WASHINGTON — Putting aside theological differences – and the battle for souls on the ground – in order to form a unified front on fighting poverty is the only way to make progress as inequality grows, Catholic and Evangelical leaders said Monday.
“Society has learned to live with the notion that certain people have fallen outside the covenant, and that’s just the way it is,” San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, one of the conference panelists, told journalists. “Our God does not believe that this is acceptable.”
More than 120 participants gathered for a three-day summit at Georgetown University, representing a wide ideological spectrum within Catholicism and Evangelicalism. Event organizers, however, hope that a common focus on poverty can overcome these differences, and say the event is the “broadest and deepest” joint poverty discussion among the two denominations to date.
“There are things that divide us, but what should not divide us is the ability to bring good news to the poor,” said John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown, which hosted the event.
The goal of the meeting, he said, is “to tear down the walls” between those who believe the solutions to poverty are found strictly in strengthening families and those who favor strong government intervention.
The summit is focused on a single word – “and” – in the hopes of highlighting the best ideas from both sides of the poverty debate.
“Anyone who is poor, anyone who works with the poor, knows that a child’s prospects are shaped by the choices of her family and the policies of the government,” Carr said during the opening session. “It’s time to call off that war and start working together.”
Robert Putnam, a sociologist at Harvard University and author of “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” said that overcoming poverty requires highlighting just how bad things have become for the poor.
“Many good-hearted people on the upside of the opportunity gap don’t know how bad it’s become on the bad side of the opportunity gap,” he said.
Children of college-educated parents, Putnam said, fare much better than children of high school-educated parents, a relatively new phenomenon in American society that threatens the very fabric of society.
“Rich, dumb kids are more likely to finish college than poor smart kids. If that doesn’t shock you, nothing will,” he said.
Another panelist, Sacramento’s Bishop Jaime Soto, said that society’s emphasis on “tolerance” sometimes leads to indifference and acceptance.
“There are things in society that are intolerable, like poverty and its impact on families and children, incarceration, the economic divide, the technological divide,” he said. “These things should be intolerable for us, we cannot remain indifferent to this.”
When asked if any policy ideas created at the summit would be able to survive the hyperpolarized atmosphere in Washington, Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, voiced hope.
“We’re leading with the question about children and the vulnerable,” he said, pointing to successes in certain areas of immigration and criminal justice reform could serve as a template.
The Rev. Melanie J. DeBouse of Philadelphia’s Evangel Chapel and Children’s Mission said that in her African-American church, a dearth of educational opportunities has meant the cycle of poverty continues.
“We have three or four generations of people whom the educational system has failed,” she said.
Just as pressing, however, is the lack of positive role models, and the inability to imagine a better life. “There’s no one in their lives to say ‘Come on, baby, you can do this,’” she said.
Other speakers on the evening panel said specific government action was needed to help stem the growing “opportunity gap,” including an increase in the minimum wage, an expansion of the earned income tax credit, and better job training.
Though promises to neutralize the threats to America’s dwindling middle class has become a quadrennial tradition in recent decades, presidential campaigns have largely avoided discussing poverty. Galen Carey, the vice president for government relations at the National Association of Evangelicals, said participants in the summit hope to change that.
A coalition of anti-poverty religious groups known as the Circle of Protection has invited major presidential candidates to produce video clips explaining how they will combat poverty in the United States and abroad.
While condemning poverty comes easy, finding solutions among a crowd with diverse theological and ideological beliefs may prove more challenging. One example is access to quality education, which nearly all speakers said was essential to overcoming poverty. It’s a tangled public policy issue that has vexed lawmakers for generations.
Nicole Baker Fulgham, president of The Expectations Project, said that finding the “moral voice” to promote better public schools was essential to overcome poverty.
How that squares with Catholic leaders, who favor tax credits for Catholic schools, remains to be seen.
Still, speakers seemed united on the need for a mix of government, faith, and community-based organizations to work together to overcome poverty.
Richard J. Mouw, former president of the Fuller Theological Seminary, said, “Changed hearts are certainly necessary for the changing of society,” but that considering systemic questions of injustice are just as important. The second part of his statement, he said, hasn’t always found a home in Evangelical circles.
He said Evangelicals can learn from Catholic Social Teaching, and that the two groups need “an ecumenism of the trenches, where we actually get together an talk about how we’re going to deal with homelessness in our communities, how are we going to deal with needy children, with immigration.”
McElroy agreed, but said that Catholics also need “a spiritual framework of buy-in” when it comes to poverty. The degree to which Catholic communities accept the Church’s social teaching has “diminished,” he said.
Believers must be “converted from a culture of indifference to the poor to a culture of solidarity with the poor,” he said, calling for structural reform “rooted in social and economic reality.”
Growing inequality, he said, threatens the very existence of the United States.
“A permanent, excluded underclass is contrary to the vision of our founders,” he said. “We seek to be a society that offers opportunity to everyone. The level of inequality we have now stamps out that opportunity, and we become a distorted society.”
President Barack Obama will speak on a panel to participants Tuesday.