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Christianity and the Politics of Poverty in the United States


Christian organizations in the United States take positions in favor of or against progressive efforts to address poverty primarily based on theological considerations. In order to support governmental programs and regulations such as welfare, comprehensive health care and higher minimum wages, they must believe that structural changes, rather than an increase in religious faith, will likely solve intergenerational poverty. However, religious organizations effectively lobby in favor of such efforts primarily in their capacity as providers of charity and health care services to the poor. Because opinion within most denominations on poverty is divided, there are competing theological interpretations which weaken the standing of denominational leaderships and lobbyists to speak for their traditions when they use religious rhetoric. Some conservative evangelical organizations have slowly come to accept governmental programs because of the long-term interests of their charitable agencies. I argue that the Catholic Church lobbies more effectively than mainline Protestant denominations in favor of governmental programs because of its larger charitable agencies. This is despite the fact that the Catholic Bishops occasionally oppose governmental programs, such as Democratic comprehensive health care reform proposals, because of the possibility that they may fund abortions. Though opposition to abortion is a theological priority for the Catholic Church, the bishops remain close to the Democrats on economic issues despite increasing political polarization. I argue that minimum wage policy has provided an opportunity for Catholic, mainline Protestant, black Protestant and progressive evangelical congregations to come together on a relatively simple and popular policy issue where change can and must occur at the local and state level. My primary methods are examinations of media accounts and congressional committee hearing transcripts.

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