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Are churches failing the poor? Yes and no (ANALYSIS)

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Are churches failing the poor? Yes and no (ANALYSIS)

Against the backdrop of persistent poverty and dramatically increasing income inequality, that question has gained renewed currency.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat took President Obama to task for erroneously stating, at a recent Georgetown University summit on poverty, that churches are more focused on fighting abortion and same-sex marriage than on relieving poverty. One of Obama’s fellow panelists at Georgetown, Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam, made similar comments before the event.

“It would be too kind to call these comments wrong,” Douthat reproached. “They were ridiculous.”

  • READ: On conservative religious activism, the numbers speak for themselves (RNS)

It turns out that churches contribute only a fraction of their money toward culture war issues. And twice as many churchgoers report hearing clergy speak out about hunger and poverty than about abortion and gay marriage.

Even so, Douthat is not exactly right, and Obama and Putnam are not exactly wrong.

Douthat laments the decline of religious participation among the poor. Aside from whatever spiritual benefits accrue, churches are engines of social capital that nurture a variety of goods benefiting poor people — if they participate.

While Douthat has been less willing than some to heap moral judgment on the poor, this much is certain: Poor people need more money, and churches alone lack the scale and competence to meet the need that exists. There is much churches are doing, and Douthat righty challenged them to do more.

On the question of whether Christians are failing the poor, Douthat implies that the answer is no.  But the poverty and inequality we see today are due to policy choices we — Christians included — have made over the past two generations.

Attacking unions; sanctifying entitlements for the middle class while demonizing entitlements for the poor; tolerating a level of income and wealth inequality that many people consider obscene — all these changes happened while conservative Christians were silent or, likelier, cheering them on.

The social isolation of poor people is a major theme in Putnam’s new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” Maybe having social connections to professional-class churchgoers would help poor people eventually. But people who experience constant economic insecurity in the richest nation on earth need help now.

Douthat suggests that churches can transmit bourgeois sensibilities to poor people in the pews, where virtues that lead to upward mobility are cultivated alongside worship and prayer. He does not say that churches owe the poor a determined political effort for a more just and equitable distribution of resources.

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