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Religious groups ready to rally on budget cuts, but they don't expect it to make immediate difference

On Tuesday morning, an impressive array of religious organizations will march from Christ Lutheran Church in St. Paul to the state Capitol in protest of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget-balancing decisions to cut programs that assist the poorest of Minnesota's poor.

Given that Pawlenty likely is the most overtly religious governor the state has seen since Al Quie was governor from 1979 to 1983, will such an event have last-second influence on the governor's decisions on the day before they become official?

"None," says Quie.

Despite their passion, the rally's leaders tend to agree with the former governor's blunt assessment.

The leaders of these organizations aren't expecting a large turnout — maybe a few hundred people — even though they represent more than 1 million Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus in the state.


A conversation starter
"I don't think the governor will change his mind," said Brian Rusche, who heads the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition. "But we hope it at least gives him pause. The other thing we hope is that it helps the public conversation over the state we all want to have.''

That conversation, Rusche said, might have more impact on legislative and local political races than it will have on the governor.

Rusche — and others leading this rally — believe that the governor's veto and unallotment decisions show that religious organizations don't have the clout they used to have.

Al Quie
Pogo Press
Former Gov. Al Quie

But Quie disputes that. The reason a rally such as Tuesday's gathering lacks moral authority in the political debate, he said, is that it doesn't necessarily represent the views of the people in the pews.

"The question is how the people in legislative districts feel," says Quie. "Mostly, an event like this means that a group of bishops or leaders of organizations got together and passed a resolution."

Quie makes a big distinction in the dynamics between the state's current budget debate and some of the huge issues of the last half-century in which faith groups played a major role in the political arena. For instance, in both the civil rights movement and the abortion debate, he noted, religious leaders' views were backed up with grass-roots power, so far lacking in the budget debate.

Rally leaders don't dispute at least parts of Quie's thoughts. The decision to stage a protest was made at the close of the session, after the House was unable to override Pawlenty's line-item veto of $381 million in General Assistance Medical Care funding. That program serves 30,000 of the state's poorest people.

"Our thought at that time was that this conversation can't just end," says the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches. "We think God cares about the poor. We believe the churches need to be involved in this."

Rev. Peg Chemberlin
The Rev. Peg Chemberlin

The idea of the rally was hastily put together, she says. And, in her mind, it doesn't matter if 10 people or 2,000 show up.

"This is an opportunity for people to express their moral values," she said, adding that the state budget is, in fact, a statement of the state's values.

In essence, these organizations are essentially saying that it would have been moral for the governor to support raising taxes on the state's wealthiest, rather than cutting health programs that serve state's poorest. 

"I hear the governor say that families all over Minnesota are cutting back," Chemberlin says. "… But what of asking the most well off to cut back on one pedicure — myself included — or play golf one less time, so that we can preserve these programs? For some people, these are life-and-death issues."

Over and over, rally leaders say that Pawlenty's cuts strike hardest at the poor and do little to affect the wealthy.

Faith, financial questions intertwined
Does that make Pawlenty immoral? Are his cuts a religious issue? Just how much impact should religion have in government?

Oh, so many difficult questions are intertwined with the Legislature, vetoes and the budget.

Begin with this: Chemberlin earnestly says that the last thing the religious organizations leading the rally want is to entangle religion and government.

"Nobody wants the Legislature to establish a religion or prohibit somebody's religion," she says. "But that's different than standing up for your values."

Finding universal values can be tricky business, even among the groups represented at Tuesday's rally.

For example, the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition has some dandy intramural values disputes on such issues as gay marriage and abortion rights.

Brian Rusche
stjoan.com
Brian Rusche

"There are certain issues in which we peel off from each other," says Rusche. "But where we can agree are on most social justice issues."

But even though they are flexible enough to agree to disagree on many large issues, the JRLC and the Minnesota Council of Churches have been unable to draw the state's nondenominational evangelical churches into their organizations. That's a massive gap that goes right to Pawlenty's congregation (Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie and Edina) and his political power base, the suburbs.

According to Carl Nelson, head of the Greater Minnesota Association of Evangelicals, the evangelical churches — often mega-churches — account for almost a third of the state's church attendance.

"The mega-churches have primarily grown in the suburban areas," says Nelson. "They reflect the political demographics of where they have grown."

That means they tend to be politically conservative, he says, and probably not filled with people interested in any tax increase.

A handful of the mega-churches preach "prosperity theology," a Cadillac Jesus approach to Christianity in which wealth is seen as a sign of goodness.  To most, that theology causes eyebrows to rise skeptically.

"A majority of our churches are not preaching prosperity," says Nelson, dismissively.

But what are they preaching in regards to caring for the poor?

Food shelves, says Nelson. Job training. Family counseling. Clothing give-aways.  Encouragement to members to support charities.

Carl Nelson
newhopechurchmn.org
Carl Nelson

"Speaking for myself only,'' says Nelson, "I look at taxes as a bill for basic services. That's different than how I feel about what I give to the church and charities that I choose to give to.''

That sentiment was expressed by a large number of conservative legislators in supporting the governor's veto of GAMC.

A split with the mega-churches
But Nelson predicted the message of these churches almost certainly will change as the demographics of the suburbs change.

Rusche is very skeptical of the underlying theology of many of the mega-churches.

He suspects it's a "self-help" theology based on the idea that people can better their economic condition if only they'd try a little harder. What that means, he believes, is that you can justify personal greed. 

Over the years, Rusche says he's been intrigued by the direction of concern of the mega-churches.

"Those churches often seemed working more on poverty issues around the world than in their own neighborhoods and state," he says. "But I think that is changing. [Because of the recession] they see the plight of their neighbors, who are working two and three jobs but still aren't making it."

The evangelical churches — in a letter from Nelson — were invited to participate in Tuesday's event. But as an organization, they will not be represented. That's not, Nelson says, because they are turning their backs on the poor.

"We simply have not had time to develop a policy position on this," he says.

Quie, the first governor to use unallotment powers, supports Pawlenty's positions and disagrees with the DFL position to raise taxes on the wealthiest.

"He is facing what I faced," Quie says. "My concern with raising taxes [on the wealthiest] is that it would hurt businesses and hurt their opportunities to grow and hire more people. I did favor an increase in the sales tax and, in my view, a sales tax on clothing is not regressive. The poor can go to thrift shops.''

The former governor does offer one caveat in his support of the current governor.

"He was stuck on no new taxes, and the DFL was stuck on slapping a tax on the wealthy," Quie says. "Playing to partisan positions gets in the way of making a moral decision."

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (8)

"But Quie disputes that. The reason a rally such as Tuesday's gathering lacks moral authority in the political debate, he said, is that it doesn't necessarily represent the views of the people in the pews."

That may be a reason why the rally on Tuesday may not be influential politically, but that isn't a reason why it doesn't have moral authority. And by the way, it isn't advisable to underestimate the political influence of even just a few hundred people willing to walk a couple of blocks to the state capitol on a Tuesday morning.

On Tuesday, June 30, 4:30 p.m., the Welfare Rights Committee and other organizations will hold a picket and protest outside the Governor’s Mansion.

What Governor Pawlenty, the MN Tax Whiner's League, the Club for Growth, and the Republican Party have failed to notice as they cling to an ideology based, on nothing but their own personality dysfunctions is that the ground has shifted in major ways beneath their feet.

Back in the roaring 80's and 90's when it seemed as if you could walk out the door of one job (for any reason) and walk right into another, when so many people in the metro area had cars and were driving that bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go traffic was a 24-hour-a-day occurrence on some of the area freeways, and rising housing values seemed to be the elevator to a continuously prosperous future for everyone, most folks couldn't imagine that the day would ever come when they might need the help of government programs.

Now all of that has changed radically and massively. It's become clear that the inflated values of our houses were an illusion, the financial institutions that we were trusting to "grow" the money for our retirement were using it for their own increasingly-complex gambling/ponzi schemes and paying us peanuts while siphoning massive salaries and benefits for themselves our of the proceeds that should have belonged to us.

Even as recently as two years ago, it seemed to most people that there was no excuse for anyone to be poor except laziness (which of course, was just as wrong at that time as it is now). Today the majority of the population feels a good deal poorer, through no fault of their own, than they were back then, and can see the very real possibility that they might fall into poverty themselves.

We've shifted from seeing very little excuse for anyone needing government help to wanting every possible program in place just in case we need help ourselves. If those who have far more than they need to survive day-to-day, have to pay more taxes it seems to us who fear we're going to land in the "poor house" that the "rich" will still be far better off than we are and still have far more than they need even after a large tax increase.

Since we're all human, we feel a certain sense of justice in our claiming our right not to starve to death or die for lack of medical care at the cost of someone else not living in the lap of such totally ostentatious luxury as they might like.

Where they have not been corrupted by the desire of their leaders for power and wealth, each of the world's monotheistic religions supports our point of view.

Governor Quie thinks raising taxes, even modestly, on our wealthiest citizens, would hurt job growth.

I wonder if he or Pawlenty can count the number of jobs created since 2000 when the 1999 tax cuts took effect in Minnesota. That's right, not many, even though the lost revenue amounted to $1 billion per year for Pawlenty's 8 years.

And the number of jobs lost due to Pawlenty's cuts? In the thousands.

The anti-tax ideology has proven over and over (except to its True Believers) that it does not work. When will that truth sink in, I wonder.

I will be at the gathering because Pawlenty's action, and probably Quie's in past years are simply against my faith and conviction. To do harm to the poor, to intentionally not care for the sick, to allow and encourage taking away education from our youth may represent the Quie- Pawlenty version of "Christian", but not mine and the others who will protest tomorrow morning. I have heard enough of Pawlenty's claims about taxes being immoral to know that he misses Christian values in his claim of faith.

There's a tie-in to other stories here. Many folks like myself have criticized MN Democrats for failing to mobilize public opinion and action. Here we have several disparate organizations organizing public demonstrations; it just proves that the groups and the people have been and are out there ready and willing to march. The Dems could tap into this and make it part of their campaign for equity in the budget.

It was a moving experience summed up best by the Baptist preacher who said, "It ain't right. It just ain't right."

Good to see so many people praying today for the governor to do best by all the people of our state.

I attended the rally, too, and I estimate (based on counting a section of the crowd and multiplying) that about 600 people, representing a wide range of Minnesota's faith communities, attended.

I wish that all the right-wingers who think that God favors the rich would read the Bible instead of allowing their often untrained, self-ordained ministers to cherry-pick passages for them.

Jesus is consistently critical of those who care more for their personal wealth and position than for the poor. How can anyone who really reads and understands the Bible say that it's right to deny benefits to the poor and elderly and wrong to raise taxes on the most affluent Minnesotans?

Jesus wept, indeed.