WASHINGTON (AP) - What would Jesus do about growing poverty in America?
That's the question that some 1,000 national religious leaders will try to answer today as they meet in Washington to focus public attention on what they call the greatest moral issue facing the nation.
Supporters of the three-day conference organized by the Sojourners, a progressive evangelical Christian ministry, hope that the gathering will help redefine the notion of Christian values and redirect attention away from the political agenda of the religious right.
"We have a situation where strong voices have hijacked our faith and the definition of values," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Christ. "Our challenge is to wake up the vast group of faithful people in America who don't agree with these voices, and take back the agenda."
With control of U.S. Congress up for grabs in upcoming fall elections and politicians already gearing up for the 2008 presidential race, there's an urgency to the task facing the conference participants led by Sojourners founder the Rev. Jim Wallis.
What he and his supporters would like to do is shift the "values debate" from such topics as same-sex marriage and flag-burning to affordable housing and child hunger.
Wallis' message has attracted politicians from across the political spectrum. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., are among those who will address the Pentecost 2006 conference.
But the Sojourners and leaders from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Presbyterian Church USA and Habitat for Humanity, have a long hill to climb to have their vision of ending social injustice become a national priority.
Focusing on bringing better lives to the 34 million Americans living in poverty as both a social and economic issue vital to America's continued success is the strategy that the Rev. Wallis says will bolster his cause.
"Poverty is not a partisan issue. What we'd like to do is break the deadlock in Washington to solve this major problem," he said.
Conservative Christians take issue with the Sojourners trying to brand poverty as a value that their organizations don't care about. They counter that they have ideological differences about how to alleviate economic suffering, not about the importance of the issue.