Whenever President Barack Obama wades into the debate over the causes of – and solutions to – poverty, urban poverty in particular, he often encounters critics at both ends of the ideological spectrum.
Liberals (specifically black intellectuals) have often found fault with his focus on personal and parental responsibility; the “get Cousin Pookie away from the television” ethic Obama has championed in churches, and at rallies and college commencements around the country since he was a presidential candidate is derided by some as victim-blaming, “respectability politics.” Critics on the right, meanwhile, accuse the president of offering an onerous governmental solution to every problem, everything from free preschool to a substantially higher minimum wage to free community college, at seemingly unlimited expense to businesses and to the taxpayer.
Those who have followed Obama’s career see his views as more nuanced.
“Barack Obama is ambidextrous on these issues,” says Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, who has known the president for nearly two decades, and who says that Obama recognizes that there are larger forces at work that help to keep poor people poor; but that Obama also sees his role as pushing those at the bottom rungs – particularly young men of color – to fight their way up the ladder.
“He sees that there are structural factors,” Dyson says. “He just hasn’t always talked about them.”
“The president has been in this place from the beginning,” adds E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution, who says Obama rose through his early years in politics as someone, “who did work his way up, and yet all throughout that period he was basically a progressive in saying there is racism, there is economic injustice.”
“Obama’s first job as a community organizer was in a Catholic Church-based charity,” helping low-income residents of Chicago’s far south side, adds Dionne. A young Barack Obama joined Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United church, which preached a fiery message that condemned the societal and governmental hand that helped to hold some Americans onto society’s lowest floors, denying them an opportunity to rise. “There was a line by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that spoke of the beloved community,” Dionne says. “But if you read his work it got angrier later, around issues of poverty and around the Vietnam War. In some ways, Obama was formed in that crucible.”
On Tuesday, Dionne will moderate a first of its kind forum; part of a three-day summit drawing evangelical Christian and Catholic leaders from around the country to Georgetown University to address questions of how faith institutions can and should address poverty. On stage with Dionne will be Arthur Brooks, the conservative president of the American Enterprise Institute, liberal Harvard University sociology professor Robert Putnam, and President Obama, for a one-hour discussion on how the often polarized, multi-denominational religious community can come together to do what the Jesus of the Biblical Gospels called upon his followers to do: aid and defend the poor.
Brooks laments the fact that political polarization has seeped into the discussion among religious and secular Americans about how to address the ongoing scourge of poverty and lack of economic opportunity, which he calls an “affront to our dignity” that shocks the conscience of people of all faiths, or no faith at all. He says those on all sides of the religious divide agree on the idea that poverty should be eradicated, but too often question each other’s motives when disagreements arise over which solutions: governmental, charitable, or individual, are best.
“The biggest problem with the right-left back and forth is that we decide that the motives of those on the other side [are suspect,]” Brooks says. “The left says the right doesn’t care about the poor; the right says the left wants to subjugate those in poverty forever, to keep them voting for Democrats. But what we know in the social science is that really bad economic inequality impacts the ability of people to build stable families, and if we don’t take economics and family values into account we’re not going to help people. We have to have a more robust view … and I think the president understands that it goes both ways.”
“The political debate has spilled over into people’s theology,” Dionne says. “And so I think the debate is not, ‘should we care about the poor.’ … The fight is, how much of a role should government have in lifting up the poor.” For Brooks, the latter debate is healthy, and the more vigorous the better.
A new focus on poverty
Following a presidential election that in many ways turned on Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s derision of the “47 percent,” Dionne acknowledges that there is renewed energy on the religious right to address issues like income inequality. He says the renewed debate was also sparked by the Occupy Wall Street movement, and is being driven in no small part by an activist pope, Francis, who has made poverty a central theme of his papacy. But he remains skeptical about the proposed solutions on the right.
“I think younger evangelicals are alive to the needs of the poor,” says Dionne. “Is this a longer term change we could see? … From my point of view the budgets don’t match rhetoric yet … [but] I think this Georgetown meeting is trying to bring everyone together.”
Brooks is a bit more optimistic, seeing room for agreement in programs like the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which he notes has drawn the very criticisms from black liberal intellectuals as the president’s calls for parental responsibility aimed at, those critics say, to black but not to white audiences. But he doesn’t foresee a change in the fact that the most trenchant opposition to President Obama and his policies comes from white evangelicals and the religious right.
“Politics is politics,” Brooks says. “We have a tendency to throw invective around. When conservative Americans hear the president say, ‘you know what Americans? Conservatives think you’re on your own,’ they think,’ ‘he’s saying something about my motives and its not true! The president is uniquely situated to stop that cycle.”
In the end, says Dyson, the debate over how best to aid the poor must also involve a self-critique by the religious institutions themselves.
“We’ve fallen back,” Dyson says, “because now we’re leading the claims of the ‘deserved poor’; [that] If you don’t fix yourselves up and lift yourselves up by your bootstraps, you deserve to be poor. And then we get God to cosign the bigotry against the poor. And so I think in that sense we have to revive and resuscitate an attention to poor people and what we as the church must do.”
And whether at Georgetown or in the ongoing political debate in Washington, all three men agree that people of faith will remain engaged in the public policy debate over poverty, with or without a national consensus.
“Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical [and the founder of Sojourners magazine] likes to say if you cut out what Jesus said about the poor from the gospel you have a book full of holes,” Dionne says. “So the notion that a religious person or a Christian can be indifferent to the poor is about as heretical as any idea you can imagine.”