Two Christian responses to poverty

A popular feature of televised poker is the use of small cameras to let viewers see which cards the players are holding in their hands. Watchers get to peek whether the players fold or stay in the game until the end. Politics needs something like this. The cards I’d most like to see are those in the hands of anti-poverty crusaders like those behind the Live 8 events.

A popular feature of televised poker is the use of small cameras to let viewers see which cards the players are holding in their hands. Watchers get to peek whether the players fold or stay in the game until the end.

Politics needs something like this. The cards I’d most like to see are those in the hands of anti-poverty crusaders like those behind the Live 8 events.

Actually, the cards I’m most interested in are not those being held by performers like Sheryl Crow and Coldplay. They are just being philanthropic while they bolster their careers. I’m not even that interested in the hands of more politically motivated artists, such as Bono, who clearly have a lobbying agenda. Bono’s One campaign for a 1 percent increase in U.S. aid to Africa is open and unambiguous.

I’m more interested in seeing the cards being held by religious strategists behind these efforts. In particular, I’m wondering whether they are playing political cards or religious cards. The player I am most interested in following is liberal evangelical Christian Jim Wallis, author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, published earlier this year by Harper.

Wallis seems ready and willing to attack the poverty issue with both piety and polling. His book tells of a project wherein he and some seminary classmates used scissors to cut out all parts of the Bible that deal with poverty and “social justice” for the poor. The end result was a mangled “Bible full of holes” that Wallis used as a sermon prop to demonstrate the centrality in scripture of caring for the poor.

But the self-ascribed prophet Wallis is not armed with scriptural authority only. He also cites a poll conducted in 2004 that asked likely voters whether they would rather hear a candidate’s position on poverty or on gay marriage. Seventy-five percent of voters chose poverty, while just 17 percent selected gay marriage. So Wallis concludes that poverty is not only a “religious issue” but also a potentially popular political one.

Wallis is mostly correct, of course. Poverty is deplorable, and both a religious and a political issue. But those insights are limited in their importance. What matters more is what we do about poverty.

Wallis believes that poverty is not inevitable and that the only route to social justice for the poor is soaking the rich with higher taxes that will redistribute income. He admits to some early interest in President Bush’s faith-based initiatives for dealing with domestic poverty and social needs. But in his book he berates Bush for failing to develop these programs fully.

He liberally quotes other evangelicals whom he says believe they were “tricked” by Bush’s claims of a compassionate conservatism agenda. But you get a sense that Wallis and his allies wouldn’t have been satisfied with a successful faith-based program, even if well-funded. They want more government involvement and income redistribution.

In his book, Wallis warns liberals that it’s not enough to protest and complain about Bush policies. He says that liberals must propose alternative policies. That’s what his domestic and international anti-poverty proposals do.

He’s playing his cards. Now conservative evangelicals must play their hand or fold. If we believe that the church universal is a more appropriate means of addressing poverty, then it’s time to lay down a winning hand.

The efforts of apolitical religionists such as Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and head of three foundation efforts to help the poor, are crucial. Warren’s Saddleback Church network has targeted Rwanda for aid. Warren has said his efforts will focus on poverty and disease, including AIDS, illiteracy and spiritual emptiness. He’s not said a word about tax policies and wealth.

Dozens of other less visible conservative evangelical mega-churches have poverty-fighting mission throughout the Third World, too. Don’t bet against these churches’ success. But keep peeking at Wallis’s hand.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.