April 28th, 2011
09:09 AM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
Washington (CNN) – A coalition of Christian groups opposing budget cuts for the poor is growing - and so is the conservative media’s backlash against the group.
It began a few weeks ago when a group of Christians took out a full-page advertisement in Politico asking, “What would Jesus cut” as it relates to the federal budget.
The movement grew to include a hunger strike during Lent spearheaded by Jim Wallis of Sojourners, David Beckmann of Bread for the World, Women Thrive Worldwide co-founder Ritu Sharma and former congressman Tony Hall.
Eventually 28 congressional Democrats joined the religious leaders’ hunger strike.
On Wednesday, the religious leaders renewed their efforts. A broad range of Catholic, Protestant and evangelical leaders called on members of Congress to spare programs that help the poor both at home and abroad.
“It’s time for political leaders on both sides of the aisle to draw a line in the sand and establish a fundamental principle in this budget debate that essential and proven programs that save the lives of the poorest at home and abroad should be protected in our budget and deficit choices,” Wallis said on a conference call with reporters.
“Lawmakers need to understand what a circle of protection means," Wallis said. "It means if you come after the poor, you will have to come and go through us first."
The group forming the circle of protection now includes the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches, as well as Catholic, African American and Latino church leaders.
“We are engaging our own constituents on this issue and encouraging them to engage their legislators,” said Galen Carey, director of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals.
“We are all calling on all of our members to pray, because we believe this is a spiritual battle as well as a political issue, and so we pray that our leaders will have courage because they need a tremendous amount of courage to deal with these issues in an honorable way.”
But as the group has grown more diverse to include members from the Christian right and the Christian left, the movement has become a punching bag for some conservative media outlets.
Rush Limbaugh picked up on the debate on his radio broadcast on Monday. He highlighted ABC’s Sunday public affairs program "This Week," hosted by Christiane Amanpour.
She began a discussion with influential American pastors asking, “What would Jesus do” in terms of the budget.
Limbaugh said, "A favorite tactic of the left, you know, when it suits them they'll talk about Jesus Christ. When they can convince or try to convince everybody Jesus Christ was the patron saint of liberalism, then they will herald Jesus Christ."
Roger Pilon, a libertarian from the Cato Institute and former Reagan administration official, wrote an op-ed last week in The Wall Street Journal criticizing the spirit of the religious leaders' defense of government programs to assist the poor.
“The Good Samaritan is virtuous not because he helps the fallen through the force of law but because he does so voluntarily,” he wrote.
“I agree with them that the budget is a moral document,” Pilon told CNN. “The objection I have is with their conception of the federal budget as reflecting the kind of principles a family would have in determining a family budget.”
Pilon said Americans are extraordinarily generous and that if federal taxes were lower, charitable giving would rise. At issue, he said, is a basic principle.
“The religious organizations that are non-political or are on the right think of beneficence as a private virtue. The religious organizations that come from the left promote charity or beneficence through government and therefore do not draw the distinction between private and public charity.”
On Saturday on the "Journal Editorial Report" on Fox News, Wall Street Journal columnist Bill McGurn said, “I think the political motivation is - one of it is to rig this debate, so you present the budget cuts as heartless and you don't have to debate whether they're effective. We want to debate whether they're effective, what the programs are accomplishing.”
Wallis and others countered that since the beginning of their campaign they have said social programs should be fixed or changed if they are underperforming.
“We have to remember that budgets are not just about sacristy, they’re about choices - moral choices,” Wallis.
Members of Congress are due back in Washington on Monday after two weeks off, and the budget and debt ceiling debates are expected to continue.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.