Politics at its best serves the common good -- far above any one interest or political party. And right now in Washington, we see that playing out as we continue to reach accord on immigration reform. But when it comes to our budget debate, partisan ideology and special interests are winning out over the common good.
The ever-looming "sequester" that was never supposed to happen goes into effect tomorrow. Billions of dollars will be cut from domestic and military spending without any plan or strategy; jobs will be lost and people will suffer. Public frustration is growing with our elected officials, while they continue to argue over the role of government instead of governing responsibly. The press discusses who wins and loses in the polls, but it is clear that it is the common good that is losing.
On the other hand, immigration reform is being discussed, at the same time with the same political players, in a very reasonable and hopeful way. On that important policy change, bipartisan work is going forward to shape legislation that could pass both houses of Congress.
In back-to-back meetings with church leaders and pastors, leading senators from both parties looked right into our eyes said, "To be honest with you pastors, we deal with most issues in ways that will help us win the next election; but on this one, we promise you, we will do whatever it takes to pass this, to fix this broken system, and protect the people you care about."
So on immigration reform, it is quite possible we could see a desire to serve the common good triumph over politics as usual.
Republican senators went to the White House this week to discuss immigration reform with the president -- but not the fast-approaching sequester. Why? There are, of course, differences between the two policy debates and what is at stake, including the amount of money involved.
But one big difference between the sequester battle and the immigration debate is the tremendous influence and impact of outside groups and constituencies -- in particular, the faith community, law enforcement officials, and business leaders. The White House and Congress say that the faith community is having a decisive impact in the immigration debate, especially evangelicals who have turned toward reform because of the Bible's instructions to "welcome the stranger."
When it comes to the sequester, the faith community's influence is not the same, but it's growing. This week, a very similar group of nearly 100 church leaders and pastors from the Circle of Protection delivered a pastoral letter to President Obama, Democratic leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and Republican leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. We thanked them for mostly protecting low-income families in $2 trillion of spending cuts so far, and we promised to pray for them. But we also called for an end to irresponsible "brinksmanship" and for respectful bipartisan dialogue. We said fiscal health requires both spending cuts and additional revenues, affirmed that government does have a responsibility concerning the poor, insisted that moral choices must be clearly made for vulnerable people, and invited both parties to work together, and with us, to replace poverty with opportunity.
From the Catholic Bishops to the National Association of Evangelicals; from black and Hispanic churches to major mainline Protestant denominations; from large faith-based organizations that directly serve the poor like World Vision, Catholic Charities, World Relief, and The Salvation Army to mobilizing organizations like Sojourners and Bread for the World -- the unity of the faith community is very clear. Together we are saying that it is time to move responsibly toward fiscal responsibility and protect the poor at the same time. That is our commitment and our principle, and we believe both political sides should embrace it.
But more politicians need to hear that message and feel that pressure. And, just like with immigration reform, they need to hear it from pastors. If you are a pastor, we want you to add your name. If you know a pastor, then forward this column to them now and ask them to lead.
Pastors are not lobbyists, and they shouldn't be. But when 11 million children of God are trapped in a broken immigration system -- or when special interests are dominating the future of the poor and most vulnerable -- there are clear moral issues at stake. The media, with notable exceptions, is loving the fight, covering who might win or lose -- rather than raising up the substantive moral issues. So it's time for the pastors to help do that. Let's make the common good more common in our nation's capital.
The time to act is now. If you are a pastor, a priest, or any other religious leader, sign on to the Circle of Protection letter. Sojourners will immediately send an e-mail of the letter with your signature to your representatives in Congress. Then, we'll let you know how to follow-up with your member of Congress by phone to make sure our elected leaders know they should find focus on the common good by ending the economic brinkmanship in Washington.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. His forthcoming book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned about Serving the Common Good, is set to release in April. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.