Tomorrow, Rick Warren, author of the 2002 best-seller “The Purpose Driven Life,” will host John McCain and Barack Obama at his 22,000-member Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., where he will question them on matters of concern to evangelical Christians, including poverty, the environment, human rights and AIDS.

The standard media line that evangelicals are “divided” along political fault lines misses the point, as Heritage’s Ryan Messmore notes on National Review Online today. A better focus should be not what government can and should do to alleviate social problems but whether government should be involved in the first place. Community-oriented approaches frequently provide better solutions to these problems yet are often overlooked, even by those who self-identify as evangelicals.

With that in mind, I’ve worked with my Heritage colleagues to pull together four questions that Warren should ask the candidates as well as some data that will help Christians think about these very issues.

1) Poverty: What Are the Causes and Solutions?

Effective anti-poverty policies depend on a clear analysis of the extent and causes of poverty.

Heritage’s Robert Rector notes that even though material hardship does exist in America, the typical American identified as poor by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry, and he had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family’s essential needs.

Two key causes of poverty in America, particularly child poverty, are insufficient work effort and family breakdown. The typical poor American family with children works about 16 hours per week. If each poor family increased its work hours to the equivalent of one full-time worker’s hours, child poverty would be reduced by 72%, according to another study by Rector and Rea Hederman.

Father’s absence is another cause. A child born outside of marriage is seven times more likely to experience poverty than a child born to married parents. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of all children in poverty live in single-parent families. The disparity in black and white child poverty rates stems primarily from differences in marriage and welfare dependence patterns. For example, in 2006, 71% of black children born were to unwed mothers, compared to 27% of white children. Black and white children raised in identical circumstances have the same likelihood of living in poverty.

While most social welfare policies of the last few decades have proven to be ineffective, the 1996 welfare reform marks a rare exception. Welfare reform successfully reduced dependence and poverty. After the reform, welfare caseloads fell by more than 50%, 1.8 million children were lifted out of poverty, and in 2001 black child poverty reached a historic low. Welfare reform also increased employment among never-married single mothers and slowed illegitimacy growth. However, the 1996 law reformed only one program, leaving some 70 programs untouched.

2) AIDS: What’s the Best Way to Fight It?

The AIDS epidemic continues to decimate the African population. Seventy percent of those with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa.

The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has been supporting programs to promote fidelity within marriage and abstinence before it, preventing high risk sexual behavior. These programs have been shown to be relatively successful at changing the promiscuous behavior that spreads HIV infections so rapidly, especially when the pro-fidelity messages have been delivered by community- and faith-based groups. On the other hand, campaigns to promote condoms as the primary prevention strategy have not been generally effective in these countries.

In countries outside of Africa, high and expanding rates of HIV infections are mostly limited to specific populations of drug users, prostitutes, and homosexual men. An effective public health campaign should encourage everybody to avoid drug use and to refrain from promiscuous sexual behavior, so as to disrupt the networks of HIV transmission. Rates of new HIV infections have dropped only when the target populations have reduced both drug use and the number of concurrent sexual partners.

3) Environment: Are We Doing More Harm Than Good?

Stewardship is a Christian priority, and that includes resources both natural and financial. Environmentally friendly solutions should avoid doing more economic harm than environmental good. They should help, not harm those we are supposed to be helping.

Consider the law requiring that corn-based ethanol be added to the gasoline supply, a measure justified in part on the grounds that it would help fight global warming. Instead, the diversion of food to fuel use has exerted upward pressure on food prices, both in the U.S. and around the world, particularly burdening the world’s poor. At the same time, many environmental activists, some of whom originally supported the use of corn ethanol, have decided that it actually exacerbates global warming.

And the so-called cap-and-trade measures being considered in Congress are already in place in Western Europe, where they are causing economic hardships even as those nations see their greenhouse gas emissions rising faster than those in the U.S.

A far better approach is to simply let the market do its work, which would set prices for corn at levels equivalent to its market value. This is another area where Christians should consider whether government interference produces results that are contrary to its intentions.

4) U.N.: Champion of Human Rights?

When news of international human rights abuses surfaces, attention often turns to the United Nations to champion the cause of fundamental human rights around the world. The record of the United Nations and the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, however, leaves much to be desired.

The Council has paid scant attention to systematic human rights abusers such as Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan. Also like its predecessor, the Council has repeatedly singled out Israel for criticism and has condemned it in 19 separate resolutions and decisions, while ignoring human rights abuses committed by Hamas and Hezbollah. All the while, humanitarian efforts such as the Oil for Food program in Iraq divert money and food from the people who really need them to the U.N. bureaucrats administering the program.

The Christian community should explore alternative methods to promote respect for fundamental human rights. This new approach should focus on the promotion of fundamental civil and political rights rather than aspirational economic, social, and cultural rights.

Two Different Approaches

Christians should think carefully about these issues, keeping in mind that good intentions do not necessarily translate into good policies. Rather than placing too much faith in government programs and institutions, evangelicals should look for ways to apply Christian principles to the problems of the world that empower individuals and communities and avoid the red tape of government. By bringing up these issues with the presidential candidates, Rick Warren can provide a valuable service to his very large audience and the Christian community at large.