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Members of Congress: Call Your Pastors and Rabbis

The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to mark up a farm bill today that includes substantial proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program). Last month, the Senate passed its own farm bill that included some reductions in SNAP funding, but senators rejected—with the help of 13 Republicans—much deeper cuts in an amendment offered by Senator Rand Paul.

As often happens during these kinds of debates, some conservatives have argued that government shouldn’t even be in the business of feeding people—that the job should be handled by local congregations and other community organizations. Paul Ryan has sparred with Catholic bishops who oppose cuts to SNAP, quipping that “a preferential option for the poor does not mean a preferential option for big government.”

Of course it doesn’t. But there are some—perhaps even many—cases in which religious congregations simply don’t have the capacity to provide services to the extent that government can. What’s more, those conservatives arguing for cuts to nutrition programs ignore the fact that religious communities often want government to take responsibility for providing social services.

I was reminded of this while reading an article at one of my new favorite sites, Religion & Politics, a project of the John Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis that is run by a TNR alum. Alison Collis Greene, a historian at Mississippi State University writes that while churches used to be the only safety net in many communities up until the 1930s, they simply could not continue that role during the Depression:

“The Depression crippled churches’ finances, and the economic downturn forced them to slash services when people needed help most. Religious leaders and local church members alike recognized the crisis, and many demanded that the federal government intervene.

When Franklin Roosevelt announced his New Deal, religious leaders cheered. Indeed, many saw Roosevelt’s program as the realization of Christian ideals. As one Mississippi Methodist put it in 1933, ‘It is gratifying in the highest degree that our government is actually attempting to try out some of these things for which the Christian church has been contending for a quarter of a century.”

Greene notes that this attitude about government programs was surprisingly widespread across traditions and regions, with just a small group of dissenters on the political right. What she doesn’t mention is that many churches were already in a weakened state when the Depression hit. Many fundamentalist churches had splintered as some focused on a kind of separatist fundamentalism while others tried to develop a neo-evangelical tradition. In a further blow to the resources of local churches, people began abandoning organized religion once the Depression hit. It’s counter-intuitive because most people assume that individuals turn to their churches or other religious community in times of need. But that’s often not the case.

We are watching a similar situation play out now. Many religious traditions and individual churches were struggling when the recession began. The Catholic church was dealing with the fallout from the priest sex abuse scandals. It and other traditions are still embroiled in debates over homosexuality that have led to splits or caused members to leave altogether. Congregational membership levels are down in almost every religious tradition. And as a result, their resource pools have shrunk.

David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, writes in another article at Religion & Politics that “We cannot food-bank our way out of hunger.” And he lays out the numbers that should provide a reality check to politicians who think that churches can just pick up the reins if government stops providing food assistance:

“All the food that churches and charities provide to hungry people is only about 6 percent of what is provided by federal government nutrition programs … There are 335,000 religious congregations in the United States. If the House’s proposals to cut SNAP by $133.5 billion and $36 billion [over ten years] are enacted, each congregation will have to spend about $50,000 more annually to feed those who would see a reduction or loss of benefits.”

And that’s just to cover the services of one government program. $50,000 each year from every congregation in the country. Conservatives may think that sounds reasonable. They might want to survey the pastors and rabbis and imams in their districts before they vote.