07/21/2011 03:26 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2011

Obama Prays With Pastors Who Tell Him To Protect the Poor

As President Barack Obama and members of Congress continue heated negotiations over the debt ceiling and deficit reduction, a coalition of Christian clergy that has campaigned to keep cuts to social safety net programs off the table met with the president and senior members of his staff on Wednesday to make a plea for the nation's poor and vulnerable.

The 40-minute meeting, which did not appear on the president's public schedule, included representatives from some of the nation's largest religious denominations and organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church, the National Council of Churches, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as well as representatives from social service groups such as the Salvation Army and Bread for the World.

The meeting came after more than 5,000 pastors sent the president and congressional leaders a letter last week telling them the "moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable fare." Held in the White House's Roosevelt Room, it included a prayer session and a discussion of ways in which Biblical scripture is relevant to the budget debate.

Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-facilitator of the National African American Clergy Network, opened the meeting by holding Obama's hand and saying a "prayer for God's wisdom for his team on the decisions they make," she said Thursday morning. "I told him there are over 2,000 verses of scripture [that apply to the fiscal debate]," Williams-Skinner said. "As a Christian, he, too, knows that is the word of God."

During the meeting, Obama said he supported the group's desire for "a bipartisan commitment to protect vulnerable people," said the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a Washington, D.C.-based network of Christians focused on social justice issues, who attended the meeting. The president also said he was concerned about potential cuts to Medicaid, changes to tax credits for low-income Americans and changes to foreign aid programs, according to Wallis.

Yet despite the fact that Obama voiced support for the group's goals, any deal between Democrats and Republicans to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit will likely include significant budget cuts to entitlement and social service programs.

"We came here not to advance a particular plan, but a fundamental moral principle: put the needs of the poor first in allocating scarce resources," said Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of La Cruces, New Mexico, speaking on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "As religious leaders, our concern is not which party wins the current political battles. But we know if we don't speak up who is likely to lose: the families trying to feed their kids, the jobless looking for work, the children who need health care, the hungry and sick and hopeless around the world."

The meeting continued a "Circle of Protection" effort Sojourners launched earlier this year to propose keeping cuts to social services off the table. On a conference call Thursday, Wallis acknowledged that any debt ceiling and deficit reduction deal that is reached will likely include cuts to social programs, but he indicated he was more optimistic after speaking with Obama. "This is a moving target -- this deal, when there will be a deal, what it will be, all of that," Wallis said. "What we are saying, in this moving target, is that there are some principals."

Non-Christians are also getting involved in the debate. Last week, a group of interfaith leaders sent a letter to Obama expressing concern that budget cuts put struggling families at risk while the wealthy were left unaffected. The group, which includes representatives of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Islamic Society of North America, has been holding daily Capitol Hill prayer vigils. Also last week, dozens of Catholic priests, nuns and theologians released a similar letter to lawmakers.

Other religious leaders who attended Wednesday's meeting included Galen Carey, Vice President of Government Relations for the National Association of Evangelicals; David Beckman, President of Bread for the World; Rev. Stephen Thurston, of New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago and Bishop Mark S. Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Tony Hall, a former Democratic Representative from Ohio who currently serves as Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture and Director of the Alliance to End Hunger, was also present.

White House officials in attendance included senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes, National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling and Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Director Josh DuBois.