While helping the poor and the economically disadvantaged has long been a core value for many Americans and their faith communities, some might question whether their concern would persist in unstable economic times—many families, after all, are just trying to stay afloat. Yet recent surges in activism and advocacy indicate that sensitivity to the plight of the less privileged is actually increasing—especially within many faith communities—and is playing an active role in the 2012 campaign.
In addition to thousands of churches, faith-based nonprofits, and activist groups working tirelessly to serve the poor, clergy and laypeople alike are speaking out to eradicate poverty and encouraging elected officials to create economic policies that are fair and just.
Fighting for economic justice
Faith groups in America have always expressed deep concern about economic inequality and poverty. Throughout our nation’s history, churches and faith-based nonprofits have provided essential services to the poor and needy. In addition to providing direct services, they have spoken with a prophetic voice about the government’s responsibility to care for those in need. From Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, faith communities have a proud history of advocating on behalf of “the least of these.”
- 93 percent of Christians express concern for global poverty.
- 67 percent of Catholics consider helping the poor as central to the Catholic identity.
- Faith-based charities and other religious organizations provide $50 billion worth of social services to the poor each year
- In both 2004 and 2008, voters from all religious traditions listed the economy as a top issue that affected how they vote.
As it turns out, this value, like faith, seems to have staying power, and the strong tradition of faith-based activism on behalf of the poor continues today. Faith leaders played a prominent role in the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, marching side-by-side with protesters as they decried corporate greed and called attention to America’s growing income disparity. What’s more, scores of churches and dioceses divested their money from large banks like Bank of America in October of last year, placing their funds in local credit unions that reinvest in community development and are responsible lenders.
Faith groups also made waves in recent years by opposing federal legislation that would harm lower-income households. During last year’s federal budget debate, for instance, many faith leaders denounced the House Republican budget-cutting plan, saying it would slash crucial programs essential to millions of Americans living in or near poverty. In fact, Common Cause—a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to holding U.S. political institutions more open and accountable—organized a protest against the budget in which priests, pastors, rabbis, and faith leaders were arrested for gathering in the U.S. Capitol and praying for lawmakers to remember the poor.
Similarly, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was quick to speak out against a separate House Budget proposal earlier this year because of its draconian cuts to government programs that help the poor and vulnerable. Their critique was amplified by Sister Simone Campbell, a nun and head of the Catholic social-justice group NETWORK, who organized the nine-state “Nuns on the Bus” tour decrying the “immoral” budget while visiting local faith-based service groups that would be drastically harmed by proposed budget cuts.
Advocacy for a fair and just economy extended into this year’s election season, with religious groups working to raise awareness about poverty within both presidential campaigns. Sister Simone Campbell and NETWORK have asked both presidential candidates to spend a day with the poor. And Circle of Protection, an ecumenical Christian activist group dedicated to protecting government services that meet “the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad,” successfully persuaded both presidential campaigns to release video statements expressing their dedication to eradicating poverty.
Rev. David Beckman, president of Bread for the World—a Christian citizens’ movement in the fight to end hunger—explained that the videos addressed what is truly a spiritual issue:
We are calling on religious leaders and all people of faith to listen carefully to what the candidates have to say and when voting be mindful of the least among us. Voting is a sacred obligation; supporting candidates who have demonstrated their commitment to reducing hunger and poverty is integral to good stewardship.
But concern about economic inequality and poverty isn’t restricted to organization heads or clergy—it’s also important to those in the pews. Polls show that 93 percent of Christians express concern about global poverty. In addition, a 2011 survey found that 67 percent of Catholics consider helping the poor as central to the Catholic identity—by comparison, only 64 percent say the belief in Mary as the mother of God is a core Catholic belief. Another 2011 poll reported that majorities of every major religious group, as well as those who are religiously unaffiliated, think the country would be better off if the distribution of wealth were more equal.
In short, the movement for a fair and just economy isn’t limited to faith leaders and worshippers. In fact, it includes Americans of all faiths—and no faith—united behind the cause of economic justice.
If recent events are any indication, concern for economic inequality isn’t just a political talking point. It’s a deeply held spiritual value shared across faiths and American history that is only getting stronger.
Jack Jenkins is a Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.