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Christians Have a 'Contract': Love One Another

Public policies must seek to bless all, not just a few, says the head of the National Council of Churches

HOW valid is a contract entered into out of fear?

That question could well be asked about the Christian Coalition's "Contract With the American Family." It appeals to many middle-class families who for a variety of economic and social reasons are insecure and afraid. To frightened people, the destructive measures of a contract that seeks the security of some at the expense of others may simply seem like a case of self-defense.

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But Christianity is not about fear; it's about hope. It's also about love and building communities that are fair and hospitable to all. The Christian Coalition attempts to attach moral authority to an old agenda it has repackaged as the "Contract With the American Family," but a rehash of failed politics is no match for God's covenant with the human family. The Bible makes it clear that God's covenant is a loving one. It also is demanding. As Supreme Author, God lays down tough terms that require nothing less than respect and care for all persons, indeed, all creation.

A guiding vision of the common good flows from our covenant with God and keeps our churches on course in the tumult of public-policy debate. To test our faithfulness on that course, the Scriptures give us the measure: Jesus admonished his disciples to offer food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, care to the sick, and freedom to the imprisoned.

As clear as our vision is, it is not always easy to translate into specific legislation. Thoughtful Christians may differ on legislative options. However, spiritual leaders of the 32 Protestant and Orthodox member communions of the National Council of Churches, with their 49 million congregants, find a commonality in faith that allows us to state bold principles on issues such as welfare, racism, and other critical issues. Over the council's 45-year history, hundreds of clergy and lay leaders - elected by their churches to serve on the council's board - have evolved a body of policy statements reflecting common traditional teachings of our churches. This theologically grounded body of work is a much- needed anchor in our society.

The National Council of Churches is also grounded in the local experience of our members as they engage tough issues. We share with the Christian Coalition a deep concern about child pornography, struggling families, infringement of religious liberty, and a growing spiritual crisis in this nation.

But that agenda is incomplete. Poverty and racism are at the root of many problems our nation faces, and we are deeply concerned that the Christian Coalition does not address these issues.

In addition to advocacy, our churches support service programs that respond to people in need. Many people are not aware that church-based, direct-service programs often combine members' contributions with some tax dollars, making efficient and effective use of funds to provide food, shelter, and other services to the poor. The Christian Coalition backs proposals that would slash government funding to these programs even as churches are asked to assume staggering financial burdens for the public welfare.

Churches are doing a heroic job of mending gaps in the social safety net, but they are not the government. Government cannot abdicate its responsibility. We believe, for example, in welfare reform that eliminates poverty, not a heedless approach that eliminates support for poor children.

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This will take considerably more doing than the proposed $500-per-child tax credit that the Christian Coalition backs. The credit is not designed to help the poorest families and would not reach many of them, but would go to families earning six-figure incomes.

We also call for investment in children through strong public schools, which, for all their faults, have been the best educational hope for most of the nation's children. So-called "school choice," as proposed by the Christian Coalition, allows private schools to benefit from public monies at the expense of public schools. At the same time, the private nature of these schools leaves them free to reject poor children and children of color, or any child for that matter, sending them back to public schools made poorer than ever.

We support the concept of public broadcasting, which offers an alternative to the violence-filled programs on commercial channels that offend families and negatively affect children. We also support outreach programs of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. By fanning the embers of old controversies surrounding a handful of NEA projects, the Christian Coalition jeopardizes programs that bring the arts to urban schoolchildren, residents of rural communities, and other Americans who could not otherwise participate.

The council has been one of the nation's most-formidable guardians of religious liberty, helping schools to teach values and to accommodate the religious beliefs of students in ways that are constitutional. Recently, we were instrumental in passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which corrects judicial actions that had gutted the right to religious liberty in the First Amendment. We stand by the Bill of Rights and reject the Christian Coalition's proposed constitutional amendment, on school prayer which would make second-class citizens of a wide range of believers and interfere with family and church efforts to teach religious values.

The theme of the common good, shaped by distinctive Christian teachings, unites our approach to these and other public-policy questions. We also share with many faiths a spirituality that leads us out of isolated self-centeredness toward greater community. As we move in that direction, God gives us strength to cast off fear and insecurity.

The New Testament promises that "Perfect love casts out fear." That's a contract we can truly live by, and should.

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