In light of Paul Ryan’s dishonest speech about poverty, faith leaders and national poverty experts are speaking out against his misguided policies.
That’s how members of the Faith in Public Life Action Fund styled their response to an Oct. 24 speech by Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan at Cleveland State University. Faith in Public Life is “a strategy center for the faith community advancing faith in the public square as a powerful force for justice, compassion and the common good,” formed by “a diverse group of 40 religious leaders” after the 2004 US election cycle, “in which faith was often deployed in service of a narrow and partisan agenda.” PFL’s board includes representatives of the Presbyterian (PCUSA), Congregational, Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Jewish faith traditions, as well as organizations such as Teach For America, the Service Employees International Union, and the Center for American Progress.
During the Cleveland speech, Ryan said, ““In this war on poverty, poverty is winning. We deserve better.” Ryan made an argument against a government-centered approach to combating poverty and offered “a comprehensive case for a vibrant civil society that cares for its poor on a local and personal level,” according to a report from The Weekly Standard. “With a few exceptions, government’s approach has been to spend lots of money on centralized, bureaucratic, top-down anti-poverty programs,” Ryan said, according to the report. “The mindset behind this approach is that a nation should measure compassion by the size of the federal government and how much it spends. The problem is, starting in the 1960s, this top-down approach created and perpetuated a debilitating culture of dependency, wrecking families and communities.”
The FPL press release criticized Ryan’s swing-state speech as “a clear attempt to obscure the Romney/Ryan agenda’s devastating impact on poor families.” The group characterized the GOP agenda as “slashing food programs for low-income families, weakening health care for seniors and coddling the wealthy with more tax breaks.” A Roman Catholic sister said Ryan “thinks dependency on the government is what causes poverty” and called on America’s leaders “to focus on what works, not on their political agendas.”
“Focus on what works, not on political agendas.” Now there’s an excellent idea! Let’s talk about that.
Political rhetoric aside, it’s only fair to point out that a strong faith-based perspective is integral to Ryan’s argument about combating poverty. He held up for his audience the example of a young family that not only opened a homeless shelter in their community but lived in the shelter for seven years.
“He [Brian Wade of Elyria, Ohio] and his volunteers didn’t just provide hot meals and clean clothes, though that alone would have been a lot. At his youth outreach center, he didn’t just give kids a safe place to come in from the streets. In all of this, Brian gave himself. He didn’t show people in need the right path—he walked it with them, not just as a guide, but as a friend,” Ryan said, according to The Weekly Standard. “This good man, and others like him, are witnesses, and the needy people who have encountered them feel a presence greater than just one compassionate soul. What’s really at work here is the spirit of the Lord, and there is no end to the good that it can inspire. Government can’t replace that.”
Leaders of both major parties have been guilty of cynically manipulating religion to advance their political fortunes. Authentic faith comes alongside the poor and shows them how to make a better life for themselves. Authentic faith motivates the “haves” to voluntarily leverage their wealth to help “have nots” who genuinely want to make their own way. One group of rich, powerful people using government to steal from another group of rich, powerful people is no more just than trapping people in multi-generational poverty by doling out pittances, rather than showing them a path to success.
Simply reading one book would go a long way toward crafting a strategy of welfare reform that truly would give people a chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Political rhetoric aside (again), Bread for the World President David Beckmann was right when he said, according to the FPL release: “Hunger and poverty are not Republican or Democratic issues – they are moral issues affecting 47 million hungry Americans. … Churches and charities alone can’t meet all the needs of the most vulnerable in our society. Government must be a partner in promoting the common good.”
Both parties are guilty of expanding “entitlements” to make citizens dependent on — and, therefore, captive to — the government for survival needs. The welfare plantation benefits whoever controls the levers of power in the capital. The best interests of the poor will only be served when people of faith step up to love their neighbors as themselves and build the relational bridges that help people in generational poverty escape captivity.
Beckmann is right. The challenge before us is too great for any one player in society to accomplish alone. The strategy for combating poverty must be integrated and comprehensive. The five giants that oppress God’s children — spiritual emptiness, self-serving leadership, poverty, disease, and illiteracy — can only be defeated as all segments of society marshal their respective forces and attack in unison.
The plan for P.E.A.C.E. has already been crafted. What we need to do is lay aside our “us vs. them” animosities, focus on people in need, and work the plan.
Let others waste time venting bile on Facebook and vandalizing neighbors’ yard signs. People of authentic faith must be busy today seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness.