A new coalition of influential Christian groups is ramping up pressure on President Barack Obama and Congress to shield the poor from spending cuts in the ongoing debt-limit struggle, with one organization launching an advertising campaign Tuesday on Christian radio stations in politically important markets, including Kentucky.
The ads, airing in the home states of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and in the home district of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, feature local pastors declaring the federal budget a "moral document."
In the ad airing in Kentucky, Pastor Duane Beachy, co-coordinator of the Mennonite Central Committee's Appalachian Program, says, "Proverbs 11:14 warns: Without wise leadership a nation falls. Sadly for the first time in our nation's history, we have congressional leaders who are willing to force America to default on our debts and wreck our economy, all to protect tax cuts for the rich and the powerful. It's not a matter of resources, it's a matter of priorities."
Ads featuring Pastor Tom Jelinek of Heritage United Methodist Church in Las Vegas and Pastor Nan Erbaugh of Lower Miami Church of the Brethren in Ohio have similar messages.
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The ads are sponsored by the liberal evangelical group Sojourners, which has teamed with other Christian organizations from across the political spectrum to form a coalition called Circle of Protection.
The coalition includes black and Hispanic clergy organizations, as well as more conservative groups, such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The group's Web site poses a question designed to send chills through any politician who looks to churches and religious groups as a source for large voting blocs: "What would Jesus cut?"
Coalition leaders met last week at the White House for 40 minutes with Obama, admonishing him to protect Medicaid, food stamps, aid to poor women with infant children, international development aid and other programs specifically targeted to the poor.
The group is responding to the heated battle between congressional Republicans and the White House over raising the country's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, which must occur before Tuesday or the nation will go into default. Republicans seek drastic spending cuts and major reform of entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, and Democrats want new revenue along with decreased spending.
The group also has met with staffers for Boehner. "The House's plan makes the choices that are necessary today to ensure these p rograms will be there in the future," contended Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck.
At the White House meeting, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of New Mexico told Obama that Obama's willingness to defend the poor from steep cuts would be a "fundamental moral measure" of his administration.
"There seem to be several 'givens' in this debate," Ramirez said, according to an email from his office. "For Republicans, no new taxes is a given. For some Democrats, no cuts in Medicare are a given. For others, no cuts in military spending is a given. For your administration, some additional revenues are a given. Sadly, if you listen to the debate it seems that protecting the poor and vulnerable is not a given. That is why we are here."
Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, said earlier this week that he was encouraged by Obama's reaction to the group. The president, he noted, even cited the Bible during the private meeting in the Roosevelt Room, alluding to Jesus Christ's expressions of concern for the "least of these."
But Wallis and several others expressed dismay that Obama, in his nationally televised address Monday night, focused mostly on the middle-class. "No mention of the poor or the most vulnerable," Wallis said.
Coalition officials said they have met in recent weeks with Reid and top aides to Boehner, and with House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, one of the coalition partners, said Boehner's plan appeared to include an exemption for means-tested programs if automatic cuts are triggered, which Beckmann called a welcome development.
"I don't think they want to make kids hungrier," Beckmann said. "But if you have deep, unspecified cuts in spending, they will make kids hungrier."