The Public Policy

Preachers of Perpetual Poverty

U.S. religious leaders told the G-8 that economic growth will have to wait.

By 7.19.05

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Claiming to represent 62 million Americans, U.S. religious officials at a Washington, D.C. press conference demanded more U.S. cash for impoverished Third World nations before they left for the first Transatlantic Forum on Global Poverty, over which the Archbishop of Canterbury presided.

Meeting in London in late June, the forum of American and British clerics, ecclesial bureaucrats and religious activists implored the Group of Eight summit of Western leaders to end "extreme poverty" in the world through debt cancellation and by providing more direct aid.

But their bulletin, along with the statements of some signatories, implied that Global South poverty was the fault of the West and could only be remedied through massive redistribution of wealth.

"I think the faith community has got to push political leadership on these issues because often they don't do the right thing," explained the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Hunger Program's Coordinator, Mark Lancaster.

There was less emphasis on fostering policies of economic growth that, more effectively than temporary Western aid, could actually lift Third World nations out of chronic poverty.

Evangelicals for Social Action leader Ron Sider declared at the Washington press conference, "The United States gives only .2 percent of its gross national product to help." He added, "God demands that we double and redouble our efforts." Sider, of course, was only counting direct federal government's foreign aid, while ignoring private aid, not to mention U.S. trade, U.S. defense efforts, and other U.S. policies that protect and foster economic trade and growth around the world.

Other U.S. participants in the Forum included liberal Call to Renewal activist Jim Wallis, United Methodist Bishop Peter Weaver, Father Andrew Small of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Peter Rogness, and Bread for the World President David Beckmann.

Beckmann contrasted U.S. foreign aid with U.S. spending on the military in Iraq and claimed the U.S. could cut world poverty in half within ten years by spending only $3 billion a year. "Poverty is no longer necessary," he insisted. Bishop Weaver, professing to speak for the legacy of Methodist founder John Wesley, called for a "just sharing of economic resources."

According to the London bulletin issued by Weaver, Beckmann, et al., "Humanity possesses the information, knowledge, technology and resources to bring the worst of global poverty virtually to an end." All that is missing is "sufficient political and moral will." It called upon President Bush and the British Prime Minister to provide "costly political leadership" to make the "structural changes necessary to eradicate poverty."

The bulletin urged more debt cancellation for indebted nations, beyond the $40 billion already promised by Western powers, and called "extreme poverty" a "moral scandal" that requires the "wealthy nations" to do much more through "dramatic improvement in the quantity and quality of aid."

"All of us in the prosperous world...stand under judgment to the degree that we fail to respond to such a situation with costly compassion and generosity."

To be fair, the bulletin does not exclusively confront the ostensible sins and obligations of the West. It mentions "good governance" and "corruption" as important issues, while including a passing reference to jobs and wealth generated by the "private sector." But these citations are vague. The main emphasis is on government to government transfers of wealth from the developed West to the less developed Global South.

Global South poverty results from Western greed and indifference, we are led to believe. For global poverty to be "eradicated," the West must only overcome its exploitative miserliness and pony up what rightfully should be shared.

For many of these religious officials, "eradicating" poverty is the equivalent of a big church building campaign. Shake-up the congregation, warn of dire consequences, shmooze with the largest donors, and hire the contractors when the checks role in! Many clerics' economic expertise is confined to fundraising. So when they speak to economic issues they focus on charity and re-distribution, while giving little thought to how the wealth is actually produced.

Readers of the Scriptures and of all human history, even clerics, should know that poverty is not just the result of greed by a few to be overcome by good will and political resolve. It is the natural state of almost all humanity from the beginning of time.

The ongoing creation of sustained new wealth that lifts millions of previously poor people into the middle class or higher is a relatively modern development mostly unique to Western market economies governed by the rule of law and the protection of private property. But that history is largely ignored by clerics advocating "economic justice." Some of these clerics also forget too easily the words of Jesus that the "poor ye shall have with you always." Poverty, like disease, war and crime can and should be fought and reduced. But like sin itself, it cannot be "eradicated" in our fallen world.

The enormous transfers of wealth from Western governments to Global South governments that liberal clerics advocate may reduce some poverty. But such transfers will also feed corruption and reduce accountability by Global South governments to their own people. Why should regimes more dependent on Western donors than their own taxpayers worry about democratic reforms? Unless prodded by those Western donors, these regimes are even less motivated to provide internal economic reforms or financial transparency, which are far more likely to lift their poor out of poverty than any amount of Western charity.

Indeed, the Forum's bulletin seems to criticize Western pressure for free-market reforms, alleging they foster "inequality" and "undermine pro-poor policies of local governments."

The clerics who bundled off to London to issue their manifesto doubtless were full of admirable intentions and Christian charity. And their bulletin is mostly free of the neo-Marxist jargon that has cluttered too many such statements in the past. But their proposals still sound more like preachy nagging than constructive counsel for truly helping the poor.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.