For my final appointment in Washington DC, on the afternoon of Wednesday 13 June, I returned once again to the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, a building which is also home to the Washington office of the ecumenical body for the United States, the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC), which has 37 member denominations. I was there to meet with the Rev Michael Livingston, the Director of the NCCC Poverty Initiative (PI). A Presbyterian minister, Livingston served previously as the elected President of the NCCC, and was chaplain at Princeton Seminary when I was a student there.
I asked Livingston to describe in his own words the purpose of PI. He described its role as being to co-ordinate the advocacy efforts to member churches of NCC in the field of domestic poverty.
Six or seven member denominations have DC advocacy offices. They’re trying to affect federal government decisions which either relieve or add to the burdens on the poorest in society. Moving government needs advocacy: the attempt to influence policy from a faith perspective. Co-ordination is needed because different denominations almost never deal with the same issues at the same time. And Congress doesn’t really care much what one denomination (for example, the Presbyterians) thinks. They are more likely to pay heed to a united ‘faith voice’, covering differing denominations and faiths.
Livingston spoke to me about a major concern- the negotiations and debates in Congress about the Federal budget. The worry is that that current proposals from the Republican side (who have a majority in Congress) will cut disastrously programmes which at the moment support those at the bottom end of the economy.
For Livingston, the theological basis for advocacy on behalf of the poor is the bias to the poor which he sees in the Old Testament prophets, and in such New Testament passages as Matthew 25.31-46 (the parable of the Last Judgement) and Luke 4.16-30 (Jesus reading the Isaiah scroll at his home synagogue about being called to ‘preach good news to the poor’).
The current political climate does not favour these ideas. Livingston spoke of how the reality projected by the media of Christian views focuses on the Religious Right’s strident campaigns on personal ethical issues. The broader social justice concerns (domestic poverty and foreign aid and development) of the mainline churches are often overlooked in the media. In a soundbite culture, it can be difficult for these mainline churches to communicate their concerns. Meanwhile, however, these churches are attending to the needs of ‘the least of these’ locally, and advocating for them nationally. Sometimes, however, Christians with social justice concerns do manage to make it onto the mainstream media, as had happened the previous night, when the late night satire show ‘The Colbert Report’ featured Simone Campbell, of NETWORK, a coalition of Roman Catholic religious women who had found themselves under investigation by the Vatican, and whose ‘nuns on the bus’ campaign about social issues has attracted media attention in recent weeks. Sometimes civil disobedience actions can attract the attention of media and policy makers (Livingston’s theological justification of civil disobedience is based on the fact that Jesus suffered on the cross, having been judged to have broken the law).
Livingston noted that the mainstream churches have for a long time simply assumed legitimacy- a privileged place in the social fabric of the nation (I found myself thinking about the building we were in!). But for perhaps 30 years now, that has not, in fact been the case.
He was also critical of the media, whom he described as acting irresponsibly and broadly representing the concerns of ‘big money’. Yet he accepted that the mainline churches had ‘fallen asleep at the wheel’. Despite their history of advocating social justice issues, they still tended to be yoked to an individualistic theology. And they too often had a far too simplistic view of the structural reasons for poverty and other social ills, which also hindered their effectiveness.
Livingston said that much of what is happening in Congress at the moment will hinder, rather than help the poor. For his office, the Federal budget is the biggest issue. He explained to me that despite the rhetoric of cutbacks (talk of cutting $1 trillion), there is, in fact, an imbalance of where the cuts will fall and where the cash to pay for the bailouts will come from. Defence spending- by far the biggest item in the budget- remains unaffected, with few or any politicians willing to propose cuts to what is by far the largest item in the Federal budget.
Many of the wealthy and corporations continue to find ways of avoiding paying their way, so that they make no real contribution to cutting the deficit: indeed, it can be shown that the cause of the deficit is not an overblown Federal social program, but the failure of the wealthy and corporations to make an appropriate contribution to the national budget . Instead, the axe is to fall on social programmes which are essential to many of those who are suffering poverty. In Livingston’s view, such cuts to social programs would only be justified if they were run inefficiently-but the depth of the cuts proposed are sinful and unnecessary.
What is proposed is an assault on government spending on these programs amounting to a denigration of government’s role in the welfare of the poorest. Indeed, at the rate the Republican side in Congress are going, they seem to be aiming for no government (except for national defence) by 2050. Opponents to this trend seem to find it difficult to argue against this highly ideological argument (which has been at the heart of the ‘Tea Party’ movement), for the argument has been framed in terms of cutting the budget- spending. In fact, says Livingston, there is a debate to be had about the revenue side of the balance. Instead of arguing to protect social programs, those interested in social justice should look at enhancing the government’s revenue, by challenging the wealthy individuals and corporations whom, he said, are getting ‘off the hook’ of their responsibility to make an appropriate contribution to society by using many means to avoid taxation.
In some, Livingston noted the following truths which are often obscured in current debates:
- Currently, the poor are affected by such factors as the lack of a level playing field in the funding of public schools. Schools in poorer areas are far worse funded than those in more prosperous districts. As with man poverty issues, this hits the black community and other minority ethnic communities more than most.
- The minimum wage has not been increased since 2007. The $7.25 rate ought by now to be $10.
- Corporate profits, rather than being paid over in tax, currently goes to shareholders and executives.
- Much social spending is mandatory: Social Security (old age pensions) and Medicare (healthcare for pensioners). Pensioners who benefit from these have paid for them during their working lives.
- Much of the budget deficit was inherited by President Obama’s Democratic administration from the previous Republican administration, and was due to that administration fighting two unfunded wars.
- US spending on international development is small compared to other countries.
- Only 14% of the budget is in the category of ‘non-defence discretionary spending’, i.e. non-defence spending which it is open to Congress to cut back.
- To the radical right-wing view that tax is fundamentally theft, one has to answer that that is to abandon democracy. A nation should be a community, not just a collection of individuals in geographical proximity.
I asked how PI keeps in touch with supporters and relates to the media. Livingston explained that formally, the PI reports to the governing board of the NCCC. News is also disseminated through the official channels of the participating denominations. But there is also an e-newsletter which goes to around 1,000 people (and is available online), together with a website, and presence on social media. The campaigns in which PI are involved also garner interest in the mass media.
What successes have their been recently? Livingston points to Circle of Protection, a statement signed in April last year by church leaders from a wide variety of church leaders, calling for protection for the poorest in budget decisions. Signatories include Catholic, mainline Protestant and evangelical church leaders, so bringing powerful moral pressure on policymakers. This came at the height of a standoff in government about raising the debt ceiling, and led to advocacy with key congressional and administration leaders.