Being around passionate, dedicated Christians like those at Ecumenical Advocacy Days is like a dose of “high-octane gasoline,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), speaking at the conference’s closing banquet March 25.
“It sometimes feels a little lonesome if you’re dealing with issues that involve the poor,” Cleaver said, adding that although Congress deals with many such issues, Americans won’t hear the word “poor” used on Capitol Hill.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Ecumenical Advocacy Days ― an educational event and lobbying effort ― operated this year under the theme: “Is This the Fast I Seek? Economy, Livelihood and Our National Priorities.”
An ordained Methodist minister, Cleaver said that the country’s most significant question is not even on the table in Congress: “What constitutes a great nation?”
The United States always declares itself as a great nation, but what makes it so? Is it size? Military might? Standard of living? Cleaver asked.
“A great nation is made when it uses its blessings to benefit the peoples of the world and the people at home,” he said. “A great nation can be mighty without being malicious … self-sufficient without being selfish.”
As Congress discusses the federal budget, it should remember that a budget is more than a guide for federal spending — it’s a moral document that reflects our national priorities, Cleaver said.
The top item in the federal budget, he added, is military spending. Congress approved tax cuts before and after 9/11, making the United States the only nation in history to lower taxes while going into war, Cleaver said.
Moreover, he said, the U.S. government is spending $1billion a week attempting to extend its influence in Afghanistan ― something no other country in modern history has been able to do ― and paying a huge political and economic price in doing so, Cleaver said.
U.S. military spending is greater than that of China, Russia, India and the rest of NATO combined, he said.
This emphasis on military spending says something about who we are as a nation, Cleaver said.
Meanwhile, ending Bush-era tax cuts that benefit the extremely wealthy may reduce the national debt ― the No. 4 priority in the federal budget, Cleaver said ― but the federal budget still favors the rich.
“There is a fundamental fairness that is no longer discussed on Capitol Hill, and one of the problems is we have a Capitol Hill packed with Christians,” Cleaver said.
Members of Congress declare their Christian beliefs all the time, Cleaver said, although Article Six of the Constitution states that “no religious test” can be required as a qualification to hold office. Amercians engage in de facto tests anyway, he said, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism being the most recent example.
People believe they own Jesus and that only their version of Christianity is correct, Cleaver said, adding: “Jesus will not be pimped. We need to help lead America away from the precipice.”
A major problem in Congress is a lack of civility, Cleaver said. Every year, more and more elected officials arrive on Capitol Hill believing that compromise is capitulation and that their political convictions are “baptized by God,” he said.
And because members of Congress go back to their home states every weekend, their only interaction with each other takes place in floor debates. When members stayed in Washington and made lives there, their children were on the same Little League teams or carpooled to school together, enabling Congresspersons to get to know each others’ families personally.
But it’s a lot easier to be nasty to people whom you don’t know, Cleaver said. And too many Americans reward bad behavior from political leaders or just let it go unchallenged.
“The United States is a better nation that what we are presenting [to the world],” he said. “We cannot allow this nation to crumble. And it crumbles because of a lot of silence from good people.”
We can’t ignore foul play and we must get excited over good conduct, Cleaver said. Christians must embrace the teachings of Jesus Christ and find the courage to stand up.
“We can change the world. Jesus changed the world,” Cleaver said. “We ought to be game-changers if we follow Jesus Christ.”