WASHINGTON (CNS) — It’s not just the candidates-in-waiting, pundits and political donors who have the 2016 election on their minds.
More than 100 Christian faith leaders are anticipating the campaign, too.
Under an umbrella organization called Circle of Protection, the leaders want any and all presidential candidates — but especially "major" candidates — to make poverty a priority throughout the campaign.
Half a dozen representatives of the group unveiled their challenge at the National Press Club Jan. 15, which, they noted, was the birthdate of civil rights and economic justice advocate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Rev. David Beckmann, president of the anti-hunger organization Bread for the World, said a letter will be sent to each person who publicly announces his or her candidacy. It will invite them to submit a three-minute video to the organization outlining a platform to "offer help and opportunity" to people struggling in poverty if elected to the White House.
A similar plea came late during the 2012 campaign. Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama submitted videos to the group that were circulated throughout the faith community. The timing of the request meant their impact was limited, however.
The organization plans to do the same over the next 22 months. Rev. Beckmann said the effort this time around is getting a head start on the long campaign.
"All of us are moved by the love of God that we experience in the death and resurrection of Jesus to help people in need and all of us then have been moved together to raise the issue of hunger and poverty in this presidential election," Rev. Beckmann said.
The idea for a "circle of protection" around vital domestic social service programs and international aid emerged in 2011 among the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other advocates for the poor while Congress considered deep cuts to social services as a step to lower deficit spending and reduce the country’s debt. It grew to include a wide group of faith-based allies that could bring a moral dimension to the federal budget debate.
More than three years later, the group’s own circle has widened as its message appealed to a wider Christian community. The concept now is embraced by evangelical and mainstream faith leaders and organizations.
News conference participants, including Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, the Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, and the Rev. Carlos Malave, executive director of Christian Churches Together in the USA, have pushed elected officials for years to make poverty a priority in the country’s social agenda.
They insisted that churches and charities alone cannot meet the unmet needs of 45.3 million poor Americans.
Rev. Wallis referred to Obama’s upcoming State of the Union address set for Jan. 20 in describing the state of the union for poverty-stricken people. He called on the mainstream media to make poverty a priority as well.
"The state of the union is not good if you’re poor. It’s not good if you’re a low-income family. It’s not good if you’re one of five children in those low-income families. It’s not good if you’re one of three children of color in those families," Wallis said.
"The state of the union is not good if you’re undocumented and you’re watching Congress in a retreat these days to see if your family will be separated. It’s not good if you’re a young black man worried about the police in your own neighborhood. The state of the union is not good for a lot of people," he said.
Father Snyder, who is stepping down from his Catholic Charities USA post Jan. 31, called on leaders in the country’s two major political parties to "bring their best ideas to the table" for a "substantive conversation about advancing the common good."
He pointed to Pope Francis, who has put aside "the old and familiar ways of doing business" and "be inspired to embrace the new challenges set for us."
"His example of solidarity with those in need is one we would do well to adopt in our own lives and in our political discourse," Father Snyder added.
Afterward, the social service veteran suggested that the circle of protection concept blends well with the message the U.S. bishops have delivered in their quadrennial "Faithful Citizenship" document that traditionally has been released the year before a presidential campaign. The 2015 version currently is under review. Past documents called for voters to consider the common good when going to the polls.
Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the U.S. bishops Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, who attended the press conference, said the issues addressed by Circle of Protection will be among those discussed during the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering Feb. 7-10 in Washington. Plans call for the hundreds of attendees to take the poverty message to Congress during Capitol Hill visits during the conference’s final day, he said.
"The vision of this is to take this conversation everywhere," he told Catholic News Service.
In all, 107 faith leaders signed the letter that will be sent to future candidates. Catholics signing it include Patrick Carolan, executive director, Franciscan Action Network; John L. Carr, director, Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, Georgetown University; Viatorian Father Mark Francis, president, Catholic Theological Union; Sheila K. Gilbert, national president of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul; Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association; Father Timothy P. Kesicki, president, Jesuit Conference of the United States; Eric LeCompte, executive director, Jubilee USA Network; Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden of Baltimore; Stephen Schneck, director, Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.
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