On math and charity

panic_graphThe Washington Post carries some water today for Jim Wallis, an evangelical social activist. The story, by domestic economic policy reporter Jonathan Weisman and religion reporter Alan Cooperman, is about Christian approaches on Republican spending policies. As a recovering economist -- and reporter who covers federal programs -- I have to make a point in defense of statistical analysis. It's no secret that reporters enjoy budget analysis about as much as we like sources who burn us. But math is our friend. It keeps us from beginning stories this way:

When hundreds of religious activists try to get arrested today to protest cutting programs for the poor, prominent conservatives such as James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell will not be among them.

If last year your boss gave you a 6% raise and this year you only receive a 5% raise, is that an income cut? In Washington, D.C., it is -- but reporters should know better. An increase in spending, no matter how contentious, really should not be called a cut. Anyway, without making any comment on whether this budget change is worthy of protest, the story is that the House of Representatives voted to slow the increase in the rate of spending. But we're Get Religion and not Get Math, so let's proceed:

That is a great relief to Republican leaders, who have dismissed the burgeoning protests as the work of liberals. But it raises the question: Why in recent years have conservative Christians asserted their influence on efforts to relieve Third World debt, AIDS in Africa, strife in Sudan and international sex trafficking -- but remained on the sidelines while liberal Christians protest domestic spending cuts?

housing project 2Don't you love news stories that read like opinion pieces? Here are the details of the protest:

To mainline Protestant groups and some evangelical activists, the twin [budget] measures are an affront, especially during the Christmas season. Leaders of five denominations -- the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church USA and United Church of Christ -- issued a joint statement last week calling on Congress to go back to the drawing board and come up with a budget that brings "good news to the poor."

Around 300 religious activists have vowed to kneel in prayer this morning at the Cannon House Office Building and remain there until they are arrested. Wallis said that as they are led off, they will chant a phrase from Isaiah: "Woe to you legislators of infamous laws . . . who refuse justice to the unfortunate, who cheat the poor among my people of their rights, who make widows their prey and rob the orphan."

By the end of the story, after many evangelical Christians have been cast as religious hypocrites who don't care about the poor, the Post reporters allow them to defend their policy positions. In the Post's defense -- and as I have come to expect from at least one of the two bylined reporters for this story -- care is taken to make sure that perspective is understood and presented correctly:

And Janice Crouse, a senior fellow at the Christian group Concerned Women for America, said religious conservatives "know that the government is not really capable of love."

"You look to the government for justice, and you look to the church and individuals for mercy. I think Hurricane Katrina is a good example of that. FEMA just failed, and the church and the Salvation Army and corporations stepped in and met the need," she said.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said the government's role should be to encourage charitable giving, perhaps through tax cuts.

"There is a [biblical] mandate to take care of the poor. There is no dispute of that fact," he said. "But it does not say government should do it. That's a shifting of responsibility."

Without contrasting the outcomes of church and state charity for the last couple of thousand years, isn't it weird that reporters never write news stories that put those folks who support governmental charity on the defensive? Should reporters investigate the motivations of those people who advocate for housing projects that breed crime, subsidized income programs with incentives for bearing more and more children out of wedlock and welfare programs that drive fathers away from homes? Or have reporters settled the debate that the preferred way to show concern for the poor is through massive federal programs, regardless of their results?

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