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A call for new moral consciousness

(ran NT,CT,LT,TP editions)

For the first time since the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s, the leadership of the nation's Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish faiths are formally joining in an effort to forge a national moral consensus.

This time, however, the target of the conscience-raising campaign is not segregation but social welfare. And the method is not marches in the streets but the mobilization of 250,000 synagogues, parishes and congregations.

If even halfway successful, the effort will mark the re-emergence of moderate, mainstream religion as a force to be reckoned with in public policy, offering a moral voice counter to the Religious Right.

At a conference early this month, the top executive officers of the National Council of Churches, the U.S. Catholic Conference and the Synagogue Council of America unveiled the first step of their new effort, issuing "A Call to the Common Ground for the Common Good."

The 4,000-word document seeks to initiate "a fresh debate over the renewal of the general welfare," and, while shying away from any specific policy proposals, it raises the question of how the weakest members of society are faring. The answer, it says, is "a crucial moral test" of the common good.

The statement comes as the nation struggles with a health-care crisis that has left more than 30-million people uninsured, a poverty rate that has remained virtually unchanged for years despite economic recovery, an economy noted for persistently high rates of unemployment and underemployment and an overall crisis of confidence in the economic and political institutions of the nation.

The conference brought together some 200 key leaders and activists from the three communities, as well as public officials, academics and religious leaders to reflect on the "call" and its six-point agenda for a renewed debate on social welfare policy.

"Our national social deficits are as important as our fiscal deficits," the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, told the group in introducing the document. "The issue before us is whence comes the moral voice to raise with equal passion the issue of the social deficit," she said.

The statement seeks to balance rights with responsibilities; continued social service by private groups with a reformed agenda for all levels of government for eliminating poverty; welfare reform with provisions for children, the elderly and other vulnerable members of society.

The call, framed in the shared moral rhetoric of the justice tradition of Judaism and Christianity, was seen as a first step, aimed at initiating a national debate like that the religious community sparked in the late 1950s and 1960s as it moved to align itself with the civil rights movement despite initial opposition from many members in the pew.

"A hallmark of the religious vocation is not to accept the status quo," said Rabbi Henry Michelman, executive vice president of the Synagogue Council of America."

The Rev. Robert Lynch, general secretary of the U.S. Catholic Conference, told participants the call was a "love letter from your general secretaries" to the 100-million adherents of the denominations in the three agencies.

"This is a wonderful first step," he said. "The second, third and fourth steps remain to be seen."

The document, which the three groups plan to distribute widely among their congregants, has already won the support of the NAACP.

At a news conference, the Rev. Ben Chavis, new executive director of the civil rights organization, described the statement as "a wake-up call" to the American people.

The document is framed around winning allegiance to a six-point agenda. It argues for:

A priority for the poor. "In all debate over economic policy, children and their families must be of paramount concern."

A focus on basic human dignity and needs. "The absence of decent work and housing, of an equitable and effective system of education, and especially of affordable and universal health care, undermine the well-being of millions. The search for the common good must prevail over the powerful defenders of the status quo in these crucial tests for community."

Genuine reform of the welfare system. "We call for policy changes which will empower the poor to move beyond privation and dependency toward economic independence."

A respect for diversity. "We need to forge a national consensus that racism, anti-Semitism and all other forms of discrimination have no place in our society."

A new politics of community. "We must grow beyond polarization and gridlock as we seek to evaluate each new policy proposal by the manner in which it enhances the pursuit of the common good."

A commitment to empowerment. "We continue to believe that there is no substitute for the efforts of families, neighborhoods, churches, synagogues and other organizations to help individuals meet their local needs."

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