It is another intense day of politics at the White House. The debt default deadline is fast approaching. The stakes for the nation are high as politicians can't agree on how to resolve the ideological impasse on how to reduce the deficit before the nation defaults on its financial obligations.
On Wednesday, before congressional leaders were due at the White House for critical negotiations, I, along with 11 other national faith leaders, met with President Obama and senior White House staff for 40 minutes. We were representing the Circle of Protection, which formed in a commitment to defend the poor in the budget debates. Sitting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, we opened in prayer, grasping hands across the table, and read scripture together. We reminded ourselves that people of faith must evaluate big decisions on issues like a budget by how they impact the most vulnerable.
We urged the president to protect programs for low-income people in the ongoing budget and deficit debate, and in any deal concerning the debt ceiling and default crisis. In an engaging back and forth conversation, the president and faith leaders discussed how we can get our fiscal house in order without doing so on the backs of those who are most vulnerable. We shared the concern that the deficit must be cut in a way that protects the safety net, and struggling families and children, and maintains our national investments in the future of all of us.
The meeting started with the recognition that the poor and vulnerable are at great risk in this debate. But we told the president some good news about how a Circle of Protection has formed in response to this crisis. It is now the most unified and broadest coalition of churches that any of us has ever seen -- and is endorsed by our brothers and sisters of other faiths and secular organizations who also work for low-income people.
We made our simple principle clear: The most vulnerable should be protected in any budget or deficit agreements -- as a non-partisan commitment. The most vulnerable need a special exemption from all spending cuts as they usually have had in previous times of deficit reduction. We told President Obama that this is what God requires of all of us.
We agreed that we need both fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice. Those already hurting should not be made to hurt more, and those doing well should do their part in sacrificing. And whatever we decide should be fair, balanced and compassionate. President Obama agreed that the sacrifices needed to reduce the deficit must not be borne by the "least of these." It was good to hear a reference to Matthew 25 and Jesus' words, "As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me," in the White House. This verse motivated many of us to be at the White House meeting Wednesday, and it continues to serve as a guiding principle for how we make critical decisions, including the one the nation is about to make. (Below, watch my discussion of Matthew 25 on today's Morning Joe.)
The Christian leaders at Wednesday's meeting included representatives from the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bread for the World, Sojourners, the Alliance to End Hunger, the Salvation Army, the National African American Clergy Network, the National Baptist Convention of America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
The Circle of Protection statement has been signed by more than 60 heads of Christian denominations and religious organizations, and is endorsed by 45 heads of development agencies as well as leaders of other faiths. The Circle of Protection movement has worked to uphold the bipartisan consensus that has long prevailed in deficit-reduction agreements -- that programs serving poor and hungry people should be protected and exempted from any budget cuts.
Circle of Protection leaders have met with both Democratic and Republicans in Congress, and they have requested meetings with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Our goal is simply this: Whenever a new budget or deficit reduction proposal is put forth, somebody should ask how it will impact the poorest and most vulnerable. This is a biblical question, a fair question and a question of justice.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.