Where Are Religious Conservatives When You Need Them?

In 1993, when Tony Hall was serving as a congressman from Ohio, he fasted for 22 days to protest the elimination of the House Select Committee on Hunger. That effort led to the establishment of the Congressional Hunger Center, an advocacy organization that educates members of Congress on hunger issues, and an increase in aid to the United Nations World Food Programme. So, when Republicans began threatening to cut $32 billion from the federal budget, with the cuts hitting anti-poverty programs the hardest, Hall decided to fast again.

Hall is now executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, a nonprofit anti-hunger advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. The group and its parent organization, Bread for the World, are leading a fast that includes about 4,000 people to bring attention to the plight of poor and working-class families struggling during the continuing economic downturn. Hall has committed to fast on a liquid-only diet for as long as the budget fight continues.

But what's most interesting about the fast is that it is as much a faith-based call to action as it is a political one. "We're fasting because we're calling on God," says David Beckmann, executive director of Bread for the World. "Our elected officials are having a hard time solving this problem by themselves. We really are asking for God to somehow break through and help our nation sort out its priorities." The original signatories to the Hunger Fast include the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Islamic Society of North America and the Franciscan Action Network. Because conservatives since George W. Bush have called on faith-based groups to help the poor in lieu of government action, it matters that those leading the call for government funding are the charity groups that would provide those services.

Even high-profile supporters like New York Times food writer Mark Bittman have cast the current fray over social programs in theological terms: "This is a moral issue; the budget is a moral document," he wrote last Tuesday at the Opinionator blog.

Whether or not the fast is ultimately effective in changing Republicans' plans, it does highlight a long-standing breech in the party. Much of the conservative movement, especially since the ascendance of the Tea Party, has adopted the pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps rhetoric of American self-determination, but the coalition also includes religious, primarily evangelical, Christians whose golden rule is supposed to be "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." How can a supposedly religious group of people tolerate such an attack on the downtrodden, when one of the oldest tenants of their religion is that we are compelled to help the less fortunate?

Indeed, the blow to the poor from the proposed cuts would be drastic. The Republican plan for the rest of the current fiscal year would cut $1 billion from the $7 billion for Head Start, an early-childhood education program that provides $9 in benefits for every $1 invested; would cut the nutritional program for pregnant women and children known as WIC by $758 million despite the fact that it saves $2.89 in health-care costs for every dollar spent; and would cut 10,000 vouchers in support for military veterans who need housing assistance. Foreign aid for hunger programs would be cut so much that 18 million people would be left without food assistance they currently have.

Conservatives routinely argue that faith-based groups and charities should address this problem, not the government. On establishing the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, which uses government grants to fund church-based charity efforts, then-President George W. Bush said, "I believe we ought to love our neighbor like we love ourself. That's manifested in public policy through the faith-based initiative where we've unleashed the armies of compassion to help heal people who hurt." When I attended a Tea Party Patriot event this November, one of the attendees repeated the idea to me that personal charity was the only way to help the poor; being "forced" to help through taxpayer dollars was anti-American, she said.

The problem is that we can't count on private giving alone to fill the enormous gap, especially in bad economic times, when poor families are in the greatest need. In fact, in 2009, even as the recession was ending, charitable giving was down 11 percent, the biggest drop in 20 years. But even in the best times, charitable giving isn't enough. Hall points out that 93 percent of funding for hunger programs comes from the government, and only 7 percent comes from private donations. "You just can't do the job without everybody being involved," he says.

In contrast to these Republican efforts, the Obama administration increased spending for a range of anti-poverty programs in the stimulus bill that put the unemployed back to work, expanded free child care, and gave a temporary boost to the food-stamp program. In a deal with Republicans in December, the president extended tax credits for working-class families that give more money to those struggling to afford food. These advances give Beckmann hope. "There have been really good developments in our politics," Beckmann says. "What I'm praying for is that people who care can turn back this assault on the poor, or at least moderate this assault on the poor. If we can stop them, what Congress has done in the last two years will mean that five years from now, there will be a lot less poverty in our country and around the world."

Social conservatives who describe themselves as Christian should, and probably do, care about eradicating poverty, and an honest assessment of the situation shows that the only real way to tackle it includes government action. But the problem is that conservative deficit hawks still have the rhetorical upper hand, arguing that cutting these programs is necessary for fiscal health despite the small percentage -- only about 6 percent -- of the federal budget they make up. If anyone knows the perils of trying to combine church values with the government's power to make a positive difference in the lives of citizens, it's former Baptist minister and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. When he first entered the national stage, he told Republicans, "Our party may be important, but our principles are even more important than anybody's political party."

But since then, Huckabee's drifted away from that and signed on to an anti-tax, anti-spending agenda. The rhetoric on the deficit, it seems, is stronger even than the values of a preacher, and the voice of the poor is almost always overshadowed. That's why these groups are using such forceful language and something as powerful as a fast to call on Congress to protect these programs. "It's a very strong discipline to pray and to fast," Hall says, "And power comes from it."

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