At a White House meeting with Christian leaders, President Obama endorsed the goal of reducing the federal deficit without harming those most in need. The leaders represented the Circle of Protection, a diverse, non-partisan coalition that represents evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, and other Christian groups.
"The President embraced the principle that as we work on deficit reduction the poor should be protected," said National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) vice president Galen Carey, who attended the meeting.
The meeting with Obama came after several meetings between the Circle and high level White House staff. Those meetings included discussions of specific policies, but the Circle wanted to meet with the President because they wanted him to better articulate the need to protect programs for those in poverty.
The 40 minute meeting Wednesday afternoon included only a dozen of the members of the Circle. Evangelicals in attendance included the NAE's Carey, Salvation Army national commander William Roberts, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference president Samuel Rodriguez, and Sojourners president Jim Wallis (see full list at the end of this post).
For Rodriguez, the timing of the meeting was "divinely ordained." The meeting was announced on Monday. On Tuesday, the so-called "Gang of Six" in the Senate announced that there had been a breakthrough in bipartisan negotiations over the debt limit and the deficit. Their proposal would reduce the deficit by $3.7 trillion over the next ten years. The plan includes both spending cuts and increases in tax revenue. The President met with the Circle on Wednesday. After a discussion and a prayer, Obama left the meeting to attend meetings with congressional leaders on the budget. According to Rodriguez, the Circle expects to hold a public event with the President in the future.
During the meeting, Obama mentioned that congressional leaders are supportive of protecting the poor in the abstract. The devil is in the details, so to speak. The NAE's Carey said one example is the Food for Peace Act (previously known as P.L. 480) programs administered by the Department of Agriculture and USAID. A reduction in these programs, said Carey, means that there would be less food for the poorest in the world.
"It is important to magnify our message to the President with thousands of citizens across the country" Wallis said. "Our political leaders need to hear from those who will be affected by these proposed spending cuts—real people who are struggling, some of whom are poor; families, children, and the elderly."
The Circle of Protection includes Christian leaders on the left, the right, and the middle. Many disagree with the President on other issues, such as abortion or social issues. The cause that unites those in the Circle of Protection is the protection of those most vulnerable to government cuts.
Those who belong to the group issued a joint statement, saying, "As Christian leaders, we are committed to fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice. We are also committed to resist budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity, and rights of poor and vulnerable people. Therefore, we join with others to form a circle of protection around programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad."
In addition to the official signatories, over 4,000 pastors have agreed with the goals of the Circle of Protection. Sojourners and Faith in Public Life placed an ad in Politico. The ad was an open letter to Congress and the President to "listen to your pastors."
Representatives from the group say that they want to meet with all congressional leaders. The group has asked to meet with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.), but to date, they have not been able to discuss their message with these leaders.
List of Circle of Protection representatives attending the White House meeting:
President, Bread for the World
Vice President, Government Relations, National Association of Evangelicals
Executive Director, Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development, U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Ambassador Tony Hall
Executive Director, Alliance to End Hunger
Bishop Mark S. Hanson
Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Director, Poverty Initiative, National Council of Churches of Christ
Bishop Ricardo Ramirez
Bishop of Las Cruces, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Commissioner William A. Roberts
National Commander, The Salvation Army
President, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference
Stephen J. Thurston
President, National Baptist Convention of America
President and CEO, Sojourners
Co-facilitator, National African American Clergy Network