Here are my remarks today at the Committee for Responsible Federal Budget (CFRFB), where I shared a podium with Jay Richards of the Institute on Faith, Work & Economics, Josh Good of American Enterprise Institute, Rev. John Allen Newman of Mt. Calvary Church in Jacksonville, Florida and Marc Goldwein of CFRFB, with Rev. David Gray of New America Foundation, a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor, moderating.
Interestingly, outside the event, persons distributed leaflets from the AFL-CIO, featuring a photo of Pope Francis, and denouncing CFRFB for promoting “policies that are far from moral” such as cutting tax rates and reducing Social Security and Medicare.
In April 2011, fretting that the impending 2012 budget might restrain the growth of favorite federal programs, major church groups joined together to form a “Circle of Protection” to fight what they termed budget cuts to essential social services and entitlement programs.
The coalition of religious groups included Jim Wallis’ Sojourners, top officers of old line Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church plus the National Council of Churches, some Evangelical groups such as the National Association of Evangelicals and its member denominations such as the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Church of the Nazarene, and the Salvation Army. The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops also joined, among many others.
This Circle of Protection was announced to coincide with Lent and Holy Week, with some Circle leaders, like Jim Wallis, urging that church people publicly fast against federal budget cuts.
They announced their initiative in a media conference call. At the time my organization noted that many of these same religious groups had joined forces in the past to oppose reforms in federal spending, most notably the relatively successful 1996 welfare reform law, which they incorrectly prophesied would doom America’s poor. That campaign too had incorporated a Holy Week protest that appropriated liturgical elements relating to Christ’s Crucifixion.
In our responsive IRD news release in 2011, we said: “The faith that unites these groups seems to be in perpetually expanding Big Government. That this false idol will deliver endless debt and reduced economic opportunity without helping the poor does not seem to distress these self-proclaimed ‘prophetic’ voices.”
And we said: “Claiming that children are perilously endangered by even modest restrictions on federal growth, these officials seem unconcerned about the mountains of debt and potential crushing taxation passed along to these very same children.”
Later in July 2011 President Obama met for 40 minutes at the White House with church officials representing this Circle of Protection, which emphasized concern for the “least of these,” a phrase of course used by Jesus in Matthew 25 to describe the poor and vulnerable. The Circle professed to speak for most American church members.
In response, many of us formed Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) to reject the Circle of Protection’s claims and to offer a very different vision emphasizing that uncontrolled federal debt is itself a moral crisis demanding the urgent attention of concerned Christians. We urged the President and Congressional leaders 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?’” we said. “The Good Samaritan did not use a government credit card.”
Our CASE letter faulted the Circle of Protection for claiming “that biblical mandates preclude limits to federal programs for low-income people.” We warned that whatever their intention, the consequence of the Circle of Protection argument is to “provide a religious imprimatur for big government and sanctify federal welfare programs that are often ineffective — even counterproductive.”
Rather than protecting “programs” for the poor, CASE said “We need to protect the poor themselves.” Sometimes programs that ostensibly serve the poor “actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations,” we continued. “Such programs are unwise, uncompassionate and unjust.”
We said that raising the debt ceiling may have solved an immediate problem of federal cash flow but did not seriously address the larger challenge of reducing the national debt.
“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,” we said. “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.”
Also we warned that Matthew 25 and other admirable commands to Christian charity cannot be effectively implemented through federally orchestrated wealth redistribution. We affirmed the need for an underlying social safety net but suggested what is really needed is robust economic growth, job production and accompanying debt reduction.
“Just as we should not balance the budget ‘on the backs of the poor,’” we said, quoting from the Circle of Protection statement, “so we should not balance the budget on the backs of our children and grandchildren.”
We likewise suggested that the Circle of Protection did not “fully represent the large and diverse community of Christian faith.” And we asked: “Were the professed constituencies of these groups polled on budget matters? Once again, this political campaign appears to be a top-down effort engineered by denominational elites who did not bother to check with their own people in the pews.”
This past Fall, the Circle of Protection resurrected to challenge what its members derided as “cutting” $40 billion from food stamps. Typically unmentioned by these church officials and activists was that these “cuts” were reductions in anticipated increases over the next 10 years in a program that costs nearly $80 billion annually.
Also unmentioned usually was that food stamp recipients had increased by 70 percent since 2008, with 47 million Americans, or about 15 percent of the nation, now getting food stamps. The “cuts” reportedly would reduce food stamp spending to about 2010 levels.
Still, the churchly rhetoric against the “cuts” was heated. “These immoral cuts are incongruent with the shared values of our nation,” insisted Jim Wallis of Sojourners, who called them “severe.” He added: “They demonstrate the triumph of political ideology and self-interest over sound public policy and concern for the general welfare.”
But church pronouncements that equate nearly any potential limits on social welfare or entitlement spending with cruel “self interest” themselves ignore the wider general welfare.
Historically all of the major Christian traditions have emphasized thrift, self denial, personal and societal fiscal probity, and sacrifice on behalf of future generations. From early in the 20th Century much of then Mainline Protestantism under the Social Gospel’s influence portrayed the federal government as the primary guarantor of the common good through redistribution and entitlements without specific regard for fiscal responsibility or the impact of unsustainable spending on everyone in society. Many Catholics also reinterpreted Catholic social teaching along similar lines. More recently some evangelical elites have joined in this understanding.
Consequently much of organized Christianity now focuses on protecting the federal entitlement/welfare state without serious attention to debt although implying debt can be addressed exclusively through tax increases and defense cuts, which of course is not realistic. Churches whose representatives think this way need to remember Christianity’s traditional understanding of the state’s vocation for order and the common good, not merely a smorgasbord of unending entitlement checks. The economic and social health of every nation requires limits on government spending and avoidance of unsustainable debt, especially to leave space for civil society, above all the church, plus private charities, philanthropies, private business, etc. Faith in unlimited government as guarantor of all material benefits is ultimately idolatrous from nearly any historic faith perspective. Historically, churches in America taught thrift, restraint and probity. Now too many of them, or at least their elites, are aligned with entitlement thinking and have transferred onto the state expansive philanthropic duties that should more properly be centered on individuals, families and churches, a perspective that simultaneously undermines all these institutions.
As a corrective to recent church trends, there needs to be a rediscovery of classical Christian teaching about the transcendent responsibility to future generations that mandates fiscal responsibility in our own time. This teaching should emphasize that such fiscal responsibility benefits not only those future generations but is spiritually edifying also for us in this day and is key to human happiness in every time and place.