The Common Good

The Missing Religious Principle in Our Budget Debates

Sojomail - June 7, 2012


"We are looking at a growing climate of fear where folks really think long and hard about accessing basic services." - Milton Butterworth, who oversees outreach migrant health services for Blue Ridge Community Health Services in Hendersonville, N.C., on immigration enforcement fears keeping workers from getting health care. (Source: USA Today)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

The Missing Religious Principle in Our Budget Debates

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

That’s right, in a city deeply divided between the political right and left there is a growing consensus from religious leaders about getting our fiscal house in order and protecting 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.

Indeed, the phrase “a budget is a moral document” originated in the faith community, and has entered the debate. But those always in most jeopardy during Washington’s debates and decisions are precisely the persons the Bible instructs us clearly to protect and care for — the poorest and most vulnerable. They have virtually none of the lobbyists that all the other players do 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 which has brought together the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Salvation Army, and the leaders of other church denominations, congregations, and faith-based organizations across the nation.

Here is the missing principle still absent in our current 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 deficits are moral issues, and that we must not saddle future generations with crippling debt. But we believe that how we resolve deficits also is a moral issue. And our society must not take more from those who already have so much less than the rest of us.

We understand the politics of this debate. We know that Republicans will resist reforming the private sector, because that is where their core constituencies and money lie. We understand that Democrats will resist reforming the public sector because that is where their key constituencies and money are.

We also 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 in a meeting we religious leaders had with him in the White House last year as the August 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.’”

We have no choice as to what our position will be in these upcoming 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 literally mean life and death to the poorest around the world, who are assailed by 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.

We will be telling our legislators, for example — that if they really decide to take all of the proposed $36 billion in agricultural cuts from proven and successful nutritional “food stamp” programs, which go mostly to 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 the chance for students from poor families to go to college for the first time, but block any increased revenue from the wealthiest and keep corporate welfare checks flowing — they should anticipate having to listen for the faith community’s 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.

How faith community leaders protected low-income entitlements in the sequestered automatic cuts agreed to in the August 2011 debt ceiling deal is an untold story in much of the media. We will ask for those protections again.

Both Republicans and Democrats could agree to the principle of protecting the most vulnerable people — as have many budget cutting processes have in the past — and the Simpson-Bowles recommendations do even now. Then the parties could have their private-public sector debates and reach the compromises necessary to find fiscal integrity. But both party’s church leaders and pastors will be telling them to defend the ones for 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.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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