Obama, What Would Jesus Cut?

Members of the Circle of Protection gather before meeting with President Obama, Wednesday July 20, 2011. i i

hide captionMembers of the Circle of Protection gather before meeting with President Obama, Wednesday July 20, 2011.

Courtesy of Bread for the World
Members of the Circle of Protection gather before meeting with President Obama, Wednesday July 20, 2011.

Members of the Circle of Protection gather before meeting with President Obama, Wednesday July 20, 2011.

Courtesy of Bread for the World

On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of faith leaders called the Circle of Protection met with President Obama. They urged him to defend programs serving the poor and hungry. Host Michel Martin speaks with Rev. David Beckmann about his meeting with Obama and why he feels protecting such programs should be a moral imperative.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, among the first to get married in New York this Sunday, after the state legalized same-sex marriage last month, one lucky couple whose nuptials will be officiated by none other than Mayor Michael Bloomberg. We'll hear about their plans for the big day, what the new law means to their family and if anybody's getting cold feet. That's in just a few minutes.

But now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about how faith affects our lives. Another facet of those ongoing talks about the debt and deficit talks going on now, earlier this week, a group of Christian faith leaders met with President Obama to voice their concern that the talks on reducing the federal deficit preserve programs that serve the hungry and the poor. They call the group the Circle of Protection and they pose this provocative question to lawmakers - they ask: What would Jesus cut?

Here to tell us more about that conversation with the president is the Reverend David Beckmann. He's part of the Circle of Protection. He also heads the group Bread for the World. That's an organization that campaigns to build greater commitment to overcome hunger and poverty. Reverend Beckmann, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

The Reverend DAVID BECKMANN: Thank you.

MARTIN: We actually last talked to you on Election Day, where you talked about the fact that you hoped that the, you know, ongoing, you know, policy initiatives that people were voting on at that time, that people would remember the poor. And as these negotiations about the debt and deficit have gone on, do you think that your concern - do you think that others share your concern? Do you think that these lawmakers are, in fact, keeping the poor front and center?

BECKMANN: Well, right now we're facing really deep attacks on poor and hungry people in our country and around the world. I think that's why a very wide array of religious leaders, Christians, but also Jews, Muslims, secular people have joined together to try to build a circle of protection around funding for poor and hungry people.

It's important for us to reduce the federal deficit. But it's not necessary to make life yet tougher for people who can't feed their kids in order to reduce the deficit and it's not right.

MARTIN: Did you meet - when you met with the president, I mentioned you were a part of a group that met with the president - what did he say?

BECKMANN: We had a really great meeting with President Obama. We prayed with him for him and for Congress because reaching agreement is not easy and it's really important that they get to an agreement, that it's a good agreement. And then also as people who are especially grounded in God, you know, we wanted to say protect the poor in all this.

And I was encouraged that the - just in your interview right now, the president was quite clear that we need to maintain our commitments, he just said to you - to the people who are most vulnerable. If we've got to cut we should cut defense spending before we cut food for hungry kids.

And those were the kinds of things he said to us. He also made it really clear that the negotiations are tough. So no promises that anybody's going to be protected in all this.

MARTIN: Have you met with Republican leaders as well?

BECKMANN: We have. We've met with members of Congress, leaders of Congress from both side, Democrats and Republicans. In fact, yesterday afternoon we met with senior - we met for the third time with senior staff for Speaker Boehner because we won't be able to protect people who are struggling to eat unless both Republicans and Democrats agree on that principle.

In fact, over the last 25 years we've had a number of times when we had legislation that's had big deficit reduction agreements. And every time in the past, over 25 years, when we - when there were laws that said if something happens, there are going to be across-the-board cuts, Republicans and Democrats agreed that those cuts should exempt programs like food stamps, tax credits for the working poor. So we're working to get Republicans and Democrats to agree that that should be included in the deal this time too.

MARTIN: What do you say to those, particularly Republicans, who advance the argument that - I'll state it this way - you can't pour from an empty vessel. That getting the country's fiscal house in order is the most important thing that we can do, that you really can't do much to serve the aims of government if the country's finances remain in such disarray. And that really has to be the top priority of our leadership right now, however they get there. How do you respond to that?

BECKMANN: It is important that we get our fiscal house in order. But it's not the only important thing, you know. Getting the economy moving again is important. Protecting and providing opportunities to the unemployed people that you talked to the president about - getting them jobs. And while they don't have jobs, giving them some help so they can feed their kids. That's also really important.

In fact, I think from God's point of view, you know, the God who loves me and forgave me 19 times this morning...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BECKMANN: ...you know, I think from God's point of view those people who are having a hard time feeding their kids in our country or in Africa, they may be more important than anything else.

MARTIN: But there are those who don't share that point of view. As you know, this is a diverse country...

BECKMANN: Sure.

MARTIN: ...with many points of view and value systems. And there are those who would argue that, you know, mercy is your job. And there are those who would argue that perhaps national defense is the government's job. I guess what I'm saying is that they are...

BECKMANN: Right.

MARTIN: ...some people who prioritize the government's...

BECKMANN: But on that it's...

MARTIN: ...priorities differently. And what's your message to them?

BECKMANN: Well, the Salvation - the commissioner of the Salvation Army was with us in the meeting with President Obama. The churches are doing a lot to help poor and hungry people in our communities across the country and around the world. But those of us who are doing that work are very clear that the federal government cannot be AWOL. For example, all the food that poor people in this country get from food banks and churches and all that amounts to six percent of the food that they get from food stamps and school lunches and those programs.

So if Congress slashes food stamps, there is no way that churches and charities can make up for the difference. And I think fundamentally the decisions that we're making about national priorities in a tough time, this is a question of faith. You know, do we believe that God is going to take care of us or we have to get real tightfisted now? Do we believe that God really loves us and me and you and a single mom who can't feed her kids? If we believe that then we'll - we can solve this problem in a way that doesn't further increase hunger in our country or around the world.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, heading into the weekend with President - and pretty much all sides have - with a few exceptions - have said that this is really a critical period.

BECKMANN: Yeah.

MARTIN: That, you know, we're entering into these negotiations. Are you - can I just ask how you feel right now? Do you feel confident that the point of view of you and others in your group will prevail in this final stretch of the negotiations?

BECKMANN: Well, I'm terrified about the possibility of a default crisis. I think that could make life a lot harder for all of us and especially for poor and hungry people. So I am praying for the president and members of Congress on both sides, especially those I can't stand.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BECKMANN: You know, praying for them that they can get to an agreement, that they can govern the nation, and that that agreement will include some protection for poor and hungry people. I think whether that happens depends a lot on us, not just people who are in Washington but people across the country. You know, how are we thinking about poor and hungry people, and also what are we saying senators and representatives? You got to get on the phone and let them know that you want to protect poor and hungry people in the midst of all this.

MARTIN: The Reverend David Beckmann is part of the Circle of Protection. That's a bipartisan group of faith leaders who are asking lawmakers specifically to protect programs that serve the hungry and the poor. Representatives of the group met with president Obama earlier this week to talk about these matters. Reverend Beckmann also heads the group Bread for the World, a Christian organization focused on overcoming hunger and poverty. I also might mention that he is also an economist. And he joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Reverend Beckmann, thanks for joining us once again.

BECKMANN: Thank you.

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