Special Report

Is Endless Government Debt Irreligious?

Rendering to the welfare state shouldn't be the only option available to American believers.

By 8.3.11

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Religious defenders of the Welfare and Entitlement State seem ambivalent but concerned about the final debt deal between President and Congress. A "Circle of Protection" led by Sojourners activist Jim Wallis and including the National Association of Evangelicals, National Council of Churches, U.S. Catholic Conference, and the Salvation Army had met with Obama, U.S. Senator Majority Harry Reid, and U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, urging higher taxes and rejecting any limits on social spending growth.

"We met with the president and Democratic leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and all of them fought to defend low-income people as we asked them to do," Wallis recently reported, while bemoaning that Republican leaders claimed to care about low income people but failed to uphold this principle. And he complained: "The most glaring problem with the deal is that it doesn't, at this point, include revenues." 

Oddly, Wallis, who is a pacifist, failed to rejoice over potentially sharp limits on future U.S. military spending. He did celebrate that his Circle of Protection proved that "poor people do have a constituency looking out for them." And he promised that the "faith community will be watching to see if the most vulnerable are being protected or savaged for the financial sins of the rest of us."

Why representatives of the Catholic bishops and U.S. evangelicals chose to collaborate in Wallis's public relations gambit to mobilize religious voices behind Obama and against Congressional Republicans is a mystery. At least the official statement from the U.S. Catholic Conference was more modest than Wallis's apocalyptic and insistent rhetoric, admitting: "We write as pastors and teachers, not experts or partisans."

A statement from the board of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) this Spring actually prioritized debt reduction, declaring, "By failing to live within its means, the nation has enjoyed unsustainable prosperity at the expense of future generations." And it warned: "Persistent deficit spending, whether at the personal or national level, violates biblical teaching and leads to bondage." But the NAE representative who met with Obama seemed to echo Wallis' prioritization of welfare spending and praised Obama in an interview with Roll Call afterwards: "I talked about the importance of fiscal responsibility, which the president articulated very clearly, so we're with him on that."

The National Council of Churches out-radicalized even Jim Wallis, boasting about arrests of its officials in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in protest against budget "cuts." "Our elected officials are protecting corporations and wealthy individuals while shredding the safety net for millions of the most vulnerable people in our nation and abroad," hyperventilated the NCC's former president after his arrest. Another arrested NCC official explained, "We are citizens first and foremost of the realm of God," When steps Congress is taking contradicts our call as followers of Jesus Christ, we must take action." Interestingly, Wallis, despite many arrests in his colorful past, declined to join the civil disobedience this time.

None of the Circle of Protection members seemed to question that any limits on federal social spending or entitlements could be anything other than an assault on the needy. Do these programs work, or does the federal Welfare State instead entrap the poor and perpetuate poverty? Would limiting taxes and the size of government not help the poor and all Americans if it fuels economic growth? And wouldn't endless debt and higher taxes, in producing further economic stagnation, not harm the poor most of all?

Most federal government spending goes to "entitlement" programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and no long-term solution to debt and government growth is possible without their reform. Shouldn't religious leaders concerned about the nation's health, if they enter the political fray, speak to this urgent need? Of course, hyperbolic voices like Jim Wallis portray most government spending as military related or claim that government revenues are eviscerated by special tax breaks for oil companies and corporate jet owners. The military accounts for about 25 percent of the federal budget, a percentage that will decline. And whatever else their merit, corporate tax breaks likely produce more productive jobs than do federal transfer payments.

Overall, federal spending per household has nearly tripled over the last 45 years. Shouldn't religious and moral leaders be concerned that the federal government's massive expansion is impeding not only economic growth but also the ability of churches and private charities to function fully in fidelity to their faith? Or do some of them see the Welfare and Entitlement State as ultimately a replacement for religion and charity? Maybe one of the most threatening corruptions of Big Government is its usurpation of the spiritual authority that rightfully belongs to religious institutions.

Responding to the failure of many church officials to question the morality and plausibility of an endlessly expanding federal government is a new coalition called "Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE)." It portrays endlessly expanding government and debt as potentially ruinous. "Compassion and charity for 'the least of these' is an essential expression of our faith, flowing from a heart inclined towards God," their inaugural statement declared. "And just as the love of God frees us for a more abundant life, so our charity must go beyond mere material provision to meet the deeper needs of the poor."

CASE warned that "to suggest that Matthew 25 -- or any commandment concerning Christian charity -- can be met through wealth redistribution is to obscure these truths." And it urged considering the "whole counsel of scripture, which urges not only compassion and provision for the poor but also the perils of debt and the importance of wise stewardship." Signatories to CASE's stance (including myself) are so far not so much senior church officials but theologians, ethicists, and lay activists. Check it out here.

In many moments of history, senior church prelates are stagnantly attached to the cultural status quo, however dysfunctional. Momentous social reforms usually arise from the lower ranks. Maybe CASE will signify a new groundswell among America's church goers for fiscal responsibility and a genuine concern for the needy rooted beyond a failing Welfare State.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.