A coalition of American religious groups covering a wide political and theological spectrum has launched a campaign to put the issue of poverty on the national agenda.

Announcing a decade-long plan of action - which includes a possible ten-percent "poverty tithe" by churches - 50 leaders of churches and related agencies said it was not morally acceptable that poverty persisted in the US at a time of unparalleled economic prosperity and expansion.

"Just as some of our religious forebears decided to no longer accept slavery or [racial] segregation, we decided to no longer accept poverty," the signatories said in a Covenant to Overcome Poverty, made public on 16 February to coincide with the launch of the national anti-poverty campaign.

"In the strongest economy of the wealthiest nation in history, too many people are still being left out and left behind," the leaders said, pointing out that 20 percent of children in the US grew up in poverty. For non-white children, the statistics are even more alarming - a third of them grow up impoverished, according to the religious leaders. "The disproportionate impact of poverty on people of colour is a further indictment of our society," they said.

Those participating in the campaign include Robert Edgar, newly appointed general secretary of the National Council of Churches, the nation's most representative ecumenical agency, and Rich Cizik of the more conservative National Association of Evangelicals. Leaders of several Roman Catholic organisations - including the US Conference of Catholic Bishops - have announced their support, as have leaders of World Vision, an Evangelical relief agency, and heads of several mainly black denominations. Also supporting the campaign are officials from Baptist, Greek Orthodox, United Methodist and many other churches.

The religious leaders said it was time to end partisan differences and commit religious groups to helping end poverty by working in concert with government, business and labour. As a step towards such involvement, the leaders announced a list of "moral imperatives", including evaluating public policies and political candidates by how "they impact people who are poor".

While not claiming to present an anti-poverty "blueprint" and pointing out that no sector - church, government or business - could on its own end poverty, the leaders set goals based on what they called biblical norms and Christian reflection.

These include: a living family income for all who responsibly work; affordable health care for all Americans; good schools; safe, affordable housing; safe and secure neighbourhoods; "family-friendly" policies; and full participation by people of all races.

The leaders said neither they nor their organisations and denominations were committed "to any particular ideological method or partisan agenda to achieve these goals, only that they be achieved".

"Partisan divisions have for too long prevented real solutions to poverty", they said, "and it is real solutions to which we must all commit ourselves. Political disagreements can no longer be allowed to justify public inaction while those in poverty continue to be neglected."

The leaders said they would begin by seeking to increase the commitment of their own churches and organisations. "In every local church, God's command to overcome poverty must shape our worship, our preaching, our core ministries, and our budgets." The goal of a ten percent "poverty tithe" would, they said, be a first step in devoting an increasing percentage of church resources to overcoming poverty.

The campaign is part of an effort by Call to Renewal, a faith-based social action alliance. Jim Wallis, a leader of the campaign and editor of a Christian magazine, Sojourners, said the issue of poverty was "a non-partisan issue and a bipartisan cause". Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, chairman of Call to Renewal and general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, told the New York Times that the various churches and groups might disagree on specific public policy solutions to end poverty, but were united in the common belief that poverty must be given a higher social priority.

© Ecumenical News International. Used by permission.