Religious discussions of the federal budget often generate more heat than light. The debate tends to feature sloganeering (“What Would Jesus Cut? Who Would Jesus Bomb?”) and political theater (“Fasting for a Better Budget”), name calling and grandstanding (“Bully! Hypocrite!”). Just this past week, on Good Friday in fact, the formation of a “new Christian coalition, called the Circle of Protection,” was announced, intended “to resist budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity, and rights of poor and vulnerable people.” The “Circle of Protection” refers to the sacred space surrounding “programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.”
A refrain from the variety of campaigns echoed throughout this Lenten season, that the federal budget should not be balanced “on the backs of the poor.” Most of the efforts featured predictably progressive stalwarts like the National Council of Churches, Sojourners, and Bread for the World.
However, one effort has made an explicit and valiant attempt to elevate the debate. Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) and Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) issued “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal for the American Debt Crisis,” which in its own words was intended to “to join a trans-partisan, intergenerational movement of citizens,” and, propounded by Gideon Strauss and Ron Sider, heads of their respective organizations, sought to pitch a tent big enough to cover Christians from a variety of political persuasions.
The goal of the CPJ/ESA Call is twofold: to make clear that reducing the federal debt is a moral priority for Christians, but that doing so must not be done “at the expense of our poorest fellow citizens.” There are some important merits to the CPJ/ESA Call. It introduces the fruitful concept of “intergenerational justice,” which “demands that one generation must not benefit or suffer unfairly at the cost of another” and functions in this evangelical context similarly to the Roman Catholic idea of “intergenerational solidarity.” It also makes absolutely clear the imperative to “cut federal spending” and the undeniable reality that America’s “growing national debt now puts us on a path towards economic disaster.”
But in the final analysis the Call must be judged to suffer from the same fatal flaw that mars its less sophisticated and more strident cousins. Christian campaigns to make particular federal programs immune from funding reductions sends the wrong basic message both to politicians and to Christian citizens.
The reality of our debt crisis is that the federal government has been trying to do too much for too many for too long. Instead of focusing on ways to empower other institutions and levels of government and galvanize them to relieve the burden of the federal government, these efforts simply feed into the fundamentally false dilemma of federal action or no action at all.
This dichotomy is reinforced by both major political parties. We have only two solutions at our disposal, we are told: cut spending or raise taxes. We are faced with the basic choice: pay for the federal government to do it (raise taxes) or it won’t get done (cut spending).
What we don’t have in any of these efforts is a framework for determining which programs and types of spending the government should prioritize. All we are provided with is the directive that “effective” federal welfare programs cannot be cut, as if some absolute level of spending on a particular program, like Pell Grants or Head Start, is a clear moral, even scriptural, imperative.
A truly constructive approach to the public debt crisis would outline the various responsibilities of government at various levels, with relative priority for each responsibility. This would help us address the question of whether spending on national defense is more germane to the role of the federal government than providing bed nets to fight malaria in Africa, or whether and to what extent the federal government has a role to play in providing things like medical insurance, infant formula, and public education to its citizens.
Only on the basis of these first principles of government can we start to judge how current, as well as past and future, levels of expenditure line up against what government is supposed to do. We can then begin to determine what government has been doing versus what it ought to be doing.
Things that are not properly the task of the federal government might then begin to be privatized with appropriate institutions of civil society or localized to other levels of government. Privatization might be done over time and in an orderly fashion, as federal funding is phased out and private partners are formed, incentivized, or empowered to relieve the government of its responsibilities. Localization would have the advantage of compelling lower levels of government to raise funds for their own programs, rather than routing them through the federal level, and therefore keep the cost of government more transparent and accountable to its constituencies.
While privatization and localization will not always be the appropriate solution, such efforts can often advance the Christian social principle of subsidiarity, which emphasizes the sovereignty and legitimacy of the responsibilities of lower and decentralized forms of organization and social life.
There are at least two basic threats that undermine the viability of such an approach, however, and they come from the government and the church, respectively. From the government there is an increasingly disturbing trend that locates the solution to social problems simply either in business or in government.
The logic of this either/or mentality places us between market and state, restricting the vitality and independence of mediating institutions, particularly private charities. We see this mentality manifest itself in attacks on charities on a number of fronts, including the rhetorical conflation of “non-profit” with government, the looming decertification of more than a 300,000 charities by the IRS, and newly proposed limits to charitable deductions.
Even more troubling is the mounting evidence that Christians have adopted this mentality, too. We see this in giving patterns among American Christians. The majority of evangelical church leaders, for instance, seem not to think that tithing is a biblical imperative (estimates for levels of evangelical giving typically range from 2 to 4 percent of income). As Ron Sider himself put it, “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”
The problem with the CPJ/ESA Call and the host of other Christian responses to the budget crisis is that they do not embody the urgency or the significance of this charitable responsibility. Douglas LeBlanc, author of Tithing: Test Me in This, recently described the importance of tithing as “the beginning of breaking out of that self-indulgent life, primarily because it says to you that your money is not your own. And it’s a small sacramental way of saying that your money in your life is coming to you through the grace of God, through the gifts that He’s given you.”
C. S. Lewis once said, “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” The federal government has been on the wrong road for decades, and the answer to the public debt crisis in America lies in turning back to basic questions about the role of government in its various forms and its relationship to other aspects of social life. A truly Christian response to the challenge of intergenerational justice and the public debt crisis demands no less.
Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty and author of Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness (Christian’s Library Press, 2010).
AEI’s panel discussion, “I Hope I Die Before I Get Old: America’s Long-Term Budget Crisis and ‘A Call for Intergenerational Justice.’”
David Mills’ “Late to the Debt Party.”
Samuel Gregg, “Christians in a Post-Welfare State World.”
Richard John Neuhaus’ “Wealth and Whimsy: On Economic Creativity.”