By Jonathan Weisman and Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
When hundreds of religious activists try to get arrested today to protest cutting programs for the poor, prominent conservatives such as James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell will not be among them.
That is a great relief to Republican leaders, who have dismissed the burgeoning protests as the work of liberals. But it raises the question: Why in recent years have conservative Christians asserted their influence on efforts to relieve Third World debt, AIDS in Africa, strife in Sudan and international sex trafficking -- but remained on the sidelines while liberal Christians protest domestic spending cuts?
Conservative Christian groups such as Focus on the Family say it is a matter of priorities, and their priorities are abortion, same-sex marriage and seating judges who will back their position against those practices.
"It's not a question of the poor not being important or that meeting their needs is not important," said Paul Hetrick, a spokesman for Focus on the Family, Dobson's influential, Colorado-based Christian organization. "But whether or not a baby is killed in the seventh or eighth month of pregnancy, that is less important than help for the poor? We would respectfully disagree with that."
Jim Wallis, editor of the liberal Christian journal Sojourners and an organizer of today's protest, was not buying it. Such conservative religious leaders "have agreed to support cutting food stamps for poor people if Republicans support them on judicial nominees," he said. "They are trading the lives of poor people for their agenda. They're being, and this is the worst insult, unbiblical."
At issue is a House-passed budget-cutting measure that would save $50 billion over five years by trimming food stamp rolls, imposing new fees on Medicaid recipients, squeezing student lenders, cutting child-support enforcement funds and paring agriculture programs. House negotiators are trying to reach accord with senators who passed a more modest $35 billion bill that largely spares programs for the poor.
At the same time, House and Senate negotiators are hashing out their differences on a tax-cutting measure that is likely to include an extension of cuts in the tax rate on dividends and capital gains.
To mainline Protestant groups and some evangelical activists, the twin measures are an affront, especially during the Christmas season. Leaders of five denominations -- the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church USA and United Church of Christ -- issued a joint statement last week calling on Congress to go back to the drawing board and come up with a budget that brings "good news to the poor."
Around 300 religious activists have vowed to kneel in prayer this morning at the Cannon House Office Building and remain there until they are arrested. Wallis said that as they are led off, they will chant a phrase from Isaiah: "Woe to you legislators of infamous laws . . . who refuse justice to the unfortunate, who cheat the poor among my people of their rights, who make widows their prey and rob the orphan."
To GOP leaders and their supporters in the Christian community, it is not that simple. Acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said yesterday that the activists' position is not "intellectually right."
The "right tax policy," such as keeping tax rates low on business investment, "grows the economy, increases federal revenue -- and increased federal revenue makes it easier for us to pursue policies that we all can agree have social benefit," he said.
Dobson also has praised what he calls "pro-family tax cuts." And Janice Crouse, a senior fellow at the Christian group Concerned Women for America, said religious conservatives "know that the government is not really capable of love."
"You look to the government for justice, and you look to the church and individuals for mercy. I think Hurricane Katrina is a good example of that. FEMA just failed, and the church and the Salvation Army and corporations stepped in and met the need," she said.
Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said the government's role should be to encourage charitable giving, perhaps through tax cuts.
"There is a [biblical] mandate to take care of the poor. There is no dispute of that fact," he said. "But it does not say government should do it. That's a shifting of responsibility."
The Family Research Council is involved in efforts to stop the bloodshed in the Darfur region of Sudan as well as sex trafficking and slavery abroad. But Perkins said those issues are far different from the budget cuts now under protest. "The difference there is enforcing laws to keep people from being enslaved, to be sold as sex slaves," he said. "We're talking here about massive welfare programs."
The Rev. Richard Cizik, a vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, returned yesterday from the Montreal conference on global climate change, another issue of interest to evangelicals. "Frankly, I don't hear a lot of conversation among evangelicals" about budget cuts in anti-poverty programs, he said. "What I hear our people asking is, why are we spending $231 million on a bridge to nowhere in Alaska and can't find $50 million for African Union forces to stop genocide in Darfur?"