The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama tackles poverty on a panel in front of Catholic and evangelical leaders

EJ Dionne, President Obama, Robert Putnam and Arthur Brooks. (Screenshot via Georgetown livestream)
Placeholder while article actions load

Faith groups could change the dialogue around poverty and policy if they spoke out more powerfully, President Obama said Tuesday at a high-level conference of Catholics and evangelicals aimed at decreasing polarization around the subject.

“I think it would be powerful for our faith based organizations to speak out on this in a more forceful fashion,” Obama said at a conference at Georgetown University that is gathering evangelicals and Catholics around the topic of poverty. This may sound self interested, Obama said, acknowledging differences with Catholics and evangelicals on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. “I think there is more power to be had there, a more transformative voice that’s available around these issues.”

Tuesday’s talk was part of a three-day conference, called “Overcoming Poverty,” that includes heavy-hitters from across the ideological spectrum, from groups from the evangelical Focus on the Family on the right to Nuns on the Bus on the left. Participants agreed a goal was to agree that solutions are found on both sides, from programs primarily aimed at supporting marriage to those about strengthening the safety net, for example. But experts watching the conference said America’s polarization on this topic runs deep.

Obama said he can’t wait to host Pope Francis this fall because he thinks the pope will spark a larger discussion on poverty.

“No one has shown this better than Pope Francis who has been transformative just through his sincerity and insistence that this is vital to who we are, this is following what Jesus Christ our savior taught us, and that emphasis is why he’s had such appeal including to young people all around the world.”

The Georgetown gathering includes some nitty gritty about specific policies on things like predatory lending, taxes and wages in breakout sessions, but the big event Tuesday with Obama and two leading social scientists – one progressive one conservative – is about countering politicization in policy talks around poverty.

“The stereotype of folks on the Left who just want to pour more money into social progress and don’t care about culture or parenting or family structures … and then you’ve got cold-hearted free-market capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and think everyone is mooching, and the truth is more complicated,” Obama said.

If Catholics, who have been traditionally more open to government action on poverty, and evangelicals, who often focus on family-related causes, can get together and make poverty a priority up there with, say, abortion and marriage, that would change the dynamic in America, participants at the event are saying. These are two of the biggest faith groups in the nation, together making up about half the country.

In addition to changing the rhetoric around poverty, the three men on the elaborate Georgetown stage with Obama talked a bit about specifics – where are areas of potential agreement?

“Our job is to guard against cynicism and not buy the idea that the poor will always be with us,” Obama said, nodding to scriptural comments about the poor.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks, who said he was in the free enterprise movement “because poverty is the thing I care about the most,” said the safety net is essential but must be only for people who are “truly indigent – not spread to the middle class.” He said government help “should come with the dignifying power of work.”

The three-day event is called “Catholic-Evangelical Summit on Overcoming Poverty: The Moral, Policy and Strategic Imperative of AND.”

“We’re trying to break down the wall between the family folks and the economic folks and if we do that, we can help break the stalemate,” John Carr, a former top official with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and one of the conveners of this conference, told the Post. “We’ve been doing the ‘or’ thing for a long time based on whoever’s in power. People get in their own corners and say ‘We know what to do and those people don’t.’ Anybody who’s poor or has worked with the poor knows it’s an ‘and’ question.”

Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, who sat on the panel with Obama, said the policy part “is easy. This is not rocket science.” The issue, he said, is prioritizing poverty.

Catholics and evangelicals “are the two largest faith communities in America. They have been historically been involved in the public square. They’ve been emphasizing homosexuality and abortion and issues related to sex. If they employ the same strengths that religious institutions have on behalf of poor kids as they have on other issues, it would make a real difference,” he told the Post.

“They have not successfully changed opinion on homosexuality but they have on abortion. They made it a moral issue. If they could make lots of Americans who do not see poverty as a moral issue see it as a moral issue, wow.. The big deal for fixing the issue is changing the mood in America to be less concerned on our own kids and focused more on everybody’s kids.”

Obama and Putnam emphasized a social phenomenon that’s been at the core of Putnam’s influential books – the withdrawal, particularly among the wealthy, from shared public life.

A few decades ago, “bankers living in reasonable proximity to the janitor of school. The Janitor’s daughter might go out with banker’s son. They may attend the same church, the rotary club.. all the things that’s stitched them together,” Obama said. Those at the top of the education and economic scale, are withdrawing from the commons. Kids start going to private schools, kids start working out at private clubs instead of the public park.”

Organizers say they invited Obama in the hopes that the former community organizer will be thinking about his legacy at this point and want poverty to be “his cause,” Carr said.

While it may seem obvious as a general ethical issue, connecting the dots specifically between faith and poverty isn’t simple. Data shows that evangelicals and Catholics – churchgoing Americans, compared with most other groups – don’t differ significantly from Americans as a whole in terms of their belief about whether America is investing sufficiently on poverty. Polls also show worship attendance isn’t strongly correlated with support for spending to assist the poor.

John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, said the big faith groups to whom Obama was speaking – Catholics and evangelicals, who together make up about half the U.S. population – are more aligned than they used to be on how to address poverty. However, he said the primary problem isn’t a disagreement about policy, it’s the U.S. political climate.

“I can imagine Catholics, evangelicals, secular leaders can agree more than they used to, but can they bring their followers along? These are well-meaning people,” he said of the crowd at Georgetown, “but the polarization of the moment presents a challenge to them.”

(This story has been updated.)

Want more religion coverage? Follow Acts of Faith on Twitter or sign up for our newsletter.

Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion

Interview: David Brooks on sin, Augustine and the state of his soul

How a missionary trip led one man to create shoes that grow up to five sizes