A view of the Supreme Court and the U.S. Capitol from the chapel window. A constant stream of clergy members who started out in poli sci. Lunchtime “federal budget prayer vigils.” Such are the rhythms of life in and around the “God Box,” a five-story building that embodies the way faith and politics mix in Washington.
Headquarters for many of the country’s biggest progressive Christian advocacy groups, the stately United Methodist Building is bustling these days with as much talk of the debt ceiling and Social Security as that of Scripture. Although the organizations based there, including a few non-Christian groups, have weekly worship in a first-floor chapel, some leaders have held daily vigils since early this month on a tiny patch of grass right out front to pray about federal budget talks.
Worshipers at a vigil Wednesday grasped BlackBerrys and buzzed with news that President Obama would meet that day with faith leaders pleading to avoid cuts in government programs for the poor and hungry.
“Go forth in love to serve God and to work for a compassionate budget,” Shantha Ready Alonso, an advocate with the National Council of Churches, urged about 60 people huddled in the baking sun.
No one in the group of interns, policy experts and clergy seemed to take note of the open-topped tour bus from which curious folks were snapping photos of the vigil. Nor of the feisty back and forth about Israelis and Palestinians between one onlooker and another who had just come from a conference of the group Christians United for Israel.
The average denizens of the God Box tend to be politically liberal, but their perspective on their work is similar to what you’d hear from their conservative counterparts, plenty of whom are in the same little Capitol Hill neighborhood, praying for the exact opposite outcome in the budget talks. They tell themselves: Remember who you are serving. Listen for the word of God. Resist believing God prefers your political party.
“When you work this beat, you’d better be centered in prayer,” said the Rev. Mari Castellanos, an advocate with the United Church of Christ, who pastored a church in Florida before coming to the United Methodist Building eight years ago. As is life on this corner, Castellanos was deep in prayer at the vigil one minute, deep in policy talk the next.
“We get involved in talking about the politics of scarcity when we should focus on the politics of abundance,” she said of how she sees the poles in the budget debate. “We Americans are wealthy. It’s just a matter of sharing.”
Faith advocacy on the Hill is nothing new; faith groups across the political and theological spectrum lobby on a range of issues that come before Congress, from predictable hot-button topics, such as abortion, same-sex marriage and church-state law, to education, housing and foreign policy. This small army of activists blends into the landscape of Capitol Hill, often divided based on their interpretation of Scripture (and the Constitution) but sometimes united at congressional hearings or West Wing chats.
The Obama meeting Wednesday included a dozen faith leaders who spanned the political gamut, from the progressive Sojourners to more conservative leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals.
Tim Goeglein, the top D.C. lobbyist for the conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family, said the framing of the budget talks in moral terms is “the greatest of American political traditions from both camps.”
Some longtime Hill faith advocates say the mobilizing of recent weeks is highly unusual, largely because every niche group has a tangible financial stake in the outcome.
Longtime Southern Baptist Convention advocate Richard Land said shrinking government and lessening Americans’ dependance on government services is a matter of biblical ethics.
“One of the Ten Commandments is ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ and you’re practicing generational theft,” he said. He also believes government grows in proportion with secularism. “Big government means a small God. The welfare state makes people become narcissistic and hate work. And work builds character.”
Among those on the lawn Wednesday was Doug Grace, who came to Capitol Hill nearly two decades ago to work for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and is in the process of becoming an ordained Presbyterian minister. In Washington, he organizes conferences to train faith advocates; as the presidential campaign revs up, they will focus this year on the economy. During the budget vigils, Grace has a focus: Be mindful of God.
Soon an African American spiritual wafted across the lawn: “I’m gonna live so God can use me!” the group sang. It was chapel time at the God Box.