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Religious leaders say Obama understands budget cuts
must not remove support 'for the least of these'


Washington, July 21, 2011 – Religious leaders who met with President Obama in an “extraordinary” 40-minute meeting Wednesday said they are confident the chief executive sees the need for a circle of protection around government programs that support the poor.

“We were asked not to quote the president directly,” said the Rev. Michael Livingston, director of the National Council of Churches poverty initiative, who was among the Christian leaders who met with Mr. Obama in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

“But the president used a biblical phrase that has been quoted in the church for two thousand years,” Livingston said. “He referred to ‘the least of these,’ which was the phrase Jesus used to describe the poor and hungry who needed to be fed and clothed and treated as sisters and brothers.” (Matthew 25:45)

Obama’s use of the phrase showed he understood why the group had come to the White House, Livingston said.

Christian leaders meeting with the president were part of the “Circle of Protection” nonpartisan movement formed by an unusually wide array of ecumenical and evangelical groups.

Representatives attended the meeting from the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bread for the World, Sojourners, the Alliance to End Hunger, the Salvation Army, the National African American Clergy Network, the National Baptist Convention of America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

The Rev. Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-facilitator of the National African American Clergy Network, agreed that the president recognized the significance of a variegated group of Christians speaking as one voice for the poor.

“I don’t recall being part of such a diverse group of Christian leaders,” Williams-Skinner said in a telephone press conference Thursday. “This was not lost on the president or his team. None of us were asking anything for our organizations. I reminded him and all of us that these moral decisions about the budget must be made in context of 2000 verses of scripture which talk about the poor.”

Williams-Skinner said the group also prayed for the president and his senior staff in this time of difficult decision-making.

“The White House is used to being petitioned by groups for their own needs,” she said. “This group is so different and so diverse that comes together around the need to protect the poor, even though we rarely get together. I thought his was really incredible. The president said this does not happen in the White House very often.”

Bishop Ricardo Ramirez said the group stressed with the president “the fundamental moral principle that we should put the needs of the poor first in allocating scarce resources. Matthew 25 has gotten all twisted to say ‘whatsoever you do for the forgotten middle class you do unto me.’ We’re not interested in which party wins but we support those who are likely to lose, the families feeding kids looking for work.”

Ramirez noted that there are several “givens” in the debate over the budget, including the Republican given that there be no tax increases and the Democratic given that tax breaks for the rich should be eliminated.

“When you listen to the debate it seems that protecting the poor is not a given,” Ramirez said. “We asked the president to join us in forming a circle of protection around the poor. They have no lobbyists, but they do have the greatest moral claim.”

“The stakes are so high,” said John Carr of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The fiscal challenges our nation faces are so huge. It Involves trillions of dollars and millions of lives, and for every religious leader each one of those lives has a face. Yet the silence has been deafening. Our appeal to the White House, the Speaker, Democrats, Republicans, is to look at every proposal for how it touches the least of these.”

“The president acknowledged that we face a difficult crisis,” said Galen Perry of the National Association of Evangelicals. “Part of the challenge we discussed with the president was to help leaders and the people understand the human impact. The president acknowledged this as an issue of stewardship. We are hopeful as these negotiations go forward, these principles will be respected.”

The Rev. Dr. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said the leaders who met with the president will play a role in communicating the urgency to the public.

“All of us put on the table commitments to alert vast networks,” Hanson said. “We’re hearing from our members in local communities that they are very tired of the culture and the rhetoric of polarization that will not bring people to tables of reconciliation. “We heard in the meeting that God is about circles of protection, not polarization.”

Carr said the Circle of Protection “is built around this fundamental principle that the poor and vulnerable take priority. We need to talk about several ways to address the crisis: appropriate cuts, reduced military spending, entitlement reform—and we would say tax revenues.”

Hanson said, “There is nothing in the bible that says you shouldn’t tax rich people. There is much in the bible that says you should help the poor.”

For more information, see www.circlesofprotection.us, and www.nccendpoverty.org.

 



Since its founding in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has been the leading force for shared ecumenical witness among Christians in the United States. The NCC's 37 member communions -- from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches -- include 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation.


NCC News contact:  Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228 (office), 646-853-4212 (cell),
pjenks@ncccusa.org

 

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