August 27, 2012

Jim Wallis’ “Moral Budget”

By Matt Hamilton

With the U.S. presidential election looming, America is abuzz with the whimsical spirit of politics and debating all manner of domestic issues, Barack Obama’s record in office, Mitt Romney’s credentials, and Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. Throwing his views into the political fray is Jim Wallis, the famously liberal founder and CEO of Sojourners, an organization that publishes the most influential magazine of the Christian Left that goes by the same name.


Wallis recently released a video titled “Standing Up For a Moral Budget,” in which he laid out his philosophical and theological views of the federal budget. His first assertion was: “A budget shows who’s important, who’s not, what’s important, what’s not.” Wallis argues that what the government spends money on determines what the nation and politicians consider to be important. Therefore he argues to cut welfare shows that the government and politicians don’t care about the poor. At face value, this assertion may ring with the sound of truth, but it is very subtly deceptive.

The government spends money on the military because we value security, the government spends money on preserving national parks because we value pristine natural resources, etc. etc. etc. However, the responsibility of the government is limited and therefore there are things that are important to us not included in government budgets. For example, the government does not fund religious institutions like churches, mosques, or synagogues. That does not mean that religion is not important to Americans, it simply means that it is not the government’s responsibility to be funding religious institutions.

A defining flaw for the Religious Left when it comes to welfare is that they believe welfare is synonymous with charity. But welfare can never be charity because anything that the government does is backed with coercion and force. Charity, by definition, is voluntary. The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 9:7: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

The government cannot run welfare programs without compulsion. Paying taxes does not make the Religious Left charitable because they are required to pay money to the government under threat of penalty. The only way to be charitable is to give from your own pocket or from your own time to help the poor. Sending a check to the IRS to go through the maze of government bureaucracies is not following Jesus’ commands to be charitable. But, how much easier it is to simply pay your taxes and feel pride in believing yourself a charitable Christian rather than actually tithing to the church and working to provide for the poor and needy yourself!

So often the Religious Left quotes Jesus’ commands to take care of the poor, the widows, and the orphans to support their idea that it is the government’s primary responsibility to take care of them. But Jesus never once spoke to any government entity about such a responsibility. Jesus spoke these commands to his followers, to the church. And unless I am mistaken, Jesus did say “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus gave the church the responsibility to take care of the poor, the widow, and the orphan, not the government. To prioritize the government’s coercive role in welfare is ultimately to support the government’s usurpation of a God-given responsibility to the church. If for no other reason why this distinction of roles exists, it is because only one being can be glorified when the poor and the needy are taken care of. Either that being will be God, or that being will be the government. If it is the latter, it can only lead to idolatry.

Jim Wallis said, “I want pastors to stand up and say, ‘You know what you’re going to do to these people if you cut these nutrition programs in an economic time like this?’” He sees pastors as lobbyists and activists.

In contrast, here’s what I want pastors to say: “I will take the responsibility to lead my congregation in providing for the poor, the widows, and the orphans, rather than shirk that responsibility by passing it on to the impersonal idol of Big Government.” That would be following Jesus’ commands.

14 Responses to Jim Wallis’ “Moral Budget”

  1. cynthia curran says:

    In an ideal state it would be good to rid the welfare state but the current best course is for churches and non=church entities to have a more effective alternative, so when the Republicans cut back on social security or unemployment then the church or other alternative organizations can be in a position to help. Its like my conservative friends that complain about California but most of the folks on the dole in California are the children of immigrants not the native born. Republicans have been not effective not only dealing with illegal immigrant but legal immigrants who also don’t have the job skills to rise their families without going on public assistance.. The center for immigration studies do a study in Orange County native born receiving public assistance 19 percent and foreign born 56 percent. In San Diego native born 27 percent and foreign born about 56 percent.

  2. Kevin Morrow says:

    Well, sorry to say, but your seeming implication that the church ought to be the sole support for the poor doesn’t pan out, because when people in financial crisis approach the churches, they get either paltry help or even TURNED AWAY! I can’t tell you how many friends who have been unemployed in the last five years went to their church and got pretty much turned down. Conservatives don’t walk their talk when it comes right down to it! If the government didn’t support the growing legions of poor people in this country, they’d starve. And by the way, I do tithe myself regularly, although if you factor in what I’ve given away to people in financial distress this year, it amounts to closer to 15%, and it’s STILL not enough to really lift these people out of the ditch (in part due to the high cost of living here in Washington, DC). As a member of the Religious Left, if you want to call it that, I don’t think that government assistance equals charity or replaces the need for individual charity. I just think that because most people really aren’t that generous, generosity has to be compelled, yes compelled, just like for everything else. I don’t think enough people would donate money to government to build roads or schools if they weren’t compelled, yet I think we all agree that those are necessary societal needs. Same here. Working to eliminate poverty is a societal need, too. Despite this myth I constantly hear that before welfare was available in the ’30s, the churches and society took care of its poorest members, well, that’s utterly false. What little “charity” was done was insufficient to care for all the hordes of poor people that populated our fairly underdeveloped economy. Those who didn’t have charity of family or church available (most poor people) went to the local poorhouse.

    • Suzi Brooks says:

      The only reason we are not still “poor” today is we have given the poor money that is backed by nothing. That is why we have the deficit that we do. You print money and give it to people, they are suddenly not poor, correct? No, this is not how it works. Pre-1930 the poor needed to work, so the only poor that remained where those unwilling to work, and those unable. Religious Charities have always helped those unable to work, but they turned away those that were simply unwilling. FDR gave money to the underclass to buy their political loyalty for all time. It still exists today.

      I am all for the return of the poorhouse, because if it really existed, you would suddenly find a lot of the “poor” are so poor or disadvantaged as they say. The rich are a convenient enemy when you don’t want to blame yourself for anything.

  3. Mark says:

    Marvin Olasky covers this topic very well in his book “The Tragedy of American Compassion.” In fact, prior to the extensive social welfare policies we have today, churches and other private charitable organizations did a pretty good job of taking care of the poor. It was also expected of family members to take care of their downtrodden relatives. Not nearly so much today.

    Liberal social policies have been largely responsible for the major cause of poverty today: single parent homes. In the 1960’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned his fellow Democrats that paying families to keep the father out of the home would wreak havoc on the lower class….and he has been proven right over and again.

    In terms of who is actually more charitable, we all can and should be more charitable. But, statistically, conservatives do walk the walk better than liberals (see “Who Really Gives” by Arthur Brooks).

  4. Fr. John W. Morris says:

    Any pastor knows that the worst thing that you can do it give someone money without proper controls. I once gave a man food from our parish food bank. A few minutes later the lady who cleans our Church came into my office and told me that she saw the man selling the food presumably to buy liquor or drugs.
    The welfare state has not helped the poor. All the money that we have spent as a nation since Johnson’s Great Society has only created a class of people who are dependent on welfare and do not work to support themselves. My wife was a teacher in an alternative school. She knew many girls that got pregnant so that they could go on welfare.
    Sometimes all the good intentions of an idealist like Wallis do more harm than good. Sometimes, we need tough love that forces people to work to take care of themselves. The Bible also condemns theft. Welfare fraud is a form of theft.

    Fr. John W. Morris

  5. eMatters says:

    Jim “the Gospel is all about wealth redistribution” Wallis likes to pose as a centrist even though his views are far Left. Asking Caesar to take from neighbor A by force to transfer to neighbor B is still not charity on your part.

    And it is worse when neighbor B isn’t old enough to vote but you will force him to pay off the debts for your “giving.”

    • Fr. John W. Morris says:

      Jim Wallis has compromised the Gospel by politicizing the message of Christ. The Gospel is not about wealth distribution. The Gospel is about salvation through Christ. Wallis makes one of the most serious mistakes that any believer can make. He has confused his personal political views with the Gospel of Christ. Nothing is more dangerous than someone who believes that their political and economic views come from God. He has compromises the clear teachings of the Holy Scriptures by supporting the most anti-Christian administration in American history.

      Fr. John orris

  6. Mark Holler says:

    Here is an old name to bring out from the cobwebs of my experience relating to the irony of Wallis as a follower of an anabaptist kingdom/world view no less: Carl MacIntire.

  7. […] Hamilton points out some of the fallacies in Wallis’s understanding of the responsibility of government toward the…. Responding to Wallis’s claim that “A budget shows who’s important, who’s not, […]

  8. […] Sense of Events comes this gem from Matt Hamilton on the “Moral Budget” myth: A defining flaw for the Religious Left when it comes to welfare is that they believe welfare is […]

  9. ehksong says:

    I appreciate the call at the end for churches to do more to help meet the needs of the poor, but the core argument that this responsibility is uniquely held by the Church isn’t very convincing. Just because one group has a moral obligation doesn’t mean that no one else does. By the same logic, Christians should be against the police, the fire department and other emergency services since their efforts to aid people in need “usurp” the Church’s responsibility to help our neighbors as in the parable of the good Samaritan. But that, of course, is crazy. Just because we have a responsibility doesn’t mean that no one else does.

    • Mark says:

      Churches have no particular expertise in putting out fires or stopping criminals. They do, supposedly, have expertise in helping feed and clothe the needy.

      One of the big reasons the church today could not replace the gov regarding social welfare programs is because the church has shrunk while the gov involvement in welfare has expanded.

      Ironically, this has been aided and abetted by leaders of mainline denominations who abdicate their personal responsibility to help the poor (not to mention fulfilling the Great Commission), and replace it with the guilt-soothing, conterfeit notion of gov provided social services, thus casting and intermixing their lot with Ceasar’s (in violation of Biblical principles).

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