BURLINGTON -- Flanked by a contingent of religious leaders, Sen. Bernie Sanders declared income inequality "one of the most profound moral issues of the 21st century" Friday.
"As the many comprehensive issues facing our country -- and there are many -- there is none more serious than this issue," Sanders, I-Vt., said at a news conference Friday afternoon. "And I think the religious community in Vermont and throughout this country can and will play a very important part in bringing people together around this issue."
Sanders was joined at his Church Street office by Bishop Thomas Ely, the Tenth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont; Rev. Lynn Bujnak, conference minister of the United Church of Christ; Rabbi Joshua Chasan, of the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington; Monsignor Roland Rivard, retired pastor of Christ the King-St. Anthony Parish in Burlington; and members of other area churches and organizations.
The religious leaders each spoke briefly, emphasizing income inequality as a moral issue rather than merely an economic one.
"For me, the call to engage this challenge is grounded in the words Jesus used," Ely said, citing the biblical commandments to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself.
Bujnak spoke of the reality of financial strain, and the religious community's responsibility to alleviate any of those hardships.
In one interaction this week, she said, "I was reminded of the stress that low-wage workers live with every day, knowing that financial security can be lost as easily as one fuel bill, one illness or one car repair."
Sanders quoted a host of statistics on the current economic situation: Half of Americans have less than $10,000 in savings, he said, and the United States has the highest child poverty rate of any major nation. While the official employment rate hovers around 6.2 percent, youth unemployment is nearly 20 percent and African-American youth unemployment is close to 40 percent.
At least part of the cause, Sanders said, is avarice. Excessive greed, he said, is a "psychological problem - when people are saying I don't need just 5 billion, I need 10 billion. I need more and more and more."
In Congress, Sanders said that partisan gridlock prevented progress on reducing the wealth gap, though he said he will continue to push for a higher federal minimum wage, long-term unemployment benefits and a federal jobs program, among other initiatives.
Within the Episcopal church, Ely said, leaders are creating opportunities for collaboration between state and national leaders.
"Our economic justice coalition is going to continue to push the bishop and the diocese on this issue and try to affect position change," he said.
He turned to the people standing against the conference room wall behind him: "Do I speak the truth here?"
In reply, Ely got a resounding chorus of "amens."
Chasan added that the Vermont faith community hoped to increase political pressure as well.
"As we approach the next session of the general assembly, the clergy-caucus of Vermont Interfaith Action will be bringing this message to Montpelier," the rabbi said.
"Whether you are Catholic or Protestant; Christian, Jewish, or Muslin; Hindu or Buddhist, what all of the major religions teach us is that it is immoral when so many have so little and so few have so much," Sanders said.
Sanders also responded to questions on a variety of political issues, including President Barack Obama's announcement Thursday to send 300 military advisers to Iraq. Sanders said he would never support American troops on the ground in Iraq, though he acknowledged the need to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militant group.
"But," Sanders continued, "it's not just an American issue. It impacts every country on Earth that does not want to see that region run by terrorists or extremists. We need to do some radical thinking as an international community together."
Sanders also said that he has reintroduced a bill to eliminate excessive oil speculation, in order to lower gas and oil prices. High gas prices don't have to do with supply and demand, he said, estimating that 80 percent of the market is controlled by Wall Street speculators.