Though it was launched just eleven days ago, no one, judging from a google search of the title, is still talking about A Call for Intergenerational Justice, a new statement by the Evangelical Left, who are suddenly and for the first time worried about governmental debt. The statement, subtitled “A Christian Response for the American Debt Crisis,” has just 397 signatures as I write, and has added just two in the twelve hours since I first checked.
The nineteen initial signers include Sojourner’s Jim Wallis, author of much noticed books on politics, former Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, Fuller seminary president Richard Mouw, Christianity Today editor Andy Crouch, Celebration of Discipline author Richard Foster, Baptist theologian David Gushee, and Richard Cizik, once the National Association of Evangelicals’ Washington lobbyist, who was asked to resign after being widely criticized for saying on NPR that he favored civil unions for homosexual people.
It’s a group of considerable weight, not just in the Evangelical world but (with Wallis and Gerson) in the wider world of American politics, yet no one, as I said, seems to have noticed they’d gotten together and said something about the economy. Other, that is, than their ideological opponents at the Acton Institute, and even there, their work is being discussed only by one Evangelical blogger, who I suspect looks at the statement the way eager hunters once looked at the Dodo Bird.
Written by Ronald Sider, the head of Evangelicals for Social Action (and a contributor to First Things), and Gideon Strauss, the head of the Center for Public Justice, the Call declares that
Our growing national debt now puts us on a path towards economic disaster. If unchanged, our current culture of debt threatens to bankrupt us both economically and morally. The biblical call to stewardship demands that we pass on an economic order in which our children and their children can flourish. . . . Today’s federal debts threaten not only the present generation, but also our children and generations yet unborn. Intergenerational justice demands that one generation must not benefit or suffer unfairly at the cost of another.
It goes on to assign the blame for the “culture of debt” on a “materialistic, live-for-the-moment mentality,” as practiced by families and businesses, but not as promoted and enabled by government. The writers never blame—they never even mention—social spending and the government’s never-ending attempt to solve all human problems by throwing money at them, and the government’s “live-for-the-moment” accumulation of debt to pay for everyone’s favorite program. An attempt, mind you, that those members of the Evangelical Left who have been speaking on such things for years inevitably supported.
The Call offers several policy proposals but avoids “any detailed agenda,” the writers admitting that “experts disagree.” They still insist, on what grounds they do not explain, that “it is clear that a bipartisan agreement must include the following basic elements”: cutting the federal budget, controlling health care expenses, sustaining Social Security, and reforming the tax code.
This is the Call’s central claim, but instead of arguing for it they simply assert that it is clearly true, and in the context of the statement clearly Christian. You might think that a case could be made, because it has been made, for phasing out and privatizing Social Security as a way of achieving some degree of intergenerational justice when the ratio of workers to beneficiaries is steadily declining. Why “it is clear” that we cannot agree on this but must believe in sustaining Social Security is not, really, clear.
For the most part the statement only gives very general practical proposals for enacting these four basic elements. A few are a little more specific, like raising the retirement age for Social Security and increasing the Social Security tax, but even here the statement doesn’t say how much these should be raised, and why, which are the crucial and vexing questions.
It is more specific in what it does not say. “We must cut federal spending,” the writers declare, but their proposals for cutting the federal budget include only cutting “corporate and agricultural subsidies, the defense budget and salary increases [sic] of federal employees,” but not re-examining and trimming or eliminating social welfare programs.
The fault, in other words, is individual’s and businesses, not government’s, except for the defense department. The answer is to take money from individuals and businesses, and from the Department of Defense. Surely, one would think, they’d admit that some social programs in a government as big as ours might not work very well and might waste money, quite possibly a lot of it? But they don’t.
Others can examine the Call’s economics, if they can find any idea concrete enough to examine. I will make only one criticism, and this has to do with a movement like that issuing a statement like this. They are very late to the party, and they ought to apologize for being late before they start talking about it as if they’d helped plan it.
Conservatives have warned about the debt for decades and in response to cries to solve this or that problem with more government spending, have kept pointing out that there is only so much money to be had. (Conservative does not, I might note, equal Republican; Republicans having been nearly as profligate as their Democratic opponents.) The insight the signers of the Call have dressed up as “intergenerational justice” was a major and frequent insight of the conservative case: that, as the point was often put, by spending so much more money than we have to spend, we are mortgaging our children’s and grandchildren’s futures.
In that time, the Evangelical Left said nothing besides “God insists the government spend more money.” They steadily identified the Christian concern for the poor with advocating that the government create new social programs and give more money to the ones already created. The subtext of nearly every statement from the Evangelical Left was that those who wanted to cut taxes and reduce the size of the government were selfish swine who didn’t care for the poor the way they, and Jesus, did. They would not allow that one might believe, and with good reason, that less government might help the poor stop being “the poor.”
One is not assured of their political seriousness, nor of their economic insights, when they come to an issue only after it can’t be ignored. And even then, while granting the point everyone now makes, issue a statement that does not actually address the problem but only concedes as much as it has to in order to maintain something as close to the previous status quo as they can. Maybe this explains why no one seems interested in A Call for Intergenerational Justice.
Having long advocated not only policies, but the kind of statist mind that has led us to the debt crisis, the Evangelical Left now jumps onto the bandwagon as if they’d been there all along. They ought first to admit their failure to think and speak carefully about economics, particularly about the intractable conflict between what we would like to do and what we can afford to do, and then reflect on why they went wrong. Then their next call for justice might say something to which people will listen.
David Mills is Deputy Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
The Center for Public Justice’s A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal for the American Debt Crisis.
Jordan J. Ballor’s Initial Thoughts on Intergenerational Justice and Abortion and Intergenerational Justice.
Greg Forster’s More on Evangelicals and Entitlements.