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Church leaders denounce Bush budget as ‘unjust’ to poor

 


Church leaders denounce Bush budget as ‘unjust’ to poor

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Jim Winkler

March 9, 2005

By Mark Schoeff Jr.*

WASHINGTON (UMNS)—Church and state collided March 8 as leaders of five mainline Protestant denominations, including a United Methodist executive, blasted President Bush’s federal budget plan, denouncing proposed cuts in programs for the poor and tax breaks for the wealthy.

“The 2006 federal budget that President Bush has sent to Capitol Hill is unjust,” the group said in a statement released at a press conference in Washington. It criticized the White House, charging that the budget would move 300,000 people off food stamps, cut day care for 300,000 children and reduce funding for Medicaid, the joint federal-state health care program for low-income people, by $45 billion over the next 10 years.

“For even as it reduces aid to those in poverty, this budget showers presents on the rich,” the church leaders said. “If passed in its current form, it would make permanent tax cuts that have bestowed nearly three-quarters of the ‘relief’ on one-fifth of the country. Jesus makes clear that perpetrating economic injustice is among the gravest of sins. If passed in its current form, it would take Jesus’ teaching on economic justice and stand it on its head.”

Jim Winkler, top staff executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, was one of five Protestant leaders at the briefing, held at the National Press Club. Others were from the Episcopal Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ. 

The churches are attempting to influence Congress as it begins to draft budget blueprints that will guide spending decisions.

“The federal budget is a moral document,” Winkler said. “It is a statement of our national priorities—of what, and more importantly, who we as a nation value. The budget Congress will consider this week is out of step with our nation’s priorities, adrift from the values taught by our faith traditions.”

“We feel it is important as religious leaders to enter the debate at this point,” said the Rev. Frank T. Griswold, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church USA.

A White House spokeswoman did not respond directly to the churches’ criticisms. She referred to a transcript of a Feb. 7 news briefing conducted by James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

“President Bush today submitted a budget for 2006 that I think is compassionate, that continues to support partnerships between faith-based and community groups and government, so they can work together to address pressing social problems,” Towey said then. “[I]t gives greater choices to the poor and disadvantaged, in terms of social service providers and access to programs, and it maintains a vital safety net for those in need.”

Towey cited a $385 million request for five faith-based programs, such as drug treatment, prisoner reform and maternity group homes. He also praised increased funding for the homeless and for community health centers in the face of “difficult budgetary times.” The Congressional Budget Office estimates the federal deficit under Bush’s budget proposal would be $229 billion in 2010.

Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, defended reductions in Medicaid at the Feb. 7 briefing, asserting that they would come mostly from closing loopholes while the program would continue to grow by about 7 percent.

Beyond battling over the budget, a struggle is under way between the political parties for the hearts and minds of the faithful. Bush, a United Methodist and self-described compassionate conservative, has gained political strength from the religious right, causing many Democrats to worry that their party fails to communicate with people who regularly attend church. The Protestant leaders believe their message will resonate across the political spectrum.

“I would hope that all Christians would join us in this analysis of the budget,” Winkler said. “The church of Jesus Christ cannot be silent or turn its head in the wake of widespread suffering that is unnecessary. The facts are plain and they’re right there in paper as the president has put forward a document on our national priorities to Congress. We feel that our voice ought to be heard in the public sphere. We don’t attempt to control the state, but we do want to speak truth to the state.” 

Part of that effort will start March 11, when nearly 700 members of Protestant churches, including about 200 United Methodists, meet in Washington for Ecumenical Advocacy Days. They plan to visit congressional offices on March 14 and hold a rally at noon at the U.S. Capitol. The United Methodist Building, across the street, will be a site for “respite and regrouping,” Winkler said.

Sojourns to Capitol Hill can be productive, Winkler said. Lawmakers have told him that church groups “remind us about the big picture, about the needs of the poor and those who are hurting,” he said.

He stressed the importance of lobbying Congress members when they return to their communities. “Back home is the most effective place to sit them down and express our concern for the least, the last and the lost.”

*Schoeff is a freelance writer in the Washington D.C. area. He is also on staff at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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