A few weeks ago, the World Bank updated its analysis of Global Extreme Poverty, dozens of chapters dedicated to exploring, in minute detail, the many complex and intersecting reasons as to why people are poor.
About the same time, San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor was asked a similar question about the root causes of poverty in her city. She offered a simple rationale:
Particularly broken people who don’t have a strong relationship with God.
The statement has incensed newly minted critics of Taylor days before the city’s mayoral election. They claim it was an insensitive one-two punch of blaming poverty on the poor and asserting that nonreligious people are at the root of society’s ills.
On April 3, Taylor (D) and fellow candidate, San Antonio councilman Ron Nirenberg, were at a mayoral forum and took a question from the director of San Antonio’s Christian Resource Center, according to the San Antonio Current: “What do you see as the deepest, systemic causes of generational poverty in San Antonio?”
In the video, Taylor makes a joke about the hefty nature of the question, asks the questioner to repeat it, then says, “I’ll go ahead and put it out there”:
“To me, it’s broken people. People not being in relationships with their creator and therefore not being in good relationship with their families and their communities and not being productive members of society. So I mean, I think that’s the ultimate answer.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, one of the co-presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said her organization was prompted to send a letter to Taylor defending people who are not religious.
“As mayor, you represent a diverse population that consists of not only Christians, but also atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus,” the letter said. ” . . . Nationally, about 35 percent of millennials are nonreligious. Imagine for a moment a mayoral candidate making such undeserved and broad accusations against Jews or Muslims instead of nonbelievers. The outcry would properly be swift and severe. It should be no different for nonbelievers.”
Gaylor told The Washington Post she feared the mayor’s words would send a message to other political leaders that it’s okay for religiosity to guide politics.
“As mayor, she has a bully pulpit, but it shouldn’t be an actual pulpit,” Gaylor said. “It implies the root of all bad things is Godlessness. . . . San Antonio is not a congregation. She’s not a pastor. She’s a mayor. We do hope that she’ll realize not just what’s offensive about it, but that it is so wrong.”
Taylor posted a lengthy statement on her Facebook page, claiming the video clip that surfaced had been selectively edited to misrepresent her views. In particular, she said she doesn’t believe that just poor people are “broken.”
“I also believe in Original Sin, and that was the context for my comment in the YouTube video clip. We’re all ‘broken,’ from the richest among us to the poorest, until we forge a relationship with our Maker. I could have expressed myself more clearly in explaining my belief at the forum.”
In an interview, Taylor told The Post she believes society would be better if people had a stronger relationship with God. But she said she has tried to stress to voters that San Antonio is not a theocracy, and she doesn’t believe leaders should govern from the Bible.
“I don’t know if anyone took the time to really understand what I was trying to convey. And if I wasn’t effective in communicating that, then I certainly wish I could have been clearer,” she said.
“The history of our urban areas is that a lot of the policies that have been developed on the federal and local levels have led to the creation of islands of poverty,” she said. “I’ve spent my career on efforts trying to level the playing field.”
But as the mayor has tried to explain her thinking, Gaylor said her group felt that she was just affirming the statement about religion and government that they had the biggest problem with.
“There had been a Facebook statement, and it’s kind of a non-apology apology,” Gaylor said. “This just isn’t good enough.”
“It’s a stereotype that she’s perpetuating,” Gaylor continued. “We’re not criticizing her record combating poverty . . . we’re blaming her for blaming nontheism or non-Godliness for poverty.”
Taylor was a city council member for five years before becoming mayor in 2014 and worked in the Housing and Community Development Department and the Neighborhood Action Department, which focused on the redevelopment of the inner-city, according to her bio. Later, in her private sector job, she worked on programs that improved “family stability for apartment community residents.”
She also said she feels her faith plays a large role in her life and her politics. She has tried to involve the faith community in poverty reduction and mentoring programs to break the cycle of poverty.
“People coming from a passionate faith perspective can be more effective at reaching people and combating poverty than we are in the halls of government,” she said.
Taylor said she was also suspicious of the timing. She made the statement at a candidate forum in early April, but the most contentious YouTube video was circulated nearly three weeks later – at the start of early voting for the May 5 election.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Cleve R. Wootson Jr.