The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Have faith groups been too absent in the fight on poverty? A Q&A with Robert Putnam

(Niraj Chokshi; based on Working Poor Families Project data)

It’s a core tenet of most religions to help the needy, right? Faith groups in recent decades, however, have been caught up in the same polarization as the rest of the country on issues of class, race and politics, making it difficult for them to lead on reducing poverty.

Dozens of top evangelical and Catholic leaders will gather in Washington starting Monday, coming together for a cause the Bible mentions hundreds of times. The summit happening Monday to Wednesday at Georgetown University is such a big deal that President Obama will join Tuesday for a conversation with two policy bigwigs – Robert Putnam of Harvard on the progressive side and the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Books on the conservative side.

Helping us understand the backdrop for the summit, Putnam spoke with The Washington Post about whether churches and other faith groups can be players in fighting poverty in a nation that’s looking increasingly askance at religious institutions.

Q: When we look at places like Baltimore and Ferguson where issues of race and poverty and power have exploded in the past year, we always ask: What are the pastors saying and doing? Are faith leaders and institutions players and influencers like they used to be on the topic of poverty?

A: Historically, churches had been major, major movers on issues of social and political equality in America, but as I noted in [my 2010 book] “American Grace,” somewhat surprisingly even though inequality has been rapidly growing, faith leaders were, with some notable exceptions, missing in action.

Speaking in 2015, I think the involvement of America’s faith community is close to being a necessary condition for Americans coming to grips with the issue of inequality and especially of opportunity. It’s close to being necessary because without the voice of faith, it’s going to be very hard to push this to the top of the agenda. I also say it’s close to being sufficient because even though there has been a decline in the observant, [still] large numbers of Americans are very religious and take religion seriously and if they came to see that their religious obligations required more positive action on social justice they would do something about it. That’s not just the hopes of some disappointed secularist. It’s just the facts. When the faith communities have in history taken inequality seriously, the country has moved.

I can imagine a purely secular movement to improve inequality, but it’s unlikely. It’s one thing to say inequality and youth poverty are inefficient or bad; it’s another to say it’s a sin. And secular people can’t say it’s a sin.

Q: Pope Francis has made the poor the priority of his popular papacy. Can he impact this?

A: As a political scientist, I think the change, the position Pope Francis has adopted repeatedly on issues of social justice and poverty and youth poverty especially could turn out to be the most important thing in American politics, because the pope matters. I don’t mean just that he’ll say “jump” and people in the United States will say, “How high?” I mean he’s changed the whole tenor of the discussion and not just among Catholics.

Q: This summit advertises itself as a kind of coming together for evangelicals and Catholics. Where have these groups – two of the biggest faith groups in the country – been on poverty?

A: Poverty has not been at the top of the public agenda of either the Catholic Church or evangelicals.

As I’ve said repeatedly, religious people are nicer [than non-religious]. They are more likely to give to charity, and to volunteer compared with the public in general. But what has not happened is the move from, “I, Joe Blow, want to help this poor person,” to “My church is involved in the national conversation about poverty and what to do about it.”

Individual charity, however important, is not adequate to solve the big changes that have happened in America.

Q: Where have the churches been?

A: The obvious fact is that over the last 30 years, most organized religion has focused on issues regarding sexual morality, such as abortion, gay marriage, all of those. I’m not saying if that’s good or bad, but that’s what they’ve been using all their resources for. This is the most obvious point in the world. It’s been entirely focused on issues of homosexuality and contraception and not at all focused on issues of poverty.

Q: Why was that done?

A: There was a widespread negative counter reaction to the 1960s. Some in America were really upset about permissiveness and they began to congregate in churches. Others weren’t and they stopped going to church. The ’60s was a big dividing line, how you stood on the ’60s began to determine how religious you were.

People most concerned about permissiveness were in church and those who were most focused on poverty weren’t at church.

Q: How might these topics impact the 2016 race?

It’s not so direct. It’s not like the pope says, “This year we’re doing poverty” and everyone agrees. I think we’re in a big shift in which people are more and more aware of how bad the inequality has gotten.

Q: How controversial – if at all – is this idea of Catholics and evangelicals working on this together?

 A: For a long time [the economy] has hardly made the top 10 list of issues facing America. It’s not been on the top 10 hit list. But it’s moving toward the top of the hit parade. The most important part about [the summit] is that it’s not family or economy as the areas to work on but family and economy. Not Republican or Democrat but and. I believe this problem will be solved only when we recognize that the problem is a purple problem. Parts of the problem you can understand most clearly through the progressive lens, and I am a progressive. But also I think there are parts you can see most clearly through a red conservative lens, and that’s the collapse of working-class family. In order to understand this topic you need a purple lens.

[Poverty report: Working minority families lag behind white ones in every state]

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