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The State of the Union: A Christian Response to President Obama

The president needs to take a more public role in addressing the issue of poverty. We need his voice now more than ever.
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A White House official said tonight that just because an issue didn't get mentioned in the State of the Union Address doesn't mean the president doesn't care about it. The National Council of Churches, representing over 45 million U.S. Christians, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism -- along with other people of faith -- asked that the president use tonight's address to re-affirm his campaign commitment to offer up plans to cut poverty in half by 50% over ten years. That didn't happen. Does this mean poverty isn't on the president's agenda? Of course not.

I'm disappointed that President Obama didn't lift up the needs of the nearly 47 million Americans living in poverty but know that action speaks louder than words and that the president's Recovery Act and the Affordable Health Care Act have kept millions from falling into poverty during the Great Recession and helped tens of millions more from falling deeper into poverty. No one should doubt the president's sincerity on this important moral issue.

At the same time, the president needs to take a more public role in addressing the issue of poverty. In 2007 candidate Barack Obama said:

We can't allow this kind of suffering and hopelessness to exist in our country. We can't afford to lose a generation of tomorrow's doctors and scientists and teachers to poverty. We can make excuses for it or we can fight about it or we can ignore poverty altogether, but as long as it's here it will always be a betrayal of the ideals we hold as Americans. It's not who we are.

He was right then and we need his voice now more than ever.

Church leaders wrote to the president earlier this month that:

There is no greater concern among the churches of Christ than for those in this nation who live in poverty. This could hardly be otherwise because Jesus himself lived among the poor: loving them, eating and drinking with them, healing them, and speaking words of justice and assurance that God's own love for the poor is unsurpassed.

And so, people of faith regardless of party should support the president's economic policies -- particularly around education, innovation and health care -- because these goals all advance the fight against poverty. The president also said, unfortunately, that his budget will include "cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs." We'll have to fight those cuts because they will hurt the most vulnerable, which would violate the president's stated goal tonight of making sure the budget was not balanced "on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens." As the Half In Ten Campaign notes, some members of Congress have proposed even deeper cuts in anti-poverty efforts. That cannot be allowed and we must use our voices and our pulpits to demand a better America for every child.

We must also work with the president to end the unneeded tax breaks for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. These tax cuts add to the deficit and create added pressure to cut important domestic programs. In short, we're giving away money to the richest of the rich and taking it away from those Jesus called the "least of these."

Why is it important to set a goal in this area? If President Kennedy had said that "one day America should go to the moon" it never would have happened. Today, we need President Obama to give hope to the tens millions of Americans who through no fault of their own have fallen into poverty during the worst economic period since the Great Depression by offering a road map with a time table to cut poverty dramatically. No one should live a third world life in a first world nation.

There were other issues that the president addressed in which America's faith community can find common cause.

We should congratulate the president and bi-partisan leaders in the Senate for finally passing the New Start Treaty which, as the president noted tonight, means that "far fewer nuclear weapons and launchers will be deployed. Because we rallied the world, nuclear materials are being locked down on every continent so they never fall into the hands of terrorists."

And faith leaders that disagree on important issues like abortion -- Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, members of the United Church of Christ and other mainline churches -- all support the president's call for immigration reform.

Certainly, we've witnessed a growing consensus between Roman Catholics, mainline Christians, and evangelicals (along with other people of faith) over the need to protect our environment. Supporting the president's goals for cleaner energy will make sense to most people of faith.

As for the issue of poverty, I've already reached out to the White House and asked that the president find a venue of some importance to more fully articulate his vision for a better America where poverty declines instead of grows. As the leaders of the National Council of Churches told the president recently, "this is a very ambitious goal and there are far too many politicians in this nation who might not take the risk or pursuing it without the strong advocacy of the President. But as you renew this commitment, be assured that we stand with you and that you have the support and prayers of all 37 member communions of the National Council of Churches." As the president has already demonstrated through the Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act, he cares about those living in poverty. We know that. But to reduce poverty we need more. We need the president's leadership and passionate voice fighting for an America where equality means that no one goes hungry or lives in homelessness. Only then can we truly say that state of our Union is strong.