LOS ANGELES, May 29, 2005 — -- Parishioners at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena tend to hear a familiar Christian message: "Blessed are the poor in spirit."
But that message of helping the poor has not gotten a lot of attention in the public debate over moral values.
"I think that the religious right hijacked the Bible and Jesus and got us focused from a fear-based perspective on one or two wedge issues," said Ed Bacon, rector of the Pasadena church.
Abortion and gay marriage have dominated the political discussion. But many moderate and progressive Christians say they want to take back the moral high ground by focusing on issues of poverty.
"That's what Jesus Christ said: He helped with the poor," said Wanda Washington, as she stood in a food line at a south Los Angeles church that feeds the working poor and the unemployed.
The Rev. Norman Johnson, from the same church, sees feeding the poor as a moral issue.
"The richest country in the history of the world, and we are unable to provide basic needs to citizens?" he asked rhetorically.
Like many African-American churches, Johnson's congregation is conservative on the issues of abortion and gay marriage.
"I think that's where the president resonates with a lot of people," Johnson said.
Even so, Johnson was outraged when he heard that President Bush had asked for more than $80 billion more for the war in Iraq.
"What would $80 billion do for schools?" he asked.
Many Christian groups are hoping to coordinate their efforts to switch the focus of the debate. The National Council of Churches holds regular sessions on the issues of peace and poverty.
"Rather than despair, organize," Bacon said. "That's what the religious right does in a very effective way."
The debate already has reached into the popular culture.
On "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian whose book, "God's Politics," is on the best-seller list, said, "You wonder how Jesus has become pro-rich, pro-war and only pro-American."
But actions speak louder than talk shows. At All Saints Episcopal Church, thousands of parishioners have signed up to work in hundreds of programs targeting injustice and poverty, using an old message to stake a new claim on moral values.
ABC News' Judy Muller originally reported this story May 21, 2005, on "World News Tonight."