Last week, a group of religious left leaders (including Jim Winkler of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, J. Herbert Nelson of the PCUSA Office of Public Witness, and Michael Livingston, former president of the National Council of Churches) got themselves arrested at the U.S. Capitol in one of those pointless, feel-good protests that are so beloved on the left. “We’re talking action to help the poor!” they proclaim to all who will listen as they are led off in cuffs, immediately forgotten by the people they were allegedly trying to influence.
The religious left has been engaged in a variety of publicity stunts, ad campaigns, and letter-writing frenzies trying to head off the debt deal that the House passed last night and that the Senate will almost certainly pass today. In the process, as I’ve noted on several occasions, what they’ve mostly done is demonstrate how little they understand about basic economics or the way the government actually works.
Not wanting President Obama or Congress to be left with the impression that Jim Wallis and Company somehow “speak for Christians,” a group called “Christians for a Sustainable Economy” (CASE) has come together and sent its own missive to the powers-that-be. Unlike the kind of people who typically sign on to a Sojourners rant, this one includes some people who presumably actually know something about economics. (They include P. J. Hill, Emeritus Professor of Economics at Wheaton College; Eric Teetsel, Program Manager, Values & Capitalism at the American Enterprise Institute; Ramona Marotz-Baden, Emeritus Professor of Family and Consumer Sciences, Montana State University; Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center; Hunter Baker, Associate Professor of Political Science at Union University; David Stanley of the National Taxpayers Union; and a variety of business owners, as well as the usual theological academics, pastors, etc.) I offer that letter, which I have signed myself, for your consideration and comment:
Recently, in the midst of the debt-ceiling crisis, a group calling themselves the “Circle of Protection,” led by Jim Wallis of the activist group Sojourners, met with you and your staff to claim that biblical mandates preclude limits to federal programs for low-income people. The Circle includes representatives of the National Association of Evangelicals, Bread for the World, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Wallis and the “Circle of Protection” do not speak for all Christians. However laudable their intentions, the consequence of their action is to provide a religious imprimatur for big government and sanctify federal welfare programs that are often ineffective — even counterproductive. Contrary to their founding “Statement,” we do not need to “protect programs for the poor.” We need to protect the poor themselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to protect them from the very programs that ostensibly serve the poor, but actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations. Such programs are unwise, uncompassionate, and immoral.
Let no one be deceived: Whether or not an agreement resolves the immediate debt-ceiling crisis, the long-term crisis of insolvency in our government remains. A trillion-dollar cut barely puts a dent in the mountain of debt we are preparing to pass on to our families. This debt will only impoverish even more Americans. So we ask that you meet with us, Christians for A Sustainable Economy (case4america.org). We believe the poor of this generation and generations to come are best served by policies that promote economic freedom and growth, that encourage productivity and creativity in every able person, and that wisely steward our common resources for generations to come. All Americans – especially the poor – are best served by sustainable economic policies for a free and flourishing society. When creativity and entrepreneurship are rewarded, the yield is an increase of productivity and generosity.
Compassion and charity for “the least of these” is an essential expression of our faith, flowing from a heart inclined towards God. And just as the love of God frees us for a more abundant life, so our charity must go beyond mere material provision to meet the deeper needs of the poor. To suggest that Matthew 25 – or any commandment concerning Christian charity – can be met through wealth redistribution is to obscure these truths. We encourage you to consider the whole counsel of scripture, which urges not only compassion and provision for the poor but also the perils of debt and the importance of wise stewardship.
To the question, “What would Jesus cut?”, we add the question, “Whom would Jesus indebt?” The Good Samaritan did not use a government credit card.
The government plays an important role and communities do need social safety nets for those in need. A Christian approach to the budget crisis considers the interests of the poor. All of us suffer when our nation exchanges wisdom, prudence, liberty and faithful stewardship for the chronic unemployment of a stagnant economy and the enslaving power of debt.
Both parties have failed. Our common resources have been stewarded unwisely and the United States is trillions of dollars in debt. We have reached a breaking point. Fiscal recklessness must stop. Just as we should not balance the budget “on the backs of the poor,” so we should not balance the budget on the backs of our children and grandchildren.
Even as the debt-ceiling crisis passes, the long-term challenge of making federal spending wise and effective remains. We recommend three steps:
1. Correctly identify the problem.
The debt disaster is a spending issue. Tax revenues are finite, while the growth of government is unceasing. By any measure, federal spending has skyrocketed, from $2.9 trillion in 2008 to $3.8 trillion in 2011. We presently borrow over forty cents of every dollar we spend. While increasing taxes will generate additional revenues and reduce the deficit in the short term, it will ultimately harm the economy, constrain economic growth, and hasten the out-of-control growth of government. To give more money to Washington is to give the sickness the remedy it requests. The last thing the government needs is more money. It needs to cease its unwise and profligate spending.
2. Put narrow political interests aside.
Entrenched political interests stagnate reform. Every cent of government spending must be on the table, for ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ priorities alike. The stated intention of helping the needy does not make poverty programs sacrosanct. Some of these programs ‘serve’ the poor so well that they make more people poor and keep them in poverty longer. Stop the demagoguery against those who propose substantive changes to entitlements and social welfare programs.
3. Lead for the long term.
Americans yearn for, and deeply appreciate, leaders who embraces a burden of responsibility that transcends the implications of the next election cycle. While we agree that budgets are moral documents insofar as they reflect values and decisions for which we are morally culpable, long-term budget plans are morally meaningful promises we make to later generations. Right now we are morally failing our children and grandchildren by selling their future flourishing for our present comfort. In hard times, true leaders make hard decisions. We encourage you to put aside political calculations and the pressures of special interest groups to make commitments that are in the long-term interest of the American economy and the American people.
People of faith come in all stripes, and differ on many points. Jim Wallis and the “Circle of Protection” are but one perspective. We believe they have misrepresented “the faith community” and conveyed less than the full biblical witness and the counsel it provides in the current crisis. As such, even as you met with the “Circle of Protection,” we request a meeting as well. If you are committed to hearing voices of faith, even those that challenge your policy priorities, we hope you will meet with us.
As Christians striving for a sustainable economy, one that will lift the poor out of poverty and dependency on government (learn more at case4america.org), we thank you for considering our message – and for your service to our nation. May God bless America, and return us soon to wise stewardship of our common resources.
UPDATE: This is why a counterweight to Wallis & Co. is needed:
We ‘lift the bun’ to hear from Rep. Emanuel Cleaver who explained to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer the debt deal went against every major religion.
On Monday he tweeted, “This deal is a sugar-coated Satan sandwich. If you lift the bun, you will not like what you see.”
The four-term Missouri Democrat continued his Twitter diatribe against the deal to raise the amount of money the nation can borrow and make a down payment on the federal deficit saying, “This debt deal is antithetical to everything the great religions of the world teach, which is take care of the poor, aged, vulnerable.”