherents of one political philosophy. It is true for all men and women of faith, and indeed every member of the human family.

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