On Wednesday, December 20, I sat down with a small circle of American religious leaders to talk with President-elect George W. Bush. He flew us into Austin, Texas, to talk with him for about one and a half hours about how his administration can strengthen the contribution of faith-based organizations (FBOs) in overcoming poverty in America. In light of all we have been doing in Evangelicals for Social Action and all I said in Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America to promote an expanded role for FBOs, I was obviously delighted to be present.

The group included folk as diverse as Marvin Olasky and Jim Wallis, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a Muslim Imam. The Washington Post wrongly announced the day before that the meeting was only for African-American pastors and was designed as an end run around the older "civil-rights" leaders. There were a large number of African-American leaders there (Floyd Flake, John Perkins, Tony Evans, Bishop Charles Blake), but almost two-thirds of the group were white or Latino. President Bush brought his chief of staff Andrew Card, a key domestic policy advisor, former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, and his top speech writer, Michael Gerson.

Often, during the campaign, Bush promised to place great emphasis on FBOs if he became President. The fact that he decided to devote the first of a series of policy-focused meetings with key leaders on different topics to the issue of FBOs' overcoming poverty demonstrates that Bush intends to make this a high priority early in his new administration. Even after his chief of staff announced that the President-elect needed to leave for another meeting to announce a cabinet appointee, Bush stayed another fifteen minutes to continue the conversation.

I came away from the meeting strengthened in my sense that the next President genuinely understands the power of the spiritual transformation that FBOs can nurture. He talked about "poverty of the wallet and poverty of the soul," noting that government can and should work at education and health care, but that it cannot heal people's hearts. With a passion that was striking, he asked us what he needs to do to show that he listens to other voices than just "white guy Republicans."

In the one-page briefing paper that I handed him (along with a copy of Just Generosity), I listed a couple basic assumptions. To reduce poverty, (a) we need both moral/spiritual renewal and greater economic opportunity, and (b) we must simultaneously work for stronger, wholesome two-parent families and make sure those who do work full time responsibly get well out of poverty and can afford health insurance.

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Then I offered several specific suggestions, including tax credits for donations to non-profits working to overcome poverty; major expansion of Charitable Choice; and several legislative items that would both expand the income of the working poor and also include a marriage incentiveラi.e., the specific things I outlined in my last E-Pistle (which conveniently appeared as an Op.Ed. in The Dallas Morning News the day before the meeting with Bush). And of course I asked him to use his Presidential "pulpit" to tell everyone that expanding the role of FBOs does not eliminate the crucial need for effective government anti-poverty programs.

Does all of this make any difference? Only the future will tell. Every President faces so many contradictory pressures. Libertarians will push Bush to use the talk about FBOs as mere window dressing. But we did have a brief opportunity to share some good ideas. Speaking for Call to Renewal (there were six Call leaders at the meeting), Jim Wallis urged the President-elect to promise in his Inaugural Address to announce the goal of reducing child poverty by 50 percent in the next four years. Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, was sitting next to me, so I handed him a copy of my proposals. Bush told several of us to talk to his speech writer, Mike Gerson (a Wheaton College grad) who indicated he would be glad to stay in touch.

I am grateful for the meeting and the possibility of future input, but it would be silly to suppose that our meeting significantly changed the next President's agenda. Fortunately, the U.S. treasury, not ESA, paid for my plane ticket.

One person told Mr. Bush that he is the most prayed-for person in the world right now. Let's all pray that the next President learns to listen to the voices of the poor as much as God wants him to.

Ronald J. Sider is president of Evangelicals for Social Action.

Related Elsewhere

Visit the Evangelicals for Social Action homepage.

Read Ron Sider's editorial on FBOs that appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

Read Sider's bio or read what Religion & Liberty had to say about Sider's "continued influence."

Christianity Today also profiled Sider in "Ron Sider's Unsettling Crusade," and reviewed his book in "Putting the Poor on the National Agenda."

Other media coverage includes The Houston Chronicle's "Bush Meets with Religious Leaders On Welfare Reform's Next Step."

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Previous Christianity Today coverage of Bush, his faith, and his thought on FBOs includes:

The Bush Agenda | Will the White House be user-friendly for religious organizations? (Dec. 15, 2000)

Bush's Call to Prayer | After Al Gore's concession, evangelical leaders unify around faith-based initiatives, morality, and prayer as the incoming Bush administration gears up. (Dec. 14, 2000)

Anniversary of Church Shootings Serves as Reminder for Bush | Presidential candidate promises to battle religious bigotry in wake of Texas tragedy. (Sept. 15, 2000)

A Presidential Hopeful's Progress | The spiritual journey of George W. Bush starts in hardscrabble west Texas. Will the White House be his next stop? (Sept. 5, 2000)

Bush and Gore Size Up Prolife Running Mates | Will abortion stances play an influential role in Vice Presidential selection? (July 17, 2000)

Might for Right? | As presidential primaries get under way, Christian conservatives aim to win. (Feb. 3, 2000)

God Bless America's Candidates | What the religious and mainstream presses are saying about religion on the campaign trail and other issues. (Dec. 10, 1999)

Bush's Faith-Based Plans | Bush argues that private religious organizations can partner successfully with government. (October 25, 1999)

Can I Get a Witness? | Candidate testimonies must move beyond piety to policy. (August 9, 1999)

Reconnecting with the Poor | If people are hurting, it's our business. (Jan. 11, 1999)