Over the centuries of development of Christian theology and mission, there have been many constants, as well as new understandings. Two of those constants have been a particular care for the poor and the dispossessed, and a deep concern about the way in which society and government embody that care for “the least of these” in both laws and operations. 1
In 1988, the Missionary Society of Connecticut (the legal and fiduciary arm of the Connecticut Conference, which dates back to 1798) received a major bequest from Mr. Frank Baker. Since that time, by vote of the Board of Directors a portion of the income from Mr. Baker’s trust has gone to support our legislative advocate at the Capitol. The primary focus of that work over these intervening years has been on poverty and economic justice, gambling, and human and civil rights.
Lobbyist? Because we have wanted there to be no misunderstandings or conflict with civil law, our legislative advocate has always registered as a lobbyist. However, this term is misleading because she has never advocated for our particular interests as a denomination, but rather in the interest of the well-being of those among us in Connecticut who have few other advocates.
What does the advocate do? Our advocate’s way of work is to know the internal workings of the legislature and the executive branch, and to identify means by which we might, as the United Church of Christ in Connecticut, implement the social teaching of the church as defined by the actions of our Conference’s annual meetings. Every advocacy step she takes is governed by those actions as voted by the delegates and pastors of our churches at the annual meetings over the years.
Often our advocate works in concert with others. On economic justice concerns, she often works in tandem with the Catholic Conference and the Christian Conference of Connecticut as well as coalitions concerned with homelessness and basic human need.
What about separation of church and state? The principle of separation of church and state exists primarily to ensure that the state will not enact laws establishing one particular religion in dominance over others. It has never been understood to mean that the church should not speak to the state about matters for which it has a particular care and concern. Indeed, were the church to fail to act on this responsibility, it would turn its back on centuries of Christian teaching and tradition.
Often when people invoke the question of separation, they are really saying that they believe the church should not be involved in politics. The Connecticut Conference is most decidedly not involved in partisan politics, but rather in the pragmatic politics that determine the way the poor are or are not cared for by our society. Politics is often described as “the art of the possible”. It is for the purpose of making possible a fair and just society that we carry out this program of advocacy.
Aren’t feeding and sheltering the poor enough? Our answer to this is decidedly no. Our churches all across the Conference are deeply involved in soup kitchens, food pantries, shelters, affordable family and elderly housing, and thrift shops. Often our people return from these volunteer experiences asking themselves, “Why are there so many people in such dire need?” It is that basic concern that our legislative advocate addresses. What are the structural ways in which we can reduce poverty and hunger in Connecticut? What laws could make a difference? What laws stand in the way of all our people thriving? Her work is not a substitute for our direct caring for “the least of these”, nor is that direct caring a substitute for asking the questions that are bound to make us all uncomfortable. Both are necessary. 2
What has it accomplished to have a legislative advocate? Perhaps the most dramatic moment over the years was in 1993, ’94 and ‘95 when ours was the only registered lobbyist to oppose a casino in Bridgeport. We won that victory in 1995. Another was our advocacy of a ban on the sale of assault weapons (in part because of their disproportionate impact in poor communities), legislation that was unanimously upheld by the state Supreme Court. A third and more recent accomplishment, undertaken in coalition, was ensuring that health benefits were restored to both the HUSKY and SAGA programs and ensuring that 13,000 working families have health care at least until June 30 of this year. These are only three examples. Through the years, we have worked on many similar issues and achieved similar accomplishments.
In the words of our national United Church of Christ colleagues, “As people of faith, we are called to bring our moral values to the full spectrum of public policy deliberations and not simply apply our faith and moral values to a select few issues. We are called to work for an end to poverty and oppression, as well as to be peacemakers and justice seekers in a broken world in need of healing and reconciliation.” 3