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Religious Leaders to Government: We Must Get Our Fiscal House In Order

By Jim Wallis on April 30, 2013
© Religion and Politics

Both Republicans and Democrats have a religion problem, and it has nothing to do with same-sex marriage, abortion, or religious liberty. Rather, their serious stumbling blocks are budgets, deficits, and debt-ceiling deadlines.

That’s right, in a city deeply divided between the political right and left, there is a growing consensus from religious leaders that we must get our fiscal house in order and protect low-income people at the same time. Together, many of us are saying that there is a fundamental religious principle missing in most of our political infighting: the protection of the ones about whom our Scriptures say God is so concerned and who are the subject of the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew.

Indeed, the phrase “a budget is a moral document” originated in the faith community and is often invoked in discussions about our nation’s finances. Those most in jeopardy during Washington’s debates and decisions are precisely the people the Bible clearly instructs us to protect and care for—the poorest and most vulnerable. In comparison to the power players of the political system, they have virtually no one lobbying on their behalf in these hugely important discussions about how public resources will be allocated.

For us, this is definitely not a partisan issue but a spiritual and biblical one that resides at the very heart of our faith. It is the singular issue that has brought together the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the Salvation Army, Bread for the World, Sojourners, and the leaders of church denominations, congregations, and faith-based organizations across the nation.

Here is the principle still absent in our current political debate: We must agree not to reduce deficits in ways that further increase poverty and economic inequality by placing the heaviest burdens on those who are already suffering the most.

Religious leaders do believe that massive long-term deficits are moral issues and that we must not saddle future generations with crippling debt. But we believe that how we resolve deficits is also a moral issue. And our society must not take more from those who already have much less than the rest of us.

We understand that neither party wants to risk actually examining bloated Pentagon spending out of political fears that they might appear unconcerned about national defense or our military personnel. During elections, both Republicans and Democrats are almost entirely focused on middle-class voters and wealthy donors who all have special interests in the outcome of how government financing is determined.

And then there are the pollsters who tell both parties that talking about “poor people” and “poverty” will not be popular.

But we must agree with what a Catholic bishop told President Obama when a number of us as religious leaders met with him in the White House, as the 2011 debt-crisis deal was being decided: “Mr. President, our scriptural mandate from Jesus does not say, ‘As you have done to the middle class, you have done to me.’ It rather says, ‘As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.’” The president knew the Matthew 25 text and, an hour after our meeting, the White House called to say the president had decided to protect poor and vulnerable people in the final deal.

Christians have no real choice as to what our position will be in these debates. We are telling the leaders and legislators of both parties that they must form “a circle of protection” around the most effective and vital programs that help the lowest-income American families survive in such difficult economic times. With one clear voice we also are telling lawmakers that the global efforts that quite simply mean life and death to the poorest around the world—those who are assailed by utterly preventable hunger and diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS—must be protected.

Some cuts kill. Others will destroy the small opportunities families have to lift themselves out of poverty. To make those cuts in spending, while leaving the other money protected by powerful interests alone, is simply immoral from a Christian point of view.

We are telling our legislators, for example, that if they really decide to take most or all of their proposed agricultural cuts from proven and successful national “food stamp” programs that go mostly to working families with children, while taking nothing from the rice, corn, and sugar subsidies to rich agribusiness, they should expect to hear voices like Old Testament prophets standing outside their halls.

Or, when they plan to cut poor children’s health care or take away the chance for students from poor families to go to college for the first time, but block any increased taxes on the wealthiest and keep corporate welfare checks flowing, they should anticipate having to listen to the faith community’s very different priorities.

And if they cut “Meals on Wheels” feeding programs to our most vulnerable senior citizens but keep paying for the wheels on outdated and useless weapons systems, they should expect to hear some words from the Scriptures about defending the poor and not trusting in “horses and chariots.”

Those who are often praised for making the “touch choices” in slashing government spending are usually not making tough choices at all. They are not making the really tough choices to cut wasteful military spending and stop unnecessary and bad wars. They are not cutting the enormous public benefits and subsidies to huge corporations, including bailouts to the biggest banks. They are not challenging the special interests who control so many government expenditures. They are not asking hard questions about rising health care costs that will not be ultimately sustainable. And they are not asking the wealthiest among us to pay the same portion of their income taxes that even their middle-class employees do. Those would be the tough choices. But to instead destroy critical programs for the poorest and most vulnerable people, who have no lobbyists to defend their interests, is in fact an easy choice for these budget cutters to make. And, from a Christian point of view, it is also the wrong and immoral choice, completely conformed to the logic of the world employed by the most powerful and completely contrary to the biblical logic of the kingdom of God and Matthew 25. It’s time to make the real tough choices and not just the easy ones that cause even more suffering for “the least of these.”

An untold story in much of the media is how faith community leaders protected low-income entitlements in the sequestered automatic cuts agreed to in the August 2011 debt-ceiling deal (which would occur if legislators could not agree to a final solution—which they didn’t). When the president and his team were sitting at the long wooden table in the West Wing’s Roosevelt Room across from a wide cross section of Catholic, evangelical, mainline Protestant, African American, and Hispanic church leaders who told them that it was our faith imperative to protect low-income people, he got the message. When Republican legislative leaders who are Catholic or evangelical were told by the same religious leaders that exempting low-income people from brutal budget cuts is an imperative of Catholic social teaching and biblical faith, they privately conceded they would not try to block that. When the leaders of both parties saw full-page advertisements in Washington’s newspapers that said “God is watching” the outcomes of their budget debates, it made them uncomfortable. And when the results of those budget deals were announced, including the exempting of many low-income programs within our “circle of protection,” the faith leaders were told that it was only their relentless persistence that protected the programs. As one of Washington’s most influential political insiders told me, “If it wasn’t for the constant and consistent pressure of you and your faith colleagues, those low-income people would not have been protected, because there are no champions for the poor in these houses of government.”

In the past, our country has successfully reduced deficits and poverty at the same time. There have been bipartisan agreements to defend the means-tested programs for low-income people against major cuts. And for the past twenty-five years, every automatic budget-cut mechanism has exempted core low-income assistance programs. Both Republicans and Democrats could and should agree to the principle of protecting the most vulnerable—as budget-cutting processes have in the past and some current recommendations, like the Simpson-Bowles proposals, do even now.

Then the parties could have their private/public-sector debates and reach the compromises necessary to find fiscal integrity. But church leaders and pastors from both sides of the political and religious spectrum will be telling them to defend the ones to whom God commands us to give special care. Everything else may be on the table, but the fate of the poor and vulnerable should not be.

In these endless fiscal and budget debates, the markets are watching, the Republicans are watching, the Democrats are watching, the media are watching, the pollsters and pundits are watching, and the special interest groups are really watching. The public is watching too and is generally disgusted with Washington, DC. And when it comes to the bitter and ultrapartisan battles over budget, the deficit and deadlines for America to avoid defaulting on its financial commitments, the world is now watching.

But God is watching too. Others are watching to see how their self-interests will benefit in the final deal. Or they are watching to see who’s up and who’s down, who will get the political win, and whose election chances will be better afterward. The ones who usually win the battles over the budget and deficit are the ones who are watching most closely. As the book of Proverbs teaches, “the poor are shunned … but the rich have many friends” (Prov. 14:20 NIV).

But the religious community is starting to change this. We have formed a “Circle of Protection” to defend the most effective antipoverty efforts both at home and around the world. Of course, programs that help the poorest can always be reformed and made more effective, but they should not simply be slashed to allow budget savings to be made while we protect other areas with powerful special interests behind them. Faith leaders rightly say God is biased in such matters—that God prefers to protect the poor from more hurt and instructs the faithful to do the same.

Neither political party in the House, Senate, or White House has clearly and publicly committed to protect the poor and vulnerable in these fiscal debates and decisions, even though religious leaders have persistently pressed them all to do so. And we will continue to do so because of the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew.

Faith leaders are watching the political leaders in their debates over budgets, deficits, and debt ceilings. And we believe God is watching us all.

Jim Wallis is CEO of Sojourners. His latest book, released April 1, is On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, from which this piece was excerpted.

Jim Wallis, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, ©2013. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.

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