Concerned that the Administration and Congress are working on a budget deal that will place an undue burden on the poor “while shielding the wealthiest from any additional sacrifice,” leaders representing the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths on July 14 launched a new campaign to encourage policymakers to maintain a robust U.S. commitment to domestic and international poverty programs.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was represented at the launch by General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons and by the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, director of the church’s Office of Public Witness here.

United by a common spiritual conviction that God has called on all Americans to protect the vulnerable and promote the dignity of all individuals living in society, the interfaith coalition said it is aiming to  protect those struggling to overcome poverty in the U.S. and abroad and to exclude programs that protect people in poverty from the budget deficit debates.

More than 25 heads of communion and national religious organizations are spearheading an 18-month faith-based public policy campaign to urge Congress and the Administration to exempt programs that assist at-risk families and children in the U.S. and abroad from budget cuts. 

The campaign will consist of high-level meetings with policymakers, a Washington fly-in of religious leaders and daily prayer vigils among other actions.

The daily prayer vigils are being held on the front lawn of the United Methodist Building here, which also houses the PC(USA)’s public witness office. Led by a different religious organization each day at 12:30 p.m. EDT, the prayer vigils will continue throughout the White House led budget negotiations.

To kick-off the campaign, the religious leaders sent urgent letters this week to President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) stating that “People who are served by government program ― those who are poor, sick, and hungry, older adults, children, and people with disabilities ― should not bear the brunt of the budget-cutting burden.”

The religious leaders wrote, “We share our grave concern and dismay that the ongoing conversations and negotiations regarding our nation’s budget may yield an outcome that places individuals and families struggling with poverty at risk of even further hardship while shielding the wealthiest in our nation from any additional sacrifice.”

In addition, the religious leaders made it clear that religious groups would be unable to make up the difference in funding if the government further cuts or eliminates programs for society’s most vulnerable populations. The interfaith leaders warned that without a sustained federal commitment to federal- and state-run assistance programs, religious organizations, “while doing their best to help, cannot  be the sole support for the country’s most vulnerable in their most pressing times of need.”

The campaign was announced  via a teleconference featuring the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president of National Council of Churches and executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches; Parsons and Nelson; Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs;  the Rev. John L. McCullough, executive director and CEO of Church World Service; Sister Mary Hughes, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; and Sayyid M. Syeed, national director of the Office for Interfaith & Community Alliances, Islamic Society of North America.

During the briefing, Syeed said it’s faith groups’ responsibility to stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves.  He said, “It is our religious duty as part of the faith communities to convey our concerns about the problems of the budget cuts that will directly impact low income individuals and the dispossessed. We are asking for a budget that should be just and equitable.  It is our Islamic duty because this is one of the pillars of Islam.”

Gutow said, “To hurt the poor by trying to balance the budget or lessen the debt is a little bit ridiculous,” adding, “We were known by our founders as a city on a hill with a light of justice that emanated forth and we cannot and we must not be any less than who we are.”

Parsons warned that cuts to domestic and international poverty programs would have a devastating impact not only on individuals and families facing economic hardship, but houses of worship across the country that have worked in conjunction with federal- and state-led economic assistance programs for decades. 

“Churches alone cannot fill in the gap if the government’s social safety net is taken away, he said. “While doing their best to help, there’s not enough capacity in all those churches to meet the gap that would happen to if the government was to abandon tradition and the fundamental role of providing a basic floor to give people the basic human needs of food, shelter, and health care.”