A number of prominent evangelical leaders in America have issued a statement on the budget fights in the federal government. “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis,” is sponsored by the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action. Signatories include Ron Sider of ESA, Gideon Strauss of CPJ, Richard Mouw, Michael Gerson, Shane Claiborne, Andy Crouch, and Jim Wallis.

Here are some initial thoughts:

There is very little principle in this statement, which purports not to “endorse any detailed agenda.” The basic principle communicated is: “We ought to care for the poor because God does.” This is of course laudable and true, as is the commitment to “intergenerational justice,” as long as that is defined as not living today on the backs of the unborn and not code for something else.

But the rest really just consists of leaps in logic largely based on unstated assumptions about the role that government should have in administering that care. To wit: “To reduce our federal debt at the expense of our poorest fellow citizens would be a violation of the biblical teaching that God has a special concern for the poor.”

Given the current state of affairs, which the statement acknowledges is a “crisis,” I don’t think it is helpful to energize the grassroots to petition to save particular programs from scrutiny and reform. Things are so bad that everything should be on the table. The situation is not an either/or between social spending and military spending, as Claiborne and Wallis would have it. It’s a both/and, and that includes entitlements.

Which brings me to my next point: There isn’t nearly enough in here about entitlement reform. Social Security must become “sustainable,” but there is no mention of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. These are the real drivers of huge swaths of our national debt. Non-discretionary spending needs to be scrutinized.

But that’s not all. This call wants to place “effective programs that empower poor Americans or contribute internationally to economic development or the advancement of health” out of bounds. The fact is that many of these programs are busted, and I think it is disingenuous for those who know that to say that we have some kind of moral obligation to keep throwing good money after bad simply out of some vague concern for “the poor.” That is more like a salve for guilty consciences than responsible social action.

The language of the statement doesn’t seem to do justice to the principled positions that agree with the vague notion of the obligation to care for the poor, but disagree about the particular policy and budgetary implications at the federal level. Wallis and Chuck Colson recently agreed that Christians ought engage in principled and honest debate, and not demonize other positions, even implicitly. To cast the debate in the terms that budget hawks don’t care about the poor I think violates this kind of commitment.

So what we’re missing here is a really principled and vigorous view of what the government’s legitimate role is in the world and in relationship to a variety of concerns: defense, social welfare, international development, and so on. Once we’ve decided what government is for you can start to make some principled decisions about funding priorities…things closest to the core mission of government should get the highest priority, and so on.

And the focus really shouldn’t just be on what government should and shouldn’t do. Many of these leaders are religious leaders. The focus should be on what these other institutions can and should be doing, beyond simply serving as lobbying organizations for governmental programs.

I guess, needless to say, I won’t be signing.


  • http://www.johnharmstrong.com John H. Armstrong

    You have offered a very substantive and needed corrective to a well-intentioned statement that says very little other than encourage people and government to show compassion corporately. Though this is true, as you say, it is not really helpful as meaningful policy and solution. The devil, in this case, is in the details and what details they give us make me feel a little more than nervous. Since many of these signatories have a clear ideological horse in the race it is less than honest to not admit it. The same often happens on the other side which is why we need you, and Acton, to remind us of principles that are rooted in freedom and virtue.

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  • http://www.learningaboutpolitics.com/ Napp Nazworth

    I have to wonder if you read the same statement I read. You say, “there is no mention of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid”, but the second bullet point under “Our Core Proposals” specifically mentions healthcare expenses. Also, use of the phrase “effective programs” implies that not all anti-poverty programs would be “out of bounds”. The implication is that ineffective programs should not be funded. You also argue that the statement “demonizes” budget hawks. I don’t see that either. Indeed, how can such a strong condemnation of our national debt be interpreted that way? It is a budget-hawk-ish statement!

    Regarding your notion that there is no principled statement about the proper role of government, I agree. I think you should judge it, however, on what it is, rather than on what it is not. You will notice that the signers represent Christians from different sides of the political spectrum. You should not expect, therefore, for them to agree on the proper role of government. What is more impressive is that, even with their different views of the proper role of government, they all agree on the importance of tackling our debt crisis. And that is worth signing (as I have).

  • http://www.jordanballor.com/ Jordan J. Ballor

    Napp,

    On the section of controlling health care costs, I honestly don’t know what that means. Does it refer to Medicare and Medicaid? Does it refer to the radical expansion of federal health care expenditures via the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act? Is that then a section that argues for repeal or reform of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or in fact supports that act as a means to achieving budgetary restraint?

    As to the demonization of budget hawks, Gideon Strauss has pointed to some of the documentation surrounding the statement from CPJ, and rightly so. But isn’t the statements surrounding the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign relevant as well? Those clearly set up this dynamic: care for the poor means “continuing governmental care for the poor and weak” in the words of the Call, and in the words of that campaign against budget cuts “on the backs of poor and vulnerable people.”

    If all this really amounts to is a statement that we need to tackle the debt crisis, then so be it…I obviously agree. What bothers me is the sense that there are programs that should be immune to cuts simply because they are touted as helping the poor. “Effective” really is the key word here, as you point out.

  • Daniel Grant

    It’s also a little hard to read the call and believe that CPJ is terribly serious about their claim to be non-partisan. I suspect that the reason they have difficulty putting entitlements all the way onto the table is that they appear simultaneously married to the notions that the Church has a responsibility to the poor (amen), and that the Federal Government should be the primary agent to discharge that responsibility on our behalf.

    I find that while they have not created a separate “principled statement about the proper role of goverment” it’s not terribly difficult to distill what the CPJ believes those principles to be from their call.

    For instance, the four bullet points in their core proposal are to cut Federal Spending, control healthcare expenses, fix social security and reform the tax code. As Jordan noted, the only items that appear to be listed as potential targets are discretionary spending items, though anyone who has read anything about the current budget knows that the *entire* discretionary budget, including the military, could be cut and the deficit would still exist.

    Note further that only bullet point one appears to call for reduction in spending, but more than half of the verbage in that point are spent as caution against cutting too much in welfare and/or stimulus spending areas. Bullet point two, control of healthcare expenses, is actually a huge addition to the Federal budget, and philosophically to the scope of what government is and should be responsible for. Bullet three calls for protection and continuation of social security, and bullet four can only be interpreted as a call to raise taxes.

    It’s clear, to me anyway, that the CPJ sees the role of Federal Government as a wellspring of welfare and entitlement programs. In fact, their definition of “intergenerational justice” appears to be “one generation must not benefit or suffer greatly at the cost of another.” The reason they appear to be concerned about the debt is that that economic instability may effect the government’s ability to provide “continuing governmental care for the poor and weak.”

    As such, the CPJ must be aware that their statement is deeply partisan, rhetorical flourishes to the contrary notwithstanding.

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  • http://www.learningaboutpolitics.com/ Napp Nazworth

    To me, “healthcare expenses” obviously refers to Medicare and Medicaid. Since this is the largest part of the federal budget that deals with healthcare (by far), I don’t see how it can be interpreted any other way.

  • Peter Vander Meulen

    You are right. It is all about the proper role of government.

    Many of the recently proposed budget cuts will destroy programs that try to bring about a more just economic and social order; programs that give the poor and oppressed a more equal opportunity to thrive. This is about getting at the causes of poverty. This is about justice. This is work for which we must hold governments accountable.

    I think the bible is very, very clear about what God expects from rulers – from people who are responsible for government:

    Kings – those who governed – in Israel bore special responsibility to see that God’s heart for justice was actually implemented in the land they governed. That’s why the psalmist prays in Psalm 72, 1-2, “Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice”.

    It is to the rulers of Israel – not just anyone – that the prophet Isaiah in chapter 1:10 addressed his clarion call, “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the cause of the widow.”

    And there are consequences! Just governance has its blessings and unjust – bad governance – risks God’s judgment. In Jeremiah 22, God addresses “the king of Judah, you who sit on David’s throne” (vs. 2), saying, “Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hands of their oppressors those who have been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. For if you are careful to carry out these commands, then kings who sit on David’s throne will come through the gates of this palace, riding in chariots and one horses, accompanied by their officials and their people. But if you do not obey these commands, declares the LORD, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin” (Jer 22:3-5).

    In the New Testament also the bible makes clear that because of our fallen state God has given governments the responsibility for restraining evil. Certainly this means protecting the poor and powerless from the greedy and powerful – in other words it is the responsibility of government to create the conditions for a just society where everyone has the means to flourish.

    The budget cuts we are concerned about strike at the very programs that are intended to protect the poor and give them a fair chance to have the same opportunities the wealthy have to thrive and succeed.

    Peter

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  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Jordan,

    So you don’t think this paragraph addresses the responsibility of non-govt institutions?

    Reforming our culture of debt is not just the responsibility of government. A materialistic, live-for-the-moment mentality has seduced many Christians and many Americans to live beyond their means. Churches must disciple their members toward stewardship, justice, and concern for the poor. Families must change their thinking and spending. Businesses must be concerned not only with short–term corporate profits but also with long–term community well-being and the common good. But government does have the primary responsibility to reverse at least one part of our mad rush to economic disaster—our ever-increasing government debt.

    The document is less than 700 words, and nearly 100 of those words address what families, churches, and businesses must do.

  • Mary

    Perhaps when considering caring for the poor, they should consider the Good Book:

    Each must do as already determined, without sadness or compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

  • http://www.jordanballor.com/ Jordan J. Ballor

    Mike, I do not think it does so adequately.

  • Peter Vander Meulen

    Jordan, your link has little to do with my post. My point is that the gospel puts protection of the poor squarely on the shoulders of government – as a core issue of just governance. Do you agree that governments are charged with protecting the poor and ensuring they can thrive? If so we can talk about whether or not the proposed budget cuts promote or hinder that task…

  • http://www.lisastewartlaw.com Lee S

    Peter Vander Meulen, what gives the poor a greater chance to thrive, freedom or government aid?

  • http://blog.acton.org Jordan

    Peter,

    I do not think the federal government has a primary and permanent responsibility to provide direct material assistance to the poor. I affirm the principle of subsidiarity, which you should know is a hallmark not only of modern Roman Catholic social teaching, but also of Reformed social thought.

    Would you say the following represents your view or not?

    ‘…poverty is alleviated primarily by means of a flourishing economy and secondarily through the charitable efforts of faith communities and non-governmental, non-profit organizations (NGOs), we also propose that “because people in dire poverty need help even when their neighbors are not generous or when economic conditions restrict private charity…government will at times have to act in ways that go beyond preventive measures and the support of NGOs, for it must address critical conditions that endanger the welfare of society as a whole.”’

  • Bruce427

    I have observed that Jim Wallis has far-left political views. It seems that he often tries to justify his leftist political world-view by invoking the name of Jesus. Jesus, for example, certainly cared for the poor, and certainly Jesus would want Christians to care for the poor — but this was on an “individual” basis, NOT a governmental basis. I believe a good case is to be made that our federal government, under left-wing leaders, has usurped the place of churches and faith-based organizations (with regard to helping the poor) so as to make the poor dependent upon government doles in exchange for their votes. In other words, for leftist types, “helping the poor,” is not a form of altruistic benevolence, but a way of securing votes for other pet left-wing agendas (abortion, homosexual marriage, forced income redistribution, etc). A disproportionate number of the Left self-identity as: “no religious affiliation at all.” So it is almost always a non sequitur when the Left invokes the name of Jesus to give legitimacy to one of their agendas. Were “the poor” to suddenly began voting Republican, those on the Left would abandon them in a heartbeat. I find that neither Jim Wallis nor Brian McLaren are credible spokes persons for “Biblical” Christianity. I do not believe that Jesus and Wallis are two peas of the same pod.

  • Bruce427

    The Apostle Paul wrote to the church of the Thessalonians: “even when you were with you, we gave you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat either” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The gist of Paul’s statement was: no charitable doles for those who will not work (irrespective of how hungry they may be). Now certainly, out of Christian charity, we should help the poor who *cannot* work. But our federal government makes little distinction between those who cannot work, and those who “will not.” Our current system, in fact, encourages many to NOT work because they get more in federal handouts than a minimum wage job would pay. I witnessed a case where a worker turned down a promotion because she said, (1.) The increase in pay would reduce her federal benefits, and (2.) She would have to work one weekend a month. The promotion would have put her on a career path to self-sufficiency, but she turned it down to retain an “earned (?) income” tax credit. In my opinion, such persons should not be eligible for federal assistance.

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  • Amanda Peterman

    Why do some think that Entitlement Programs are a biblical way to help the poor? Sadly, welfare has hurt the poor more than any entitlement program spending cuts. It shouldn’t be a discussion of either/or..either we give to the poor or we don’t…it should be about how can we help the poor BETTER than we have been….individually and corporately.

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