TOP STORY: CLINTON AND THE RELIGIOUS LEFT: Welfare bill may lead many on `religious left’ to s

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c. 1996 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ For Hillary Clinton, it takes a village to raise a child. But for some religious advocates of the poor, it takes a president to protect the most vulnerable among them _ and Bill Clinton has failed the test.

As the Democrats gather in Chicago Monday (Aug. 26) to nominate Clinton and Vice President Al Gore for a second term, much of the liberal religious community, which lobbied Clinton hard on the welfare bill, is still seething with anger and a sense of betrayal over the president’s decision to sign the Republican-crafted measure that will end a 60-year-old national commitment to a cash safety net for poor children.

And amid the grumblings, there are rumblings that some of the disaffected might well sit out the November election between Clinton and his Republican challenger, Bob Dole.”By sacrificing hundreds of thousands of poor children to his bid for re-election, Bill Clinton failed the most serious test of his presidency,”says Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and a leader of the Call to Renewal movement of socially progressive Christians.”Since compassionate Christians care deeply about the former, many will now care much less about the latter,”Wallis says.

Some are more blunt.”I don’t intend to vote for Bill Clinton again in 1996,”William Shore, a longtime Democratic activist and founder of the anti-hunger Share Our Strength wrote in The New York Times Aug. 12.”His decision to play politics with the lives of children and sign legislation not reforming welfare, but repealing it, crossed the line from political pragmatism to exploitation.” Other prominent religious activists are pondering whether to go public shortly before the Aug. 26-29 Democratic National Convention begins with a statement announcing their decision not to vote for Clinton.

In many ways, welfare reform is to Bill Clinton and the Democrats what the abortion issue is to Bob Dole and the GOP _ a litmus test that places principle over politics.

It is also an issue that dramatically demonstrates the differences in style and strategy between what has been labeled the religious right and the religious left, although partisans in both camps often reject such labels.

At the recently concluded Republican National Convention in San Diego, the religious right _ working primarily through the Christian Coalition and a number of other organizations _ was an active, organized force explicitly seeking to win control of the party machinery.

Ralph Reed, executive director of the coalition, which claims 1.7 million members and supporters, boasted of the computers, delegate whip systems and other organizing tools the conservatives deployed to protect their anti-abortion plank in the Republican platform and to oppose any watering down of the GOP stance on the issue.

Religious liberals don’t play that way. Although they’ll be present in Chicago in a variety of roles, they generally refrain from such overt political activity partly because it would jeopardize their tax exempt status. Political organizing might also violate religious liberals’ impulse to speak in a nonpartisan, morally-grounded way to all political players.

The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, the umbrella organization of 33 mainline Protestant and Orthodox churches, was among the leaders in the fight against the welfare bill. Campbell, who watched the Christian Coalition in action in San Diego, said the liberals wouldn’t even try similar tactics.”Everyone criticizes the Christian Coalition and I’m not saying people ought to do it their way, but their influence is felt,”she said.”But that’s not our way. There will not be that kind of presence that tries to affect the (Democratic) convention.” Instead, Campbell said, the ecumenical and interfaith community intends to make evident outside the convention hall its dismay and anger over Clinton’s decision to sign the welfare bill. And it intends to keep the pressure on during the fall campaign.

Virtually exiled during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the liberal religious community has enjoyed regular access to the White House during the Clinton administration.”We’re not going to let it (the welfare issue) alone,”Campbell added.”We are going to keep after him.” Sister Donna Quinn, a Roman Catholic nun in Chicago who works in a shelter for the homeless, said many of the activists with whom she works now find themselves dismayed and discouraged.”For most people working with the poor, Clinton has been pretty good except for a few blips,”said Quinn, a member of the advocacy group Chicago Catholic Women.”This (decision to sign the welfare bill) is a big step out of line. But most people don’t see that there is any other place to go. It’s a real bind.” Thus for religious liberals, the choice seems to be not between Clinton and Dole, but between voting and not voting.”A lot of my colleagues are talking about not voting,”said one Washington anti-hunger lobbyist who asked not to be identified because her group works with both Republicans and Democrats.”I’ve tried to tell them, you need to vote, no matter how disgusted you are,”she said.


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