Earlier this week about 1000 people came to DC for the “Mobilization to End Poverty” conference sponsored by the Christian organization Sojourners. It’s encouraging to see people of all ages come together from across the country out of common concern for the poor.
Those gathered at the conference heard a lot of good material. They heard biblical teaching about poverty, injustice and the need to put their faith in action. They heard about the need for churches as well as government to play a role in advancing the common good. They heard the call to live out the words of Matthew 25 (“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…I was sick and you looked after me”) and to take up the cause of the weak and vulnerable in the public square.

Perhaps most striking, however, is what attendees did not hear emphasized at the conference.

  • They did not hear a coherent explanation of the different roles and responsibilities that churches and government should play in society. The implied message seemed to be: the more issues government takes on—and the more government spends on the poor—the better. There was little recognition that increased spending on government welfare programs might actually lower the amount churches give to the poor or crowd churches out of social welfare provision.
  • Attendees also did not hear the logical connection between certain Bible verses and public policies. It is one thing to quote Matthew 25 when making the case that Christians should care for the hurting. But it is quite a jump to go from these verses to advocating specific directions for foreign policy and national budget initiatives. Attendees were not given arguments that connected the dots between their good intensions and the policies they were urged to promote.
  • Finally, attendees did not hear much detail about the policies they were encouraged to lobby for, nor did they hear about the likely consequences of those policies. They were told to press their Senators and Congressmen to pass health care reform and budgets that reflect concern for the poor and the environment. They did not, however, hear much about the specific content of those budgets. Nor were they treated to an honest debate about the likely effects of proposed legislation concerning universal health care and carbon emissions regulation. There was no mention that, over the long run, these policies might actually do more harm than good to the poor.

Mobilizing people to put their “faith in action for social justice” is a good thing to do. But when it comes to advocating for public policies, perhaps churches and the people they serve would benefit from an approach that dwells more on the details. The poor might then be able to say, “I have been the victim of unintended consequences, but you took the time to learn what works. I needed an advocate, and you pursued informed policy on my behalf.”