Churches Aren’t M.I.A., But Haven’t Done Enough for the Poor

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Robert Putnam, one of the country’s premier political scientists, recently sparked a debate over whether or not faith groups have been absent in the fight on poverty, saying:

Historically, churches had been major, major movers on issues of social and political equality in America, but as I noted in [my 2010 book] “American Grace,” somewhat surprisingly even though inequality has been rapidly growing, faith leaders were, with some notable exceptions, missing in action….

Poverty has not been at the top of the public agenda of either the Catholic Church or evangelicals….

Individual charity, however important, is not adequate to solve the big changes that have happened in America….

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.

President Barack Obama added to this conversation at the recent Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life event Overcoming Poverty: The Moral, Political, and Policy Imperative of AND:

There is great caring and great concern, but 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 is oftentimes viewed as a “nice to have” relative to an issue like abortion.  That’s not across the board, but there sometimes has been that view, and certainly that’s how it’s perceived in our political circles.

Ross Douthat of the New York Times called these claims ridiculous. Douthat rightly highlights the extraordinary amount of work Christian churches and charities do to assist the poor. Many on the frontlines fighting for the poor were infuriated by Putnam’s comments. And the Catholic Church (along with many other churches) has been a consistent voice for economic justice and increased assistance for the poor. The media is largely to blame for overlooking these efforts, often focusing on controversial issues and ignoring the Church’s defense of the poor. But the impact of the culture war in undermining efforts to deliver economic justice for the poor is real, and Douthat is wrong to downplay it.

Douthat argues, “The belief that organized religion is organized around culture war is largely a conceit of the irreligious.” True, there are many parishes where you will not hear about abortion or gay marriage, but there are just as many where you will not hear about upending the unjust social structures that leave the poor behind. The bigger issue is the way organized religion came to be linked in the minds of so many with right-wing politics over the past two and a half decades, as the Religious Right rose in stature (and the Republican Party increasingly embraced free market fundamentalism).

The results of this culture war have been disastrous for organized religion, including the Catholic Church. It has driven many from the Church and alienated millions of millennials. It is not just the media’s fault. Both the political left and the right are to blame for the toxic culture war; Douthat is right to call out left-wing culture warriors’ pro-choice maximalism.

But the reality is that some Catholic leaders, including bishops, are also to blame for the state of the culture war, its impact on the Church, and the way it has distracted many from a full commitment to the poor. The Catholics who have distorted the theological concept of intrinsic evil to support their right-wing political agenda are complicit. Those who have stretched prudential reasoning to cover imprudence and insincere politicians peddling ideologies infected by hyperindividualism are complicit. Those who use the body and blood of Jesus Christ as a tool to coerce politicians into conformity on just a couple of political issues, ignoring those affecting the poor, are complicit.

Those who pushed the simplistic solution of merely banning abortion, rather than a comprehensive approach to abolition that includes adequate support for pregnant women and families, are to blame. Those who have been fixated on the fight over same-sex marriage, as the American family has collapsed, in part due to economic pressures, are to blame.

These tactics were used to help a political party whose economic agenda is driven by an economic libertarianism that is entirely incompatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church (from the universal destination of goods to the preferential option for the poor to the Church’s basic understanding of human dignity and human rights). While the media is wrong to cover every salacious detail of this culture war while ignoring the Bishops’ statements on economic justice, the Church cannot claim total innocence. And the simple truth is that the Church has not done enough for the poor, because it has allowed these pernicious culture war tactics to persist.

But Pope Francis is reversing this. He has reaffirmed that the pursuit of social justice and the defense of human life are deeply interconnected, restoring both to the proper context. He has denounced ideologues and legalism. He is making it clear that those who relish waging the culture war are not the Church. They are not model Christians. They do not reflect what it means to be an orthodox believer. They have distorted the Church’s mission because of their ideology. Surely no one can doubt that Pope Francis has shifted the Church toward a greater focus on the poor and vulnerable.

This is more than a political priority. The preferential option for the poor and vulnerable should animate the Church at every level. But if we follow Francis’ lead, it will become a greater political priority. And it will not just challenge those who have embraced economic libertarianism, but progressives as well. We are living in the Second Gilded Age. Our political system is broken, our economy serves the rich, and we lack the political will to fix this. More spending on existing government programs will not spark real social and economic mobility and offer genuine opportunity for all. Neither party has an adequate commitment to the poor, and Christians should be the ones that change that.

A more radical approach is necessary. And Christians have simply have not cared enough about the poor to embrace this radicalism—the radicalism of one who walks in the Way of Christ. Instead of being defensive about our past efforts to help the poor, the Church should become a poor church for the poor. We must never be complacent about doing enough for the poor and vulnerable. This is our call. This is our mission. This is how we serve the Lord.