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Christians on both sides of budget battle claim to fight for the poor

By Lisa Miller on August 4, 2011
© The Washington Post

After this week’s debt-ceiling deal in Congress, trillions of dollars of spending cuts are on the table. New cuts will sink deep, laying bare the nation’s moral priorities.

The tough choices will be left to a new Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. But let’s imagine for a minute that the Christian Lord could pore over the thousand-page federal budget with a red pen.

What would Jesus cut? Military spending? Education? Health care? Aid to Africa?

I asked a handful of prominent Christian ministers and scholars, interpreters of Jesus’s moral authority. All deferred an answer. Instead, they raised the same old liberal-conservative political debate that has raged at least since the Reagan years. Left-leaning Christians insisted that the way out of the debt crisis was to raise taxes. Those on the right supported slashing entitlements.

What’s different is this: Faithful Christians, conscious of their duty to those the Bible calls “the least of these,” are waging this political battle in the name of the poor.

“If we are going to be consistent with the spirit of the Judeo-Christian tradition, then we must prioritize the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the children, particularly the orphans,” says Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of a Houston mega-church who has an MBA from Wharton and is friendly with both the 44th and the 43rd presidents. “We’ve not been true to that tradition, even when we were not in a deficit crisis.”

Eric Teetsel, who runs the Project on Values and Capitalism at the American Enterprise Institute, offered the conservative argument: “Debt and deficits harm the economy, and when the economy is harmed, those who suffer first and foremost are the least of these. A robust economy is the most effective way to help the poor.”

What would Jesus cut? “Entitlements,” Teetsel says, “are the whole ball of wax.”

Wrong, says David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World: “There’s nothing in the Bible that says you can’t raise taxes on rich people, and there’s a lot in the Bible that says you have to help poor people.”

Beckmann belongs to a diverse coalition of Christian leaders called Circle of Protection, whose mission is to protect funding for programs that support the poor. On July 20, a group from Circle met with President Obama in the Roosevelt Room. Beckmann wrote in an e-mail that Obama “expressed particular concern about Medicaid. … He expressed his strong desire to protect people in need, but also made it clear that the negotiations are tough.” The session ended with a reading from Hebrews by Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.”

This week, an opposing group of conservative Christian leaders, calling themselves Christians for a Sustainable Economy, sent a letter to the president. All Christians must care for the poor, the letter says, but Circle of Protection doesn’t speak for all Christians: “We do not need to protect programs for the poor. We need to protect the poor themselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to protect them from the very programs that … actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations.”

Teetsel, one of the letter’s architects, says he has not received a response.

But the bipartisan deal calls for as much as $2 trillion in cuts, I insisted. So what will they be? Thus pressed, the Christian leaders tried to answer. Teetsel calls for looking at “inefficiencies and redundancies throughout the budget,” including in defense spending. Beckmann recommends targeting “direct payments and subsidies to the bio-fuel industry.” Joel Hunter, one of the president’s spiritual advisers, suggests more efficient management of entitlements and “cutting out maybe some unnecessary weapons programs that really are for an era of warfare that has passed us by.”

The members of the Select Committee on Deficit Reduction will have to have more patience, and more imagination, it seems, than God.

 

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