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My Blog
  • David Beckmann

The Catholic bishops this week took a step toward denying communion to President Biden. John Carr’s insightful, 32-minute discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the Catholic Church is timely.

John worked for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for more than 20 years. Since 2013, he has led the Initiative on Catholic Social Teaching and Public Life at Georgetown University, encouraging faithful, critical reflection among thousands of people on U.S. politics and developments in the Catholic Church. John disagrees with President Biden’s policy on whether abortion should be illegal, but he has argued for years - now with backing from Pope Francis - that Catholic life and social teaching are not entirely defined by this issue.

The step that the bishops approved is to undertake a fresh study of the Eucharist. I presume that John and many other Catholics across the country will find ways to contribute to the study process, and I pray that it leads the bishops to back away from the idea of denying communion to President Biden. Even if the bishops decide that political leaders who take positions that are inconsistent with Catholic teaching should be denied communion, Biden's positions on poverty and racial justice should count for something. Biden's first major piece of legislation, the American Rescue Act, is expected to cut child poverty in half this year.

This discussion in the Catholic community is likely to have far-reaching impacts on the beliefs of many Catholics, on U.S. politics, and on the kind of nation we will be a decade from now.

The Southern Baptist Convention also made a big decision this week. By a narrow margin their annual meeting elected Rev. Ed Litton to be their next president. He is a conservative who seeks unity in the church and sees racial reconciliation as a spiritual priority. The Southern Baptist Convention is the second-largest religious body in the country, and it has been more closely connected into the Religious Right than any other church body. So this election is good news for the country as a whole. It turned out as it did partly because of the leadership of Russell Moore, who recently resigned as head of its public policy arm, and partly because lots of like-minded Baptists made the effort to attend the national church convention and cast a ballot.

It's clear that some of our nation's problems are rooted in spiritual causes - the bitter divisions in our society, for example, and persistent national neglect of racial and economic injustice. This week’s two big decisions in conservative-leaning church bodies dramatize the importance of active, Spirit-led participation in the life of our churches.

The “Poverty, God, Politics” series of webcasts and blog posts has featured a series of leaders who are influencing their religious communities at the national level - Amy Reumann among Lutherans, Galen Carey among Evangelicals, Gabriel Salguero among Latino Evangelicals, Barbara Williams-Skinner among African-American churches, and now John among Catholics.

All of them and millions of other faithful people across the country are also working to strengthen the spiritual life and community outreach of their local churches. That's where far-reaching spiritual developments are cultivated in individuals and families, and it happens partly because of the leadership of active church members. They sing in the choir, contribute money, teach Sunday School, and try to live and share their faith in daily life. They visit church friends with serious medical problems, and they volunteer and recruit others for community ministries. They support congregational discussion of social issues.

Many of the people who read this blog are working for needed spiritual and political change in a local church and in broader church structures. What we do in our own religious communities contributes to the spiritual and political changes our country so desperately needs. Church work can be spiritual balm for our wounded body politic.

President Biden has this week launched an international initiative to bring COVID under control all over the world. We know from his recent budget proposal that he intends this to be part of a broader effort to help low-income countries around the world deal with COVID and its consequences. Biden’s overarching foreign policy goal is to reestablish positive U.S. leadership in international affairs.

In this week’s webcast, Tom Hart - acting director of the ONE Campaign worldwide - talks about today’s global-poverty advocacy opportunities. He also draws lessons from the remarkable successes of global-poverty advocates over the last generation.

President Biden will probably deliver his first wide-ranging foreign policy address at the UN General Assembly in September. The United Nations will be hosting an international summit on food at the same time. I’m hoping that the President will announce a presidential initiative to revive progress against child malnutrition. People around the world understand that good nutrition is foundational to happy, productive lives.

Thanks to bipartisan support in Congress, the United States has maintained strong programs of international assistance related to agriculture, food, and nutrition. Within the United States, agriculture and the national nutrition programs are both strong. So President Biden can speak about food and nutrition from a position of strength. He also cares about these issues personally. He gave a remarkably knowledgeable, without-notes speech on how to end hunger at a Bread for the World event in New York in December 2018.

This spring I joined with all the other World Food Prize laureates in an open letter to the President, urging strong U.S. leadership at the UN Food Summit. We were encouraged by widespread media coverage and a forthcoming reply from Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Malnutrition contributes to half the child deaths in the world and stunts the development of many more children than it kills. But the world has new and growing knowledge on how best to reduce malnutrition. After a decade of impressive success with evidence-based nutrition programs around the world, the pandemic has been a set-back. But we know how to revive and accelerate progress.

The Eleanor Crook Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, and other partners have thought through a strategy - called Nourish the Future - that incorporates the lessons of recent experience. It affirms approaches that would reduce malnutrition and achieve other purposes at the same time. For example, it’s possible to increase agricultural production in ways that also make farming environmentally sustainable and more focused on nutritious crops.

The last bit of this week’s webcast is a lively discussion between Tom and me about a current advocacy campaign to reduce malnutrition around the world. Bread for the World and its formidable grassroots network are right now pushing to increase next year’s appropriation for global nutrition programs from $150 million to $300 million. Bread also has a strong coalition of partner organizations on this issue. The coalition is working with legislators in both parties and both houses to develop Nourish the Future legislation. It would mandate strong, country-led nutrition aid with clear success metrics.

If Biden’s advisors see that members of Congress from both parties are urging more funding and action on global nutrition, the President is more likely to announce a nutrition initiative in September. In any case, advocates will keep pushing for passage of the Nourish the Future Act, and it has a good chance for bipartisan approval in both houses even in this deeply divided Congress.

Each of us can build momentum by urging our members of Congress - now - to increase annual funding for mother-child nutrition from $150 million to $300 million. Go to https://www.bread.org/write-congress. The page on child nutrition makes it easy to weigh in on this issue and, in the process, advance the politics of global poverty.

  • David Beckmann

My experience as president of Bread for the World convinced me that faith-based legislative advocacy works. Bread and its members win legislative achievements again and again, and the cumulative impact among hungry people in this country around the world is clear.

I asked Amy Reumann, senior director for Witness in Society for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), to talk about faith-based advocacy from her perspective. She focused on how the ELCA and its people do it, and I learned more than I knew before about how advocacy is integrated into the life of the church.

At the same time, Amy painted a picture of a church body that is deeply grounded in Jesus and faithful in many ways, and I want to focus this post on the strengths of the ELCA and the other Protestant churches who participate in the ecumenical movement.

The 38 church bodies that are part of the National Council of Churches include Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian. Reformed, African-American, Orthodox, and Peace churches. Each of these globally connected traditions is distinctive and valuable. They identify by their own names more than by the category "ecumenical Protestant." But what these churches all have in common is Christian faith, fellowship across denominations, and commitment to share the love of God through social reform. Most of them have been joined together in what is now the National Council of Churches since 1908.

They don’t get as much press attention as Evangelicals or Catholics. The local Methodist or Presbyterian church may seem routine and predictable, while the National Council of Churches has often been maligned as a “socialist” organization. But the leadership of these churches has an impressive long-term record on issues of racial and economic justice. When Bread for the World wants to strengthen its network of activists in a target legislative district, the state or local council of churches is always a good place to start looking for like-minded people.

Most of these churches also have theological traditions that are open to learning from science, the modern world, and other religions. Some Evangelicals think that such churches fall short in their theology and experience of conversion. But while all churches have their flaws and failings, ecumenical Protestant churches are firmly grounded in the Christian gospel, and Jesus is very much alive among their members.

Amy embodies some of the strengths of ecumenical Protestants generally - a joyful, well-informed faith in Christ, a deep sense of personal connection to people in need, commitment to “walking with” rather than “assisting” and “speaking for” people and communities in poverty, and clear awareness of the strengths of other churches and groups.

She explains how the ELCA’s advocacy is grounded in local Lutheran congregations, which are often diverse in their political views, levels of income, and in other respectss. Its policy positions are based on carefully considered theological and policy analysis. ELCA advocacy also draws strength from ELCA connections with people in poverty. A local congregation’s relationship with a recently evicted family in their community informs the ELCA's significant work on housing policy, for example. The denomination's partnership with Lutheran churches in Central America is the foundation for what it does to accompany and advocate for migrant children.

I’m an ELCA pastor and have been part of an Episcopal parish for many years, so I’m biased. But Amy Reumann’s presentation reminded me to be grateful for the many strengths of ecumenical Protestant churches generally - not least, their long-standing and effective work in legislative advocacy.