Faith leaders fear for poor in U.S. shutdown

“We ask that congressional leadership of both parties stand strong in opposing efforts to allow the will of the few to threaten the common good, ” a group of faith leaders urged Congress in a letter. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

“We ask that congressional leadership of both parties stand strong in opposing efforts to allow the will of the few to threaten the common good, ” a group of faith leaders urged Congress in a letter. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

By Linda Bloom*

A group of U.S. faith leaders warned today that the impending shutdown of the U.S. government has “enormous implications,” both at home and abroad, for the poor and those trying to fill in the gaps to support them.

Or, as the Rev. John McCullough, a United Methodist pastor and president of Church World Service, a humanitarian agency, bluntly put it, the “inability” of the U.S. House of Representatives to compromise on a federal budget “is literally taking food away from the mouths of hungry children.”

He was part of a telephone news conference of faith leaders hosted by Bread for the World and moderated by the Rev. David Beckmann, Bread’s president.

The bill to fund the government for the next fiscal year has been stalled over amendments related to the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare. Unless Congress can agree on a spending bill, the government will begin to shut down at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 1.

In a vote this afternoon, the Senate rejected the House’s spending legislation, which included a one-year delay for the Affordable Health Care Act.

A letter signed by 33 faith leaders, including Bishop Peter Weaver, executive secretary of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, urged members of Congress to keep the government open.

“Our democracy rests on principles of reason, compromise, and a commitment to the common good,” the letter said. “To hold our governance processes and financial credibility hostage to narrow priorities is not only dangerous to the nation’s near term financial being, it threatens the very foundations of our democratic process and our capacity to live united.

“We ask that congressional leadership of both parties stand strong in opposing efforts to allow the will of the few to threaten the common good.”

Increase in food charity

Since the financial crisis of 2008, Beckmann said, there has been a substantial increase in the services provided by churches, temples and mosques to the poor. Food charity offered through faith groups totals about $5 billion a year.

The House vote Sept. 19 to cut $4 billion annually from food stamps would mean that these congregations “would have to double” their food commitments for the next decade, Beckmann said.

“Shutting down the government is much, much bigger than that,” he added. “There will be a lot of poor people and middle income people who are suddenly cut off from various forms of assistance.”

While congregations of all faith traditions continue to respond to the needs of the poor, “the other side of that is the reality that many of our congregations are aging,” McCullough noted.  “As they are aging, many of those folks themselves are feeling more and more vulnerable.”

A shutdown also would have a global impact, McCullough said.

“Internationally, the U.S. government will not be able to make any new contributions to agencies that deliver food aid and other services to poor and hungry people around the world, nor respond to new humanitarian emergencies,” he explained. “Over time, hungry people relying on U.S. aid will not receive food and children will not receive inoculations against disease.”

Although international humanitarian aid comprises less than one percent of the U.S. budget, it already has been cut by 20 percent since 2010 and some House members want to cut another 20 percent, McCullough added.

Budget is a theological issue

The Rev. Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian and the chief executive of Sojourners, believes the Congressional stalemate is a theological issue, not a political one.

“Most Republicans believe in government even if it is limited or smaller. They also believe in governing,” he said, adding that an extreme minority with a view of the government “that is unbiblical” is holding the government hostage.

“The Bible says the government should help poor people,” Wallis added. “Their hostility toward government also translates into a hostility toward poor people.”

The Roman Catholic social tradition expects government leaders to be “mindful of the poor,” said Sister Simone Campbell SSS, executive director, NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby.

The incapacity of Congress to reach agreement on the budget “is not a faithful response to the needs of our time,” she said.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, pointed out that the damage to the poor and the middle class has a spiraling effect beyond the shutdown itself.

“These political debates are causing uncertainty that is damaging the economy,” he said, explaining that “hundreds of thousands of jobs” have been lost because of that uncertainty. “On all counts, this is an alarming trend.”

The failure of Congress to act even has global implications in Muslim societies where “the extremists already are using the same argument, it (democracy) is not workable,” said Sayyid Syeed, national director, Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances, Islamic Society of North America. “This has to be avoided, through dialogue and understanding.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe and contact her at (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


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  1. Mona

    Personally I don’t blame this on the House. I blame it on those that are so full of hatred for each other that they are not willing to set down like ladies and gentlemen and work out a compromise. It is the temper tantrum of a child that says I will have it my way or no way that is plaguging Washington.

    1. Laurence

      I agree!

      Let them, congress, put in the hours that equals the pay they receive, have regular 40 hour work weeks from Monday to Friday, 52 weeks a year (ok – an allowance for vacation time – equal to what other working Americans get,) use the same systems at the same rates every other American has to use, and be accountable for the problems they create!

      Let see what gets done on time then!

    2. bthomas

      It is the will of the people. Representatives are elected to “represent” those who vote for them. In this case, representatives in the House re doing exactly that, acting according tot he will of those who they were elected to represent. They act in behalf of and represent the will of the majority.

      1. M. Demosthenes

        It’s the job of Congress to adhere to the Constitution while representing us. The ACA is a LAW that these same representatives approved (without having to resort to damaging the nation to do so). It is a LAW that Republicans then FAILED to repeal over THIRTY TIMES over several years and many sessions of Congress. These failed votes occurred over such a long period of time that “The People” had numerous chances to vote in new members to better represent their “will”–new members who then REMAINED badly outnumbered and still unable to repeal it legally.

        This all in spite of a gerrymandered Republican House that holds a majority of seats despite losing the popular Congressional vote by more than 1.4 million votes. It seems quite obvious that the “will” of the people is emphatically saying that now is NOT the right time to get rid of the ACA, and that these 30-40 House Republicans (~10% of the House for those counting) are therefore NOT acting in the country’s interest. Continued denial of these facts and further irrational beliefs that this issue is any form of false equivalence in who is to blame will only drag this issue along without addressing salient points. The end result can only be a further destabilization of the nation as the debt ceiling issue approaches.

        Oh, and bthomas you should also check poll numbers on the ACA as it relates to the shutdown and you’d find further evidence that your assumption about popular support is quite wrong. The vast majority of Americans aren’t yet politically extremist enough to want to shut down the country over this issue.

        1. Lead by Eaxmple

          I don’t believe they will be the minority for long. Polls won’t matter in the end. The Bible tells us to be careful who we yoke ourselves with. I, as a Christian, will not stand up with a party that removes God from its platform-then boos when it’s put back in, or that stands up for the very things that Jesus preached against. This world is already destabilized, and I will not contribute to it by casting aside the word of God so I could “get ahead in the polls” and be politically correct. I will not sit down and remain quiet while the democrats turn America into Sodom and spends money completely the opposite of the way theBible teaches. The republicans have been reckless in spending before, but you never doubt whether or not they want the Bible represented in public or God in the Pledge of Allegiance. I pray for any that have been led astray.

        2. Mona

          I agree fully. I don’t believe God is going to bless those that deny Him. As the song says “this world is not my home, I am just passing through.” it really grieves my heart when I see all the compromises that are going on in our churches and in our country, God is not going to bless a country that goes against Him. I will stand up for God and His Word no matter what.

  2. Jeffrey Olah

    it is not the government’s job to take money from the rich and give to the poor…it is our responsibility to do it through giving to food banks and other charities

    1. Mark West

      And we should build our highways and run our fire departments the same way, right?

      1. bthomas

        The need for highways, roads, bridges as well as public services such as police, fire, etc., are well recognized and are not at issue. At issue is the overwhelming expansion of federalism into every corner of life, including the compelling of citizens to purchase a service against their will by calling this forced purchase a “tax.”

  3. Viper

    I blame two things, Obama and Reid. Period.

    1. bthomas

      The current budget impasse is not the fault of only the leadership of one party. It is the fault of mostly private interests on the extreme edges of the American political stage, bit players who are so committed to their own very narrow political and social agendas and so concerned for short term political gain that they will disregard the Constitution and what is more, they disregard the clearly revealed with of God in Christ.

  4. ryan

    We can all debate back and forth about the right size of the federal government and what we should and should not fund through the federal government. I believe it is wrong to say Republicans are anti government and I agree with Wallis on this point. I do disagree with him though when he states that hostility towards government equals hostility towards the poor. I don’t think that generalisation is true at all. I also do not see a Biblical mandate for government to care for the poor. I do believe it says that Christians have a responsibility to care for the poor, and I think that because most people in the US and in our government claim to be Christians that they personally and collective should care for the poor.
    That being said, what we have is a disagreement about how to care for the poor, not if we care for the poor. So Jeffrey will state that ‘it is our responsibility to do it through giving to food banks and other charities.’ Mark obviously disagrees and believes like other shared responsibilities like fire and highways we should do that through government funding. So both of you are agreeing that we should care for the poor, and I have zero doubts that you do both care for the poor. You just disagree about the role of government in caring for the poor.
    Neither party seems interested in a philosophical debate about how we care for the poor, instead they bicker and act based on power, fear, and money. I don’t like either party for these reasons. I believe we need to get back to following the US Constitution and her foundational rule of law. I pray for a quick end to the shut down and and I also pray for effective health care for all people.

  5. ryan

    Pardon the expression but President Obama’s chickens have come home to roost. When one party tries to pass a massive overhaul and far reaching bill single-handedly and with huge opposition from the other party, and no real agreement in their own then this type of stuff is bound to happen.
    I wonder if these same faith leaders had any idea how much the ACA would increase health care for so many, including the poor who fall in the ‘family loophole.’ My family does. They aren’t able to get subsidies for their coverage, they are losing their current plan, and the insurance offered by my employer the UMC, is more than our taxable income from 2012! Tell me how that is affordable.

  6. Lead by Example

    I agree that it is no place for the government to force on the average American what they exclude themselves from, in the form of subsidies. We are to be good stewards of what we are given, but when there is no accountability, politicians will be politicians. I work for the postal service, and I could go on for days about the waste, misuse, and abuse of the programs that are supposed to go to the needy. Charity begins at home and we all know a needy family that lives nearby that we can personally witness to by our actions. We dont need government overseeing these things that churches should be doing. When we forget our Lord and Savior in order to worship our “king”, our country is headed in the wrong direction!

  7. Karen coe

    I am a former Federal employee as is my daughter currently. The Federal workers should not be the whipping posts for their agendas. Whether a clerk or attorney, all have bills to pay and families to support. A law was passed and because you don’t like it you needn’t throw a tantrum.

  8. Krista Burnette

    Laws are repealed all the time, especially bad ones. Otherwise we’d still have slavery. When 2/3 of Americans don’t want it, I don’t understand why they caved and voted for it anyway. I am currently a federal employee and all have been informed that no one will lose pay. Not even been time for a check yet. When one party is willing to compromise, why can’t the other? The tantrums seem to be coming from those who want to take their ball and go home, right after they barricade the memorials and parks.i am thankful that we have representatives that are willing to stand up for people.

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