May 14, 2015
E.J. Dionne of , President Obama, Robert Putnam, a progressive from Harvard, and Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute
Earlier this week, Harvard professor Robert Putnam did a Q&A with Washington Post religion reporter Michelle Boorstein, headlined "Have faith groups been too absent in the fight on poverty?" Here is Putnam's answer to that question:
That the venerable author of Bowling Alone would say this, let alone declare it "the most obvious point in the world," is a good reminder of that even the most brilliant social scientists are, more often than not, demonstrably full of it. There's a damning retort to this by Rob Schwarzwalder and Pat Fagan at Religion News Service. Just to give you an idea, a single Christian Charity, World Vision, spends about $2.8 billion on anti-poverty efforts. "That would rank World Vision about 12th within the G20 nations in terms of overseas development assistance," World Vision President Richard Stearns noted inChristianity Today a few years back. Fagan and Schwarzwelder do a lot more number crunching, but the upshot is that Christians spend billions and billions fighting poverty. Even the most generous estimates of the resources devoted to pro-life causes and organizations defending traditional marriage are just a few hundred million dollars. By contrast, the budget of Planned Parenthood alone is just over a billion dollars. I don't know what the Human Rights Campaign's budget is, but if I've walked by their impressive building in Washington many times and I suspect they could marshall the resources of a small nation.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.
Now, this is bad enough. But Putnam also recently appeared on a panel at the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown University discussing this very topic with columnist E.J. Dionne, American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, and, yes, Barack Obama. The president himself joined in the mendacious chorus:
“Despite great caring and concern,” [Obama] said, “when it comes to what are you really going to the mat for, what's the defining issue, when you're talking in your congregations, what's the thing that is really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians, or as Catholics, or what have you, that this”—fighting poverty—“is often times viewed as a 'nice to have' relative to an issue like abortion.”
Nice to have? What would be nice to have is a president who's not so divorced from the reality of American Christians that he thinks he has the moral authority to more or less slander millions of well-intentioned Christians. Their lives and the things they care about could not be more different than how it is casually being characterized by a president who has apparently turned the White House into an Ivory Tower.
What about the inner city pastor who wakes up in the middle of the night everytime there's a knock on the door and rummages through his own fridge to feed the homeless guy on his step? What about the ladies of the church Golden Group who spent the last week turning old colorful pillowcases and bits of ribbon into dresses to send to young girls in Haiti who literally have nothing to wear? What about the six-year-old who comes to school with a spare toothbrush and their birthday money because the teacher at her Lutheran School told her that the Orphan Grain Train is helping people in Nepal who lost everything in an earthquake? What about the accomplished professional who drives across town once a week to tutor poor kids, even though he's got more lucrative things on his schedule, just because it's what he believes Jesus Christ wants him to do?
I didn't make up these examples. I know these people. This is my reality as a weekly churchgoer in America, and there are millions and millions of us.
But because presumably some of these same Christians believe that every child is a gift from God, and that abortion is a grave evil up unto the point that they cheerfully and gladly volunteer to take care of as many needy kids as they can, the president himself disingenuously suggests their concern about poverty is relative and inadequate. This is the same president, mind you, that went out of his way to force a legal battle with Little Sisters of the Poor over subsidizing contraception and abortifacients. Based on the name of the organization, I'm guessing these nuns had better things to do than defend their conscience rights from a president who stood by and shrugged at the last Democratic convention where delegates booed God and stripped the "safe, legal and rare" language out of the party platform. And now Obama has the temerity to say that it's Christians who are making abortion too much of a priority.
Speaking of "safe, legal, and rare", I noted that the moderator of this discussion on Christians and poverty was E.J. Dionne, who who worked tirelessly to sell his fellow Christians on Obama. Let's revistthis 2008 column of his:
Of course, President-elect Barack Obama's most urgent task is to repair an ailing economy. But one of his important promises was to end the cultural and religious wars that have disfigured American politics for four decades.
A good place to start the healing process: our decades-long conflict over abortion. ...
Obama, who has shown he can draw lessons from Bill Clinton's presidency, can find one on this issue. Picking up on the pro-choice movement's most popular slogan, Clinton declared during his 1992 campaign that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare."
Abortions did become rarer during Clinton's time in office, dropping by 11 percent. But since Clinton made no major public moves on abortion reduction, many pro-lifers who had been inclined his way felt he ignored the third word in his motto. There's no reason for Obama to make the same mistake -- and no reason for advocates of abortion rights to get in the way of his trying to build a new consensus. He should not lose his chance to make cultural warfare a quaint relic of the past.
Well, after six years of Obama, it seems he didn't exactly live up to his promise to make cultural and religious warfare is a thing of the past. Instead, he deliberately exacerbated the conflict again and again. We're at the point where the man well-intentioned liberal Christians like Dionne said could end the culture wars makes a flatly wrong and objectionable assertion that fighting poverty is an afterthought for Christians too often obsessed with abortion, and nobody bats an eye. Of course, it's been just over two weeks since Obama's solicitor general warned the Supreme Court that if the White House gets its way on gay marriage, churches could be stripped of their tax exempt status. This would have devastating ramifications for the efforts of churches combatting poverty, but when the White House is so engaged in projection that they think that all churches care about is abortion, it starts to explain how they could do something so obviously damaging to the poor and still live with themselves.
It seems obvious that Obama, Putnam, and the liberal elites they speak for want to believe that American Christians are narrow-minded and obsessed to the point of being uncaring. This is an utterly delusional way of discounting the tremendous, literally and figuratively livesaving work of American Christians. But to think about them any other way would be to actually wrestle with the fact that, while we're all imperfect, any political disagreements Christians have be over hot button cultural issues like abortion and gay marriage might actually be motivated by genuine concern and compassion. Those are, not coincidentally, the same reasons that have made fighting poverty one the church's most vital and important missions for millennia.