Institute on Religion and Democracy
Liberal icons Mario Cuomo and Joycelyn Elders were the featured speakers at a United Methodist-sponsored symposium on "Children and Poverty" in Baltimore April 5-7. The former governor of New York and the former U.S. Surgeon General unabashedly encouraged church activists to support liberal political initiatives that ostensibly will benefit Americas children.
Cuomo is Roman Catholic, although he very publicly disagreed with his churchs teachings on abortion when governor. Elders, a United Methodist, was fired by President Clinton after a controversial term as Surgeon General, during which she touted abortion rights, drug legalization, and contraceptives for children.
Rhetoric from Cuomo, Elders and other speakers in support of big government solutions to poverty was obviously heart-felt, but it often seemed dated. The speakers seemed oblivious to the failures of government programs that have made their brand of liberalism somewhat archaic.
The Children and Poverty meeting was sponsored by the United Methodist Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference Board of Child Care and by the United Methodist Association of Health and Welfare Ministries. Other speakers included Bishop Felton May of Washington, DC and Bishop Kenneth Carder of Nashville.
Elders offered perhaps the most fiery rhetoric and drew the strongest applause. "I was called the condom queen," she proudly recalled about her aggressive promotion of contraceptives among-age youth. "People say condoms break. But vows of abstinence break for more easily than latex condoms." Elders professed that she had no regrets about her stormy tenure as Surgeon General.
"I was called an atheist," said Elders. "I might be an atheist. I dont know. We allowed the radical right to take over religion because we sat there and were silent. We need to brake that silence." She faulted religious conservatives for ending her government career but vowed she would not be silent.
Elders urged the audience to get active politically and to lobby Congress. She called for federally guaranteed universal health coverage, revoking welfare reform, and stopping vouchers for private schools.
Saying she believed in prayer because "people need something to believe in," Elders praised the United Methodist Church. "You made me. United Methodist Women is the reason Im here."
Both Elders and Cuomo stressed that the projected federal government surplus of $4 trillion over the next decade should be spent on social programs, not tax cuts. And he joined her in deriding welfare reform as the "biggest sell-out of poor people in this country."
Cuomo lamented the lack of liberal leadership in the country. "Ted Kennedy is our last liberal," the former governor noted. "Hes entitled to the stature he has." Cuomo predicted Hillary Clinton would be a "wonderful" senator from New York, but he also lamented that the era of heroic leadership may be over for America. "The ground [in American politics] is too hard and unforgiving" for true liberals, he regretted.
Absent heroic leadership, Cuomo hoped that his audience of church people would help to develop "heroic message" that will persuade Americans to protect federal government welfare and social programs. He predicted the country would not accept "moral" arguments but would follow arguments based on economic self-interest.
When asked by an audience member what church groups need to do more of on behalf of children and the poor, Cuomo responded: "Youre doing plenty already. We need government to do more. We have enough volunteers."
Cuomo expressed approval that his own Catholic bishops side with the United Methodist leadership against reforms of or reductions in welfare spending. Referring several times to the "Hebrew God" as "He/She," Cuomo said believers in that deity cannot view charity as optional.
Bishop Carder shared the view of Cuomo and Elders that welfare reform has harmed the poor and children. He said the country, and the church in particular, could be charged with "child neglect and abuse." For the first time in history we have the means to eliminate hunger and disease, Carder said, but America lacks the moral and political will to do it.
"We should put children first and measure everything we do by what happens to children," Carder said. He described Jesus, as the incarnation of God, as having been born of a homeless, unwed mother and later becoming an "undocumented alien" resident of Egypt. Carder denied that the Council of Bishops Initiative on Children and Poverty is focused just on politics and "social witness."
"Every child has the God-given right to know that Jesus loves me," Carder said. But he also stressed that Christians must be willing "to get our hands dirty in the political process" as they lobby legislatures on behalf of the "voiceless."
Bishop May declared, "We must declare war" on behalf of children. "Were more concerned about investments than saving children. God is in every child. Not to love them is a heresy." He called for "breaking down borders and redistributing power" so as to benefit children and the poor.
An audience member asked May and Carder how the Bishops Initiative was to be evangelistic, since many children in America are not affiliated with the Christian faith. Carder responded that the focus of evangelization should be upon the church, which could experience Gods Word from "the least of these." He said that United Methodists should "name the name of the God who is love" as they perform their good works. At the same time, we should realize that "some may [already] know the reality [of God] but not know the name," just as some know the name of God but not the reality.
May added, "We are not proselytizing. We are living it by our actions." He said he explains his faith when asked by the youth with whom he works. Carder concluded that American society tends to interpret evangelism to mean conversion of individuals, when the emphasis should be on the conversion of society.
Most speakers at the Children and Poverty symposium addressed legitimate concerns about povertys impact upon children. But they tended to blame the supposed greed of American society, rather than explore the social pathologies such as illegitimacy and divorce that often foster poverty among children. The churchs responsibility to provide spiritual nurture for children was little mentioned. Instead, the main speakers looked to an expansion of federal government programs as the main solution to child poverty.