D. C. Reflections

This week, I had the privilege, along with about 60 other Baptist leaders, of spending several hours at a White House briefing and conversation about important domestic policy issues. The briefing took place in a fourth-floor conference room in the venerable and stately Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Paul Monteiro, Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, quarterbacked the briefing. We heard from domestic policy-shapers from an array of departments, councils and agencies: the Council on Environmental Quality, the (new) Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Domestic Policy Council, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Several, but not all, of the people who briefed us carry special responsibilities for “faith-based and neighborhood partnerships.”

There was a good deal of focus on the foreclosure and banking crises. The administration spoke of recent actions to help more people, especially veterans and those homeowners holding “underwater” mortgages, to retain their homes. Those actions include a $25 billion settlement between five of the nation’s largest banks, federal regulators, and the attorneys general of 49 states. The settlement is an acknowledgment of a rash of irresponsible and sloppy mortgage underwriting decisions, the most visible symbol of which was the massive robo-signing of loan documents. Those irresponsible decisions, made possible by a free-for-all environment of loosened underwriting requirements and by deregulated high-risk investment instruments, contributed greatly to the banking and foreclosure crises. That free-for-all environment owed its existence, in large part, to one of the oldest and deadliest of sins: greed.

I left the briefing with a sense that it’s difficult for administration officials (and executives in the upper echelons of the nation’s financial institutions, who flow freely in and out of government service) to comprehend how outraged and frustrated average Americans are with the lack of corporate accountability for the damage done to them by the out-of-control and reckless practices of banks and Wall Street firms. People lost their homes; retirement investments evaporated; jobs disappeared. Consequently, outrage and frustration may be the only feeling commonly shared by both Tea Partiers and Occupy Wall Street-ers. Even Americans who don’t identify with either the left- or right-fringes of the ideological perspective feel that their economic well-being is mostly in the hands of people who do not know, or much care, what their lives are like.

At the briefing, there was also a good deal of conversation about immigration and the pressing need for immigration reform. Unfortunately, significant reform is unlikely in the heat of an election battle; and nearly-constant campaigning, with hardly a pause after an election-cycle ends, means constant postponement of action.

All the while, many people whose immigration status is precarious struggle to keep their families intact, to educate their children, to find decent housing, to access needed healthcare, and to live without fear. The vast majority of them do not fit the stereotypes and caricatures used in heated rhetoric, but are, instead, people who want to work hard and be contributing members of their communities.

I find it ironic that the United States, once proudly “a nation of immigrants,” now finds welcoming potential new citizens to be a threat rather than a gift. I especially find it sad that followers of Jesus, heirs to a long Jewish-Christian tradition of welcoming the stranger and providing hospitality for the immigrant, allow their responses to this issue to be determined by politics rather than by the spirit of Jesus, who said: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

For a long time, I have wished for the de-politicization of certain fundamental issues like health care, immigration, hunger, and housing. I have wanted for us to declare these to be “common ground and common destiny” issues. My wish is, I realize, naïve. So, instead, I would simply plead for a proper politicization of these crucial matters. It’s one thing to use the political process to refine and improve solutions to our shared problems; such give-and-take is a crucial part of the American system of government. It is quite another thing altogether to use political posturing and gamesmanship to avoid dealing with the pressing problems we face; such gridlock is a failure of imagination and compassion.