Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

This morning Joe noticed Jordan’s excellent response to the new manifesto from some evangelicals who desperately want to be (or be seen to be) relevant to the debate about government spending and debt.

Among the document’s many failings, there’s one in particular I want to call more attention to. Jordan notes that the manifesto purports not to “endorse any detailed agenda.” Here is the relevant section:

We do not endorse any detailed agenda. Experts disagree. But it is clear that a bipartisan agreement must include the following basic elements:

  • We must cut federal spending. That will include corporate and agricultural subsidies, the defense budget and salary increases of federal employees. But it does not mean cutting effective programs that empower poor Americans or contribute internationally to economic development or the advancement of health. Neither does it mean neglecting appropriate investments in things like education and infrastructure.

  • We must control healthcare expenses. This is a most difficult problem and it cannot be ignored. We must find a way simultaneously to respect individual choice, ensure quality health care for everyone, and stop spending an ever-higher percent of our GDP on medical costs. Everyone must be willing to sacrifice. 

  • We must make Social Security sustainable. We can slowly increase the retirement age, modestly reduce benefits for more wealthy seniors, and increase the amount of income taxed to pay for Social Security.

  • We must reform the tax code. We should remove many special exemptions, end many special subsidies, and keep the tax code progressive.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this a little . . . heavy handed? “It is clear that bipartisan reform must include . . . ”

These statements may seem innocuous, but many of them conceal uncritically assimilated moral, economic and political judgments. These may be right or wrong, but they ought to be made explicit and examined. And even if we were to grant that these agenda items are the absolutely right approach, or a reasonably achievable consensus approach, or even both, isn’t it a bad idea to make it morally mandatory to support any complex policy agenda?

I happen to agree, for example, that corporate and agricultural subsidies need to be cut. I even think it’s a matter of desperate urgency that they should be cut. But I don’t think it’s evil to disagree about that.

Will democratic debate be well served if people who admit that they don’t know the difficult details behind the policymaking get up on a high horse and proclaim what the reform agenda must include - with the (barely) implicit suggestion that anyone who disagrees is an enemy of the public good - or of God?

Will this law-law-law moralism undermine or reinforce the dominant view in American culture that evangelicals are arrogant scolds who use the name of God to demand obedience to our will, legalistically piling on burdens that we ourselves won’t touch with our little fingers?

Will this we-appoint-ourselves-to-speak-for-the-church approach weaken or strengthen the divisions within the evangelical family itself?

Will this we’re-Christians-therefore-our-word-is-law attitude help or hurt the ability of American democracy to function in an environment where not only religious but even moral consensus has dissolved?

Will this laying down of non-negotiable statements about what the agenda must include make it easier or harder for the economists and analysts who really do know the details to inform the public discourse?

This is not the path to civilizational relevance. This kind of thing is precisely why so few people in the systems of American cultural power care what evangelicals think.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles