Poverty Fight Unites Christians on Left and Right

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21, 2009

Bipartisanship might not be getting far on Capitol Hill these days, but an unusual coalition of Christian leaders and policy experts from across the ideological spectrum this week aimed to bridge the political gap to try to solve one of society's most pervasive ills: poverty.

The faith-based alliance of 18 liberals and conservatives reached across the political divide to propose ways to help the poor, including traditionally liberal methods such as raising the minimum wage and traditionally conservative ideas such as ending the marriage penalty in the federal tax code.

The brainchild of progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis and Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for then-President George W. Bush who now writes a column for The Washington Post, the bipartisan alliance is made up of an "orgy of strange bedfellows," Gerson said at a news conference this week introducing the group's ideas.

"We come from different sides of the political spectrum," said Wallis, founder of Sojourners, a network of progressive evangelical Christians. "We vote different ways, historically." Coming together in one effort like this "is rare in this town."

The proposals of the group, called the Poverty Forum, are aimed at reducing domestic poverty and preventing millions of middle-class families from slipping into it as the economy deteriorates.

Noting that easing the burden of the poor is an oft-repeated biblical mandate, Wallis said in an interview that he and Gerson began talking about putting together a bipartisan coalition of Christians in 2006. They began serious work on it last summer, bringing together representatives from organizations such as the Family Research Council, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and historically black Morehouse College.

Rather than bringing the disparate group together to agree on one list, organizers divided panel members into seven ideologically diverse pairs to hammer out proposals in seven areas, including health care, education and family policy.

The Clapham Group, a Christian consulting group headed by Mark Rodgers, chief of staff to former conservative Republican Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, worked with Gerson to suggest the conservative members for the forum, and Wallis and the Sojourners staff decided on the liberal members.

The policy suggestions that resulted include setting up federally funded savings accounts for every child born in the United States -- championed on the campaign trail by Hillary Rodham Clinton -- restoring voting rights to ex-offenders, funding fatherhood initiatives, bolstering a Bush-era policy that allows states to cover women's unborn children under the State Children's Health Insurance Program and extending the child-care tax credit to stay-at-home mothers -- a longtime goal among conservatives.

"We tried to ask different questions -- not what is liberal or conservative, left or right -- but what's right and what works," Wallis said.

Still, it wasn't easy to escape the divisions.

Jim Capretta, a fellow at the conservative think tank Ethics and Public Policy Center, who worked on the health-care team, said he didn't agree with all of the proposals presented, such as increasing the minimum wage.

"It was made clear that individual participants did not endorse every idea, and I do not endorse every idea that was put forward," Capretta said. "And that would be one that I raise very serious questions about."

Representatives of the group were scheduled to present their proposals to the Obama administration this week. President Obama has said he wants to halve the nation's poverty rate, raising expectations for the group.

For conservatives, it is a chance to focus Democratic policy makers' attention on traditionally Republican solutions to strengthen families and alleviate poverty.

"I thought it was a chance in a difficult legislative environment to get those ideas heard because conservatives don't have quite the direct line they used to have -- at least in this period," said Chuck Donovan, executive vice president of the conservative Family Research Council, who served on the panel on increasing work opportunities for the poor.

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