The State of Our Values

Going to church to watch political debates or discuss legislative action is a whole new deck of saints cards for us spiritually minded lefties, but that's just what hundreds of people across the country did on Tuesday night. We went to houses of worship to watch the State of the Union Address as part of Sojourners' "State of Our Values" event.

Sojourners, a social justice-minded Christian ministry with a knack for organizing via the internet, prompted 160 churches from 40 states to "put forth an alternative vision that embraces the biblical principles of economic and racial justice, healthy families, strong communities, a consistent ethic of life, peacemaking and caring for God's creation."

In my little neck of the desert, the pastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian in Albuquerque, N.M., allowed a group of us to watch the speech in the church library. St. Andrew's is a modern and modest building on a nondescript street in a commercial part of Albuquerque. Not quite middle America, though it is certainly an important place to shift the "values" debate. Swing state New Mexico is home to socially conservative Catholics, desert libertarians, hippie environmentalists and a cadre of hard-core progressive activists. (Even now, almost three years into the Iraq war, Santa Feans hold weekly anti-war protests.)

The St. Andrew's group was comprised of a retired Unitarian minister, a pastor from the National Council of Churches, 10 church-going older ladies and two agnostics. We were an expressive group, grunting when Bush asked Congress to reauthorize the Patriot Act, and bursting into hilarious laughter when Democrats surprised Dubya by applauding his mention of last year's failed Social Security reforms. When Bush said, "Our government has a responsibility to help provide health care for the poor and the elderly, and we are meeting that responsibility," one lady almost jumped out of her chair protesting the unsympathetic TV screen.

When the 51-minute speech was over, we launched into our discussion, committed to do more than just bash Bush. We were going to make a plan of action. We were going to create a response from the quiet Religious Left to let our elected officials know we're here and we're not happy.

The conversation immediately focused in on Bush's plan to "reduce or eliminate more than 140 programs that are performing poorly or not fulfilling essential priorities." Among these programs will be Medicaid, Medicare, tuition assistance and after-school aid.

"He has never addressed the fact that those budget cuts are needed to fund war," commented Beth Daniel, an organizer of the event. These concerns of the Albuquerque group were representative of the worries among the larger community of religious lefties.

Sojourners had earlier reminded its faithful that "this speech will likely come just a day before the House of Representatives votes on whether or not to pass a budget that harms low-income families and children by cutting vital services like child support, Medicaid and assistance for disabled persons. We believe this is the real moral scandal in Washington, yet is receiving little attention."

The National Council of Churches tried to bring attention to the budget earlier in the week with its "Faithful State of the Union Address":

"Congress' cruel and reckless decision to cut billions from aid programs may seem like a small shift in a massive budget, but that tiny shift is critical to those already on life's margins. The consequences will be real -- in the form of more children frozen into lives of poverty, young people succumbing to the fever of despair, unable to afford an education. More and more seniors, many already living below the poverty line, will suffer and die for lack of medical care.
Budgets are moral documents. We may speak of compassion, but in the final analysis, the truest measure of our government's political will is made clear every time our government completes the sentence: "Pay to the order of …"
One budget bill was scheduled for a vote Feb. 1, and Bush is hoping to squeeze some more program-slashing in his 2007 budget. In response, the St. Andrew's group will write to their legislators demanding that no more cuts be made to Medicaid, Medicare or the food stamp program.

The group will also write to legislators asking them to vote no on making Bush's tax cuts permanent and not to reauthorize the Patriot Act. The more difficult task of the evening was to come up with things we did want. Two items that received group support were a windfall profits tax for oil companies and the creation of a "poverty impact" assessment requirement on proposed legislation regarding economic policies (similar to the "environmental impact" assessments included in many bills).

While there was a lot of policy talk going on, the church meeting felt no different than a nonreligious advocacy group. In its organizing documents, Sojourners asked groups to create a list of "moral priorities," but this is the kind of speak that most liberal and progressive folks are unfamiliar with, and ultimately not very good at. In Albuquerque, I don't think anyone mentioned "moral priorities," though it was clear that an atmosphere of social justice set the moral tone. The implied moral priorities would be justice, economic, racial, and otherwise, and peace, as in no pre-emptive war.

My hope is that the religious left will continue grassroots organizing like the State of the Values meetings and create an alternative vision to a theocratic Christian nation. Rather than only reacting to what Bush does or what Pat Robertson says, the religious left needs to find ways to reframe debates and create optimistic messages for what we want, rather than screaming only about what we don't want. (The only thing I could actually agree with in Bush's entire 5,400-word speech was his statement that "second-guessing is not a strategy.") Continuing to participate in events like the State of Our Values meetings may be a good beginning, even though we're still freshman when it comes to framing.

As the meeting began to break up, and the forced optimism of trying to be proactive wore off, we found ourselves doing what just comes naturally after five years of listening to Dubya: criticizing him. "How can he say we're isolationists? Just because we don't want war doesn't make us isolationists!" said one woman. "I don't believe one word that man says," an organizer said. "Do we need a group hug now?" someone joked. Everyone laughed, but after listening to nearly an hour of Bush's best ideas and trying to figure out how to combat them, I certainly could've used a hug.

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