WASHINGTON — When it comes to fighting poverty, President Barack Obama wants American Christians to act a lot more like Pope Francis.
Obama called Francis “transformative,” saying the pope’s “insistence” that fighting poverty be at the heart of the Christian life has made him a global icon.
“That emphasis is why he’s had such incredible appeal, including to young people all around the world, and I hope it’s a message everyone receives when he comes to visit,” Obama said Tuesday, referring to the pope’s September visit to the United States.
During that trip, Francis will address a joint session of Congress and give a talk on the environment at the United Nations. Obama met with Francis at the Vatican in 2014, but this will be the Argentine pontiff’s first visit to the United States.
“When I think about my own Christian faith and my obligations,” Obama said, “it’s important for me to think what I can do myself, like individually mentor young people or make charitable donations.”
But he said it’s also important for Christian communities “to have a voice in the larger debate.”
The politics of Christianity, Obama said, have tended to focus around a narrow set of issues, such as abortion. He said he hopes that changes in time for the 2016 election.
“It would be powerful for our faith based organizations to speak out on this in a more forceful fashion,” he said.
Obama was speaking at an anti-poverty summit of Evangelical and Catholic leaders at Georgetown University.
Joining Obama on the panel was the president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Arthur C. Brooks, and Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam. More than 120 participants gathered for a three-day summit at Georgetown University, representing a wide ideological spectrum within Catholicism and Evangelicalism.
Referencing Putnam’s book “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” Obama said that growing economic inequality reinforces cycles of poverty.
“Part of what happened in our politics,” he said, “ is that elites in a very global, mobilized world are able to live together away from folks who are not wealthy, so they feel less of a commitment to making those commitments.”
When conversation turned to policy proposals, Obama said that while the left and right tend to agree that poverty is unacceptable, “when it comes to actually establishing budgets, making choices, prioritizing, that’s when it starts breaking down.”
The president called for investment in public schools, universities, job training, and infrastructure, but said Americans must realize these things will cost money.
“Those things are not going to happen through market forces alone,” he said. “Our governments and our budgets have to reflect our willingness to make those investments.”
Brooks, on the other hand, said that free markets have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty over the past two decades, and that entitlement spending must be reigned in.
“The safety net should be limited to people who are truly indigent,” he said. “Help should always come with the dignified power of work.”
Still, both Obama and Brooks criticized the extremes in their respective camps.
“No good economist denies that there are public goods. Markets fail sometimes, there is a role for the state,” Brooks said.
Obama said he cringes when he sees interviews like the “Obama-phone lady,” and he rejected claims that he is too much a scold toward African-American men about how responsible fatherhood can ease poverty.
“I am a black man who grew up without a father and I know the costs I paid for that,” he said, “and I know the capacity I have to break that cycle. And as a consequence I think my daughters are better off.”
While panelists laid out the many challenges society faces in overcoming poverty – including a growing wage gap, failing schools, and breakdown in marriage – Putnam said he still has hope.
“Historically, this is the kind of problem Americans have faced before and have solved,” he said.
But the line that received the most applause with to Dionne, reacting to Obama’s praise for the pope: “All events are better with a reference to Pope Francis.”