On Monday, July 18, I arrived in the “Big Sky Country” of Bozeman, MT, where I was attending a conference for religious leaders on economics and the environment. It was my second year and I was looking forward to spending time with a diverse group of friends and colleagues, including my friend Tim King, the Director of Communications at Sojourners. Just after arriving at my hotel, however, I received an email from Tim saying that he was unable to attend. He had been called back to D.C. at the last minute and would be on the next flight out of Montana.
Two days later, I learned why. Tim’s boss, Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis, is the de facto head of an alliance of Christian leaders who call themselves the Circle of Protection. A select group of members of the Circle had been extended an invitation to meet with President Obama. In numerous interviews and blog posts that week, Wallis and others explained that their Christian convictions required them to advocate for exemptions from cuts for federal poverty programs.
“As Christians we are committed to Matthew 25 and Luke 4 to bring the good news to the poor and we do not want those programs to be compromised or sacrificed on the altar of politics,” said Rev. Samuel Rodriqiguez.
A number of those in attendance at the conference agreed that the Circle of Protection required a response. While Circle members acted out of earnest conviction, their understanding of how Christian principles ought to apply to the budget crisis was simplistic and, we felt, actually protected big government programs for the poor more than the poor themselves. Furthermore, while each of us acknowledges the important role of many government programs, we questioned the notion that the love mandated in verses like Matthew 25:45 is fulfilled through the redistribution of tax revenues obtained through the coercive power of the state. So, over lunch, a dozen or so of us started a group and author a letter to the president, Majority Leader Reid, and Speaker Boehner outlining our own thoughts on the proper Christian response to debt and deficits.
Contrary to what a few irritated bloggers have incorrectly reported, we received zero funding. One group member volunteered to build a website. A few of us agreed to draft the letter. Others considered strategies to collect signatures, obtain media attention, and so on. It was (and still is) a 100% volunteer effort. I think it’s fair to say that the founding members of CASE are surprised at how successful our rag-tag effort has been. I know I am!
For the past 25 years, every automatic budget cut mechanism has exempted core low-income assistance programs. But not this time. Neither the Republican House, the Democratic Senate, nor the Obama White House has clearly and publicly committed to protect the poor and vulnerable, even though religious leaders have persistently pressed them all to do so. It’s a moral imperative that we do so again today. So now, faith leaders are watching the political leaders. And we believe God is watching us all.
On Tuesday, August 2 the CASE website went public. We had collected signatures from a diverse group of scholars, business leaders, pastors, and other concerned citizens. Eric Metaxas signed. So did Chuck Colson.
Then blogs started coming. A sampling of the supportive voices we saw includes:
- Jordan Sekulow Christians, the Debt, and the Poor at Washington Post’s “On Faith”
- Marvin Olasky Christians for a Sustainable Economy at World Magazine
- David French Whom Would Jesus Indebt? at National Review Online
- Joseph Sunde highlights ours and other responses to Wallis in a round-up at Remnant Culture
- Chuck Colson on Ideology and the Budget Deal in the Christian Post
- Fr. Hans Jacobse covers CASE at the American Orthodox Institute
- Joe Carter highlights our work over at First Things
- Fr. Peter-Michael Preble A Christian Response to the Ongoing Enslavement of America’s Poor at Huffpost
On Wednesday, August 2 I published a response to the Sojourners ad with my own ad in Politico. I shared the critique with Tim King and the next morning he posted a clarifying response on Sojourners blog. Personally, I found Tim’s response quite helpful. He elaborated on the Circle effort, sharing new information about the lengths that group went to discern effective poverty programs from those worthy of critical inspection. While it appeared that Tim was walking a fine line due to disagreements within the Circle about which programs should be exempted and which shouldn’t, we were on our way to the sort of constructive dialogue that could produce good fruit.
Unfortunately, more recent responses have been less constructive. With each new blog, one can see the misinformation multiplying. Michael Gerson’s column in today’s Washington Post erred in attributing a quote from a blog by Jordan Sekulow to CASE. We never said, “compassion is best fulfilled through Christian charity and spiritual counseling, not government programs.” We don’t dispute the important role of government or the necessity of social safety nets. Regardless, each critical response I’ve seen since this morning has relied on Gerson’s mistake.
Of course, I prefer those honest (though lazy) mistakes to the vitriol of other respondents. CASE doesn’t question the motives of the Circle of Protection. Yet, in spite of our best efforts to communicate this and to repeat the truth that each member of CASE is driven primarily by a desire to help those in need, there are those who refuse to see us as anything more than “right-wing Tea Partiers” who are “Rand-inspired” and say to the poor “fuck you.” It’s pathetic, and does a disservice to those like Tim and others at Sojourners who are willing to engage in dialogue about political differences as a brothers and sisters in Christ, not as enemies.
It is our hope that our CASE will coexist alongside the Circle of Protection as our elected officials continue to work through plans to resolve the debt and deficit crises in the months and years to come. Stay tuned.
Eric Teetsel is a founder of CASE.