Justice might be a Biblical command, but it’s a government job

By Robert Mann

Imagine you’re walking along the Mississippi River with friends when you spy a figure bobbing in the water. It’s a child. There’s no time to summon the police, so you swim to save it. Later, another child floats by — and another and another. Each time, you and your friends jump in for a rescue.

That’s what many of us do so well: Dive in to help people in need or distress when the police, fire department or other authorities aren’t around.

Perhaps you’ve encountered some variation of this child rescue story. Only, it’s sometimes used to argue against government anti-poverty programs: “The government can’t do what individuals and churches once did, which is to save people who are drowning in poverty. The government should get out of that business and let churches and people do what they’re supposed to do.”

On its face, at least, the argument stands up. Charity is sometimes better delivered by individuals and small organizations, not big government. I see a person in desperate need, and I meet that need out of my compassion. This is what churches and caring people do every day.

The problem is that the needs of society’s poor and hurting have always outrun the ability or willingness of individuals to meet them. That doesn’t mean the romantic, nostalgic longing for a bygone era of community barn-raisings and neighborly charity isn’t appealing and well-intended. It’s just not realistic — and never was — as a comprehensive solution to poverty and suffering.

And now, some conservative Christians are even insisting charity should also apply to health care for the poor. There would be no need for government programs like the Affordable Care Act, they say, if the government encouraged individuals and churches do their benevolent work.

This appears to be the sentiment behind a recent tweet by a conservative columnist, Erick Erickson: “In Matt 25, when Jesus talks about caring for ‘the least of these,’ he isn’t talking about the poor in general, but fellow Christians.” Never mind that Christians didn’t exist when Jesus is quoted saying that. Erickson suggests that Jesus not only failed to insist the government address poverty; he also didn’t tell his followers to help non-believers.

That’s a narrow, perverted reading of the Bible. Still, I’m willing to concede Jesus might have been addressing the individual obligation we have to those in need. But concluding government has no role in reducing poverty, based on one scripture, requires a selective reading of Jesus. And it’s a distorted view of what it means to be a person of faith, whether of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim or other variety.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

When it comes to Trump, what’s a Christian to do?

By Robert Mann

Is voting for Donald Trump a morally defensible act? Can a person of faith justify supporting him? “Yes,” you might say, noting that many people of faith, particularly evangelicals, are wildly attracted to Trump and his blunt, sometime-profane messages. And you’d be right. Lots of Christians do support him.

While I don’t fully understand it, I’m intrigued by those evangelicals’ strange, intense attraction to Trump, whose personal life and public pronouncements often seem so antithetical to widely accepted Christian teachings.

I ask my questions as a Christian, who has little interest in the private morality or religious beliefs of public officials. For example, I couldn’t care less if Trump is a committed Presbyterian, as he claims. The faith or degree of personal piety evinced by a politician does not influence me nearly as much as the morality of that person’s public policies.

Put another way, give me a philanderer who passionately defends the poor over a family man who caters the wealthy and big business.

But back to my question: Should people of faith vote for Trump?

First, support for or opposition to Trump or any other political candidate shouldn’t be a test of anyone’s faith. Whether you’re a true and faithful Christian, Jew or Muslim is between you and the Almighty. As Pope Francis said in another context, “Who am I to judge?”

Second, I would never suggest, as some prominent Catholic leaders have, that voting for a pro-choice candidate (or any candidate, for that matter) is a sin. And I would not urge people, as does Franklin Graham, to support only candidates who “uphold biblical principles,” whatever that means.

That said, if you’re a person of faith (or an atheist), you are not wrong to consider the moral implications of your vote.

So, I wonder if the better question for Christians and other people of faith is: “Will a candidate’s policies and public actions be consistent with the fundamental tenets of my faith or beliefs?” In other words, I don’t ask, “Am I a true person of faith if I vote for this person?” Rather, I ask, “If I vote for that candidate, will his or her policies reflect the justice, compassion, unity and humility that my faith demands?”

I believe Pope Francis summed up perfectly my feelings about what it means to be a Christian in the public realm. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the Gospel,” the Pope recently told journalists who asked about Trump’s hardline position on illegal immigration.

Notice that the pope didn’t declare that Trump is not a Christian. He meant, I believe, that Trump’s actions and his pronouncements were not Christ-like. In other words, Francis used the word “Christian” as an adjective, not a noun.

He was right. Trump’s actions and many of his policies are not Christian by any definition of the word that I comprehend.

Fomenting hatred toward Mexicans and Muslims is not Christian. Talking about shutting down mosques is not Christian. Calling for the assassination of the families of suspected terrorists is not Christian. Advocating torture is not Christian.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Louisiana’s working poor can’t wait on a Medicaid waiver


By Robert Mann

It’s finally going to happen. Louisiana’s next governor will almost certainly expand the state’s Medicaid program under provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Unlike Gov. Bobby Jindal, state Rep. John Bel Edwards and U.S. Sen. David Vitter say they won’t reject the federal dollars to provide health insurance to the state’s working poor.

Until 2017, the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of expanding Medicaid for 200,000 Louisiana citizens. Then, the state’s share will be 5 percent and will gradually rise to a maximum of 10 percent.

That’s a bargain for Louisiana. And it will save lives among the state’s working poor – people who earn too little to obtain Medicaid coverage but not enough to qualify for the federal subsidies for health insurance under the ACA. With Jindal gone, whoever occupies the Governor’ Mansion in January will work to provide health care coverage to those individuals and their families. Read more

Is education really the solution to poverty?


Arguing that education is the key to curing poverty is like saying swimming will prevent drowning. Of course, but could the best instructor in the world teach a child to swim if the student showed up for lessons wearing 20-pound weights on each arm?

That weight – the onerous burden of poverty – is what holds back many Louisiana children. It’s what makes the efforts of even the best teachers so challenging. When a child arrives at school unprepared or unable to learn because of circumstances beyond the school’s or its teachers’ control, why would we blame the school and its teachers?

Surely, those seeking public office, especially many now running for governor and the Legislature, understand this. They know that (on average) a sick child, an emotionally or physically battered child or a hungry child cannot learn, in the same way, at the same pace, as a child without those enormous challenges. So, why do so many of our leaders respond to questions about poverty by tossing off mindless, simplistic answers like, “The solution to poverty is a good education”?

I suspect they know it’s evasive and naive, but what else can the average politician tell you? The truth? Imagine a candidate with the courage to say the following:

“Look, I could give you the usual boilerplate answer about poverty. I could blame it on substandard schools and lazy teachers, and you’d nod your heads in agreement. That’s what you want to hear. You want to believe that if our teachers would just work harder, all our problems would disappear.

“Blaming poverty on our teachers and the schools is a cop out. It absolves us of our collective responsibility for the scandal of poverty. We’re scapegoating teachers, which is very much like blaming doctors for an outbreak of the common cold. They are only dealing with symptoms of a problem that existed before the patient arrived.

“If you want to avoid a cold, it’s mostly about prevention – taking steps to ensure you aren’t exposed to the virus. A teacher is no more to blame for his student’s home environment than your doctor is responsible for the fact that some sick kid on the bus sneezed on your child.

“You know what causes poverty? Poverty causes poverty because being born poor is the most reliable predictor we have about whether someone will grow up to live in poverty. So, telling a young person that she needs to buckle down and get a better education when we’re unwilling to invest in the assistance and infrastructure that will prepare that child to learn, is unrealistic. In fact, it’s worse than unrealistic. It’s cruel.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link

The speech no candidate for Louisiana governor can give

My fellow Louisianians, it’s time someone spoke honestly about where our state stands and why we’re in such deep distress.

It would be easy to keep telling you that everything wrong is the fault of Gov. Bobby Jindal. Sure, his eight years were a disaster. Instead of moving us forward, he moved to Iowa. Jindal cared only about using his office as a steppingstone. Our wellbeing was never his concern. Still, Jindal did not create our state’s deep, chronic problems. He just ignored them or made them worse. Read more

Louisiana governor candidates on poverty, children’s issues

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I wrote a column in NOLA.com few weeks ago about the very good survey that the United Way of Southeast Louisiana had submitted to the candidates for governor. Most of the questions related to poverty and children. Read more

The real immorality in the governor’s race is not David Vitter’s prostitution scandal

It’s evident that Sen. David Vitter believes he can survive the governor’s race without offering substantive answers about his alleged association with prostitutes in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. Eventually he’ll be forced to give us more than his usual petulance and indignation when he’s asked about his 2007 sex scandal. Vitter is wrong to suggest, as he did the other day, that such questions are of the “gotcha” variety.

Nonetheless, I believe Vitter when he says he’s dealt with his “serious sin.” He needed forgiveness from his wife, not me – and he seems to have received it. Still, those who insist the real issue is not about Vitter’s sex life but about his shameless hypocrisy have a point. He did, after all, sanctimoniously suggest that President Bill Clinton should resign in 1998 and supported his impeachment. Vitter’s sex life aside, his questionable character and temperament are legitimate issues that voters should consider. Read more

Some questions for candidates who use faith as a campaign issue


By Robert Mann

Like it or not, it’s now widely accepted that running for public office means not only sharing one’s policy ideas but also professing a deep and abiding faith in God and, usually, Jesus Christ. The Republican presidential candidates each declare they are Christians. For some, that declaration is a regular feature of their stump speeches, pitched as a qualification for higher office.

Look at the polls, and it’s easy to understand why. The Pew Research Center found that 68 percent of evangelicals said political leaders should talk more about their faith. Too many voters are easy marks for slick politicians with a prayer and emotional story about their decision to follow Jesus. As for me, I’m more skeptical. If these candidates ask us to vote for them in part because they are people of faith, aren’t we at least entitled to know how that faith influences their policies?

Gov. Bobby Jindal, who often shares his conversion story with audiences, is among the most vocal in professing his Christian faith. At a prayer rally on the LSU campus last January, Jindal took it a step further. He called for a national spiritual revival. “We can’t just pass a law to fix what ails our country,” Jindal told the evangelical crowd. “We need a spiritual revival to fix what ails our country.” Jindal, presumably, hopes to lead that renewal.

But back to our original question: Assuming that Jindal and the rest are Christians, how much should that matter to us? And what does it mean, in a political context, to profess, “I am a follower of Christ”?

In other words, it’s fine that Jindal found his Christian faith as a teenager after reading a Bible by flashlight in his closet, but what does that tell us about how he lives his faith today? And what, exactly, does Jindal believe his faith obligates him to do as he leads the country’s spiritual revival? We know how Jindal’s Christian faith informs his opinions about same-sex marriage and abortion, but what about matters of justice and attitudes toward the poor, two themes Jesus emphasized above almost all others?

Because Jindal and fellow candidates aggressively tout their Christianity, voters also have every right to question their devotion to two central tenants of the Christian faith long accepted by scripture and tradition — our sacred obligation to the poor and oppressed.

If a candidate brags, “I’m a believer in smaller government and balanced budgets,” it’s reasonable to ask, “Well, then, let’s examine your budgets. Show us the evidence.”

In the same way, when Jindal or another candidate implies that he is qualified because of his faith, it’s fair to respond, as the Apostle James did in his epistle, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

The evidence thus far indicates that Jindal is a follower of Jesus, selectively. He seems to care much about piety (something Jesus detested) but less about those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” He talks about his conversion but rarely, if ever, about how God has prompted him to care for the poor, the disabled, the sick, the immigrant and the victim of injustice.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Candidates for Louisiana governor should leave no college student behind

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Photo by Kiri Walton, courtesy of NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

By Robert Mann

Whoever moves into Louisiana’s Governor’s Mansion in January will replace a chief executive who not only ignored college students but also made their lives harder and more expensive. It will take years for our new governor to repair the tangible and psychological damage Gov. Bobby Jindal inflicted on higher education. What this year’s gubernatorial candidates propose for our colleges and universities should concern us all.

First, the good news: The candidates have released their proposals. It’s no surprise that each promises to prioritize funding for colleges and universities. U.S. Sen. David Vitter suggests a “Commission on Streamlining and Building Excellence in Higher Education” to craft various reforms, including “reducing unnecessary duplication and inefficiencies in academic programs.” State Rep. John Bel Edwards proposes a “balanced funding mix for higher education to include 50% state funding and 50% tuition.”

Vitter and Edwards are reasonably specific about what they would do. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, however, is vague. His proposal is a sketchy, rough outline, not a real plan. Dardenne does, however, promise he will focus on “stabilizing and prioritizing funding for higher education.” How, he doesn’t say.

Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle (who also serves on the LSU Board of Supervisors) has released no formal plan, but his press secretary emailed me an outline of his positions and told me he will fully fund the state’s tuition assistance program (TOPS) and “properly fund higher-ed through structural fiscal reform.”

Now, the bad news: All the candidates’ “plans” lack the detail a reasonable person might expect. That ambiguity will make it difficult to hold the winner fully accountable. So, it falls to journalists covering the race, especially those who moderate the debates, to demand more specifics.

Finally, the awful news – especially if you care about struggling middle-income and working poor families: None of the candidates says anything about the fundamental right of an academically prepared student to a college education. Put another way, no one states, plainly, “If you have the ability to make it in college but cannot afford it, Louisiana won’t leave you behind.”

While they might all perform better than Jindal on higher education, none of the candidates mentions a simple idea that could transform the lives of thousands of low-income students. Surprisingly, not one of them mentions the need to fund fully Go Grants, a state program for disadvantaged college students that can offer an annual award of up to $3,000. Sadly, Jindal never found more than half the money this worthy and important program requires.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Poverty of debate in the Louisiana governor’s race

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” –Archbishop Dom Helder Camara

By Robert Mann

The only thing more scandalous than Louisiana’s pervasive poverty is our casual acceptance of it. Maybe “acceptance” is the wrong word. That would imply that we see it, recognize it and have consciously decided to live with it.

I wonder if Louisiana’s poverty is like those commercials that appeal for money to help starving children in Africa or emaciated shelter dogs. I can never watch their shocking images for long. They make me too uncomfortable and arouse shame for my inaction and indifference.

It’s often easier to change the channel than contemplate the kind of world I am willing to abide. It’s also easier to shun the places where poverty is pervasive by telling myself I’m wise to avoid neighborhoods where I might become a crime victim.

If only it were so easy. No matter where we live or what we do, almost every one of us is a victim of poverty. We’re poor in money – or we’re poor in spirit.

By “poor in spirit,” I mean that our society lacks the courage or fortitude to talk honestly about poverty. Such debates usually devolve into questions about money, taxes, equality and, ultimately, race. Discussions about those topics – at least when the poor are involved – are quickly hijacked by those who claim we are already spending too much on the poor. “Why do you want to raise my taxes to give money to people who refuse to work to feed themselves and their families?” the argument usually goes.

Never mind that many of our state’s poor are working. Some of them have two and three jobs. Never mind that the working poor pay state and local taxes like the rest of us – only Louisiana taxes them at twice the rate of the rich. Never mind that they often have children who cannot work and are not responsible for their parents’ dire financial circumstances.

Many of our leaders will not discuss poverty because they know they will be labeled “tax-and-spend” liberals. So they litter their speeches with meaningless phrases about “creating good-paying jobs” and a “strong business climate.” Those are crumbs to the poor but clear dog whistles to the business community and their wealthy backers that they’ll fight to keep taxes low and corporate welfare high.

In the weeks since I asked why our candidates for governor aren’t debating poverty, several readers posed variations of these questions: “But what, really, can we accomplish? I mean, there’s not a lot we can do about poverty, right?”

Wrong. There is much we can do. It’s not just a matter of resources; it’s also a question of will.

For starters, the candidates – for governor on down – could simply talk to the working poor about their lives. Maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to vilify or dismiss a hardworking single mom with three kids and two jobs after they visited her home and heard her story.

At the very least, we could reform cruel laws that overtax the poor. But there’s more, much more, we can do.

Recently, the United Way of Southeast Louisiana shared with me a simple questionnaire it will distribute this fall to legislative candidates in its seven-parish region of southeast Louisiana. United Way officials have already sent it to the candidates for governor.

Continue reading (and see the entire questionnaire) on NOLA.com at this link.