The mission of the NC Council of Churches extends into many areas that highlight the links between faith and public policies. And of the various events and activities sponsored by the Council, none is more closely focused on those links than the Legislative Seminar – giving it a special prominence on the Council calendar.
No, it’s not a seminar of the sort familiar on college campuses – a small gathering around a cozy table. This is bigger and broader. It’s meant to be a multifaceted learning experience and strategy session, covering the most significant topics on North Carolina’s public agenda.
Held every two years, the seminar is timed to convene just as the General Assembly gets down to the heavy lifting in its biennial long session. The 2015 event will take place on Tuesday, April 14, at Greenwood Forest Baptist Church in Cary. Participants will be able to attend three in-depth workshops, choosing from a menu of 16. Click here for detailed program and sign-up information.
When I attended the Legislative Seminar back in 1997 – by coincidence held at my church, Christ the King Lutheran in Cary – I had no idea that one day I’d be helping to plan one of these gatherings myself.
My main goal back then was to gather some material for my weekly editorial page column in The News & Observer. It was a successful hunt, in more ways than one.
The resulting column was headlined “Church group would do the most for ‘the least’.” It described how the Council sought to project bedrock Christian beliefs about the importance of aiding the poor and underprivileged onto the day’s big policy debates.
It seems rather quaint to reflect on a political landscape overseen by solid centrist Democrats such as President Clinton and Gov. Jim Hunt. But in that era, it was the attempt by Democrats of that stripe to stiffen requirements for public assistance – Clinton famously pledged to “end welfare as we know it” – that raised concerns among anti-poverty advocates.
Not that those advocates stood for no-questions-asked, no-strings-attached government handouts, but they were mindful of all the circumstances that can conspire to keep well-intentioned, diligent people from earning a living wage. How much more pertinent are those concerns these days, when conservative policies set by the Republicans who rule in Raleigh are far harsher toward the poor than anything imagined by Clinton or Hunt, the champion of “Work First.”
At the crossroads
What I found most instructive, and inspiring, during the 1997 seminar was a talk by the Council’s then-executive director, the Rev. Collins Kilburn, exploring the intersection of religion and politics.
Of course, we’ve seen religion become a motivating force in many political movements. Nobody needs to be reminded of how religion inspired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies in their drive to break the bonds of Jim Crow. At the other extreme, nobody needs to be reminded of how religion can become perverted in the service of ideologues, tyrants and terrorist murderers.
Kilburn discussed how a progressive, tolerant Christian faith leads naturally into political engagement in pursuit of social and economic justice, peace, and effective, fair-minded government.
A legislature and governor such as those in power in North Carolina today – who have cut taxes on companies and high-income earners in the dubious belief that it will boost the economy, but meanwhile have starved government of funds needed to adequately support key services such as education – run afoul of the principles Kilburn articulated.
“Many problems in society need to be addressed by the whole society,” he said at the time, and the social safety net must be kept in good repair. “Christians aren’t for big government or little government. They’re for government that’s big enough to meet the task.”
Conservatives these days surely would dispute any suggestion that they’ve done away with that safety net altogether.
Yet, the General Assembly enacted steep cuts in unemployment benefits that punished thousands of workers stranded in the wake of the Great Recession.
Legislators have refused to expand the state’s Medicaid program, even with mostly federal funding, so that upwards of 300,000 poor adults could finally gain health insurance coverage and a path toward decent health care.
They have shifted the tax burden toward lower-income people and senior citizens, putting the squeeze on many who struggle to pay for necessities.
Tax policies, the Medicaid debate (with some of the resistance to expansion beginning to soften around the edges) and conditions facing North Carolina’s workforce happen to be among the workshop topics at this year’s seminar. Expert speakers will lay out what’s at stake and offer guidance for how people aligned with the Council can try to help shape decisions.
Another set of workshops will tackle different aspects of public education, which has come under enormous stress because of budget reductions and conservative distrust of those who lead our public schools and universities. As a way to fight poverty and increase opportunity, ample education investment is hard to beat.
The Christian duty to advocate in the policy arena, Kilburn had said, flows from the fact that so many public issues have a moral dimension. But it won’t do, he cautioned, for those well-intentioned advocates to become overconfident that they have all the right answers.
It’s important to avoid what he called “dogmatic self-righteousness and certitude.” Yet, he affirmed, “The appropriate Christian stance is to be zealous about what we think God’s will for society is.” Collins Kilburn’s advice, which I was privileged to share with The N&O’s readers, surely has withstood the test of time.
Perhaps the first task of those who would follow that advice is to become well-informed – not only about the teachings of their church, but also about the facts that underlie public policy choices and the consequences that flow from those choices.
No one is likely to leave the Council’s April 14 Legislative Seminar without having gained a better understanding of how decisions by North Carolina’s current crop of elected leaders will continue to affect many lives. Then, the challenge will be to try to ensure that lives are affected for the better.