By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Strange bedfellow alliances between liberal and conservative Christians have become commonplace in Washington, but the unveiling next Tuesday of a new Christian coalition to tackle poverty is unusual for bringing together ideologically opposed figures who seldom work together. The coalition, which will present recommendations for federal policymakers on tackling poverty, is led by Sojourners President Jim Wallis on the left and by former George W. Bush chief speechwriter Michael Gerson on the right.
"We're releasing it before the president gives his address to Congress in hopes that some of these ideas will get incorporated," says Adam Taylor, senior policy director at Sojourners. Obama is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on February 24. Democrats in the coalition have been in touch with the White House, while coalition Republicans have been talking to allies on Capitol Hill.
Taylor said the recommendations will include traditionally liberal proposals like increasing the federal minimum wage and restoring voting rights to ex-felons and traditionally conservative proposals like federal incentives for individual savings accounts and ending the so-called marriage penalty in the federal tax code.
In addition to Gerson, the coalition's conservative participants include Mark Rodgers, onetime chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, and Family Research Council Executive Vice President Chuck Donovan. Its liberals include Evangelicals for Social Action chief Ron Sider and Wake Forest University's Melissa Rogers, a member of President Obama's new Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. "I do think it's unique, in terms of the diversity of participants," says Mark Rodgers, who currently leads a consulting firm called the Clapham Group.
The Family Research Council's Donovan, who says FRC is likely to oppose some of the coalition's antipoverty recommendations when they're released, says this is the first time his group has partnered with liberals since working on welfare reform in the 1990s.
"The lure for conservatives was access to an administration that has started off by sharply limiting our access," says Donovan. "It was a chance to get some unity but also to work with people who could get the White House on the phone. I've spent a fair amount of time on it."
Wallis and Gerson launched the effort last spring, when it was unclear whether a Republican or a Democrat would be in the White House in 2009. "We kept a low profile and all agreed that if McCain won, Mike [Gerson] would run our ideas up the McCain flagpole and if Obama won, Jim [Wallis] would run it up that flagpole," says Rodgers, who worked closely with Gerson and the Republican coalition. "We agreed that no matter who won, building consensus ideas would be part of the zeitgeist.
"Gerson and I and some others said, 'What do we have to do to keep compassionate conservatism—this idea of the conservative alternative to the welfare state—alive post-Bush?'" Rodgers added.
The coalition operated by pairing one liberal and one conservative policy expert in seven different policy areas, including education, family policy, and healthcare. "We wanted to issue recommendations that can be acted on quickly," Rodgers says. "Nobody is recommending an overhaul of healthcare. These are low-investment, high-return policies."