Mitt Romney’s statement of disinterest in the well-being of America’s poor has drawn sharp criticism from Christian leaders and commentators.
“I’m not concerned about the very poor,” Romney said in a CNN interview the day after he won the Florida Republican primary. “We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.”
Asked in the interview to clarify his remarks, Romney said his campaign was focused on middle-income Americans who “have been most badly hurt during the Obama years. We have a very ample safety net. And we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. But we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers. We have programs to help the poor. But the middle-income Americans, they’re the folks that are really struggling right now.”
Catholic thinkers and leaders were among the most vocal Christians to critique Romney’s comments.
“[F]or Catholics, being unconcerned with the very poor is not an option,” wrote Dana Dillon, assistant professor of theology at Providence College.
“While the common good embraces all, those who are weak, vulnerable and most in need deserve preferential concern. A basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst,” she wrote. “Catholics need to be concerned about the very poor, and Catholic voters, I think, need to find and identify candidates who share that concern.”
Candy Hill, senior vice president for social policy and government affairs at Catholic Charities, disputed the idea of an ample safety net.
“The social safety net has great big holes in it,” she said. “In real time on the ground, we’re seeing exponential increases of people coming to our door for basic needs: emergency financial assistance, food, housing.”
U.S. Catholic magazine blogger Liz Lefebvre wrote that Romney needed “a refresher about the reality of poverty in America.”
Calling his remarks “jarring” and “troubling,” she said, “Catholics are taught that every single person has an inherent human dignity and that we are to follow Jesus’ example to care for the least of our society.”
Lefebvre asked, “[S]houldn’t someone seeking the presidency feel a responsibility to those who have nothing?”
Robert Cornwall, pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Mich., blogged, “Romney’s problem is that his own wealth insulates him from the realities of so many Americans.”
Romney’s statement was a political gaffe that wasn’t a “laughing matter,” said Alan Rudnick, pastor of First Baptist Church of Ballston Spa, N.Y.
“[T]he poor do not have [a] safety net. The poor have assistance programs,” he blogged. “Jesus said that the poor would always be with us, but that doesn’t mean that we should forget about the poor.”
Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, had several tweets about Romney’s remarks.
“Contrary to his promise to fix the safety net, Mitt plans to whack the safety net to pay for his tax cuts for the rich,” tweeted Parham.
“Mitt, I wish you could have seen the 12 homeless men fed at our church last night. Their hunger. Their taking leftovers for future meals,” he said in another post.
In a third tweet, Parham said Romney was “staggeringly clueless about the poor.”
While political conservatives criticized Romney’s comments, few Christian conservatives voiced concern.
An exception was D.C. Innes, associate professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City, a college that identifies itself as having a worldview based on the Bible and informed by Machiavelli and Adam Smith.
“In a fallen world, God establishes government to protect us against each other, but especially the weak against the strong. Thus, an important part of the job for anyone in government is to defend the poor,” wrote Innes in World magazine. “On many levels it is unwise not to care about the poor.”
Once Romney realized the damaging nature of his statement, he tried to take back his remarks.
“Sometimes things don’t come out exactly the way you’d like them to,” said Romney. “That’s not exactly what I meant to say. My focus is on middle-income Americans. We do have a safety net for the very poor, and I said if there are holes in it I want to correct that.”
Romney later said his comments were “a misstatement.”