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More Thoughts on ‘A Call for Intergenerational Justice’

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I posted some initial thoughts on “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis,” which was released by the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action yesterday.

I’ve been engaged in what I think are largely helpful conversations on this document in a number of venues in the meantime. Gideon Strauss challenged me to look at the document again, and reconsider my criticisms, and I have been happy to do so.

For instance, I voiced the concern that the core budgetary problem that must be addressed concerns entitlement spending, and I judged that the Call does not sufficiently address that concern. Gideon pointed me to a piece by Michael Gerson, a signer of the Call, that makes precisely this point: “Debates on discretionary spending are important. Our government should not waste money on ineffective programs. But discretionary spending is a sideshow, even a distraction, from the main governing task: getting entitlement spending under control so it does not crowd out all other government spending.”

I also made a related point that we should not be juxtaposing cuts in, for instance, defense spending with those on other discretionary areas, including social programs. As Gerson writes, these debates are largely a “sideshow.” And so Gideon also pointed me to today’s editorial about the Call, which makes a number of important points, not least of which is that “It would be simplistic to portray the present challenge as a simple matter of ‘guns vs. butter’ and to overemphasize the contribution that prudent reductions in defense spending, however necessary, would make to the current debt crisis.”

One further point of concern I voiced is that “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.” Gideon pointed me appropriately to the CPJ “Guideline on Government.”

These are all good and necessary documents for understanding the proper interpretive context for the Call, and I’ll admit, they weren’t the first things I thought of when attempting to understand the petition. I still wonder, though, why some of these things couldn’t be made more explicit in the document itself? If Gerson is right, that debates over discretionary cuts of whatever programs are really a distraction, why not make the focal point of the Call entitlement reform in a more central and explicit way?

And I do think there are other relevant interpretive contexts for understanding the Call. Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, and a host of others have been involved over the last days and weeks in a “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign that bears many similarities to “A Call for Intergenerational Justice.” Much of the material surrounding that campaign does seem to focus on fights over discretionary cuts, even to the point of contrasting military and social spending.

Jim Wallis said, for instance, “On a television program yesterday evening, I said that I want those who now propose major cuts to critical low-income family support programs to say, out loud, that every item of Pentagon spending is more important to our well-being and security than school lunches, child health, and early education programs.” He goes on to highlight particular social spending programs that should be immune to potential cuts.

I don’t think that kind of rhetoric is helpful at all, and is more of what Gerson might call a “sideshow.” But it is important because there is so much continuity between the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign and the “Call for Intergenerational Justice.” A significant number of signers of the Call, including Wallis and Claiborne, also are behind WWJC. And even the language about cutting budgets “on the backs of the poor” is reiterated with respect to the Call. Signer Jonathan Merritt writes that the Call means “we cannot balance the budget on the backs of the poor.”

So while the CPJ documents Strauss points to are certainly relevant to understanding the Call, I submit that the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign is also relevant. And here we might have a hint at why some of the more substantive theoretical questions regarding the role of the state in the provision of various social goods is not examined in more detail in the Call itself: the signers don’t have a unified view on this principled point. The CPJ Guideline on Government is a good starting point, but I find it highly doubtful that it would be assented to by all of the signers of the Call.

So perhaps there really is more than one way to read this document, and it can be put to various uses by various constituencies. This ambiguity, combined with my own doubts about what it actually does substantively say, are enough for me to refrain from signing it, even while I most certainly do agree with the sentiment that the current debt burden is unsustainable, both fiscally as well as morally, and continue to respect the work of many of those who have signed it.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • As I noted earlier, the document makes it clear that it is a “bipartisan agreement”. I think it should be read in this context.

    The fact that some of the WWJC folks signed onto the document should be cause for rejoice, rather than concern. Take a look at what they signed onto: healthcare expenses must be controlled while respecting “personal choice”. This would exclude a single-payer system. So, while the conservative side has given a little (taxing consumption instead of production would seem to be off the table, for instance), the liberal side has given up quite a bit. A single payer system is the gold standard of health care reform for most liberals. But, if both sides don’t give a little, it’s not really a compromise.

  • Roger McKinney

    The “Guideline on Government” could have been written by any Marxist. It places no limits whatsoever on the state. The USSR would have been in full compliance.

    As for cuts to the budget, the first item should be to eliminate middle class welfare. Most of SS, Medicare and Medicaid go to the middle class. Means test it and give it to the poor and you could cut about 90% of it out.

    Military spending should be cut dramatically, too. The US needs to quit being the policeman to the world.

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  • Marc Vander Maas

    Jim Wallis said, for instance, “On a television program yesterday evening, I said that I want those who now propose major cuts to critical low-income family support programs to say, out loud, that every item of Pentagon spending is more important to our well-being and security than school lunches, child health, and early education programs.” He goes on to highlight particular social spending programs that should be immune to potential cuts.

    I wonder sometimes if Wallis and others on his side of this debate either don’t understand or simply refuse to acknowledge that there is supposed to be a difference in the responsibilities shouldered by the federal government and state and local governments under our federal system. I realize that as Americans, we have strayed far from our Constitutional roots, but come on. I think one can believe that the Feds should spend more on defense than on social programs and still be a serious Christian. This isn’t to say that the Defense budget is sacrosanct; certainly there’s waste in there that can be trimmed. But if my numbers are right, you could cut the entire defense budget and still not eliminate the deficit. I just find it harder and harder to take Wallis seriously.

  • Claudette Grinnell-Davis

    Marc, historically the reason why the federal government had to get into some of these domains is because the states were FAILING. Admittedly, the feds are also failing. But simply invoking the Tenth Amendment doesn’t solve the problem. It just “passes the buck” without the bucks given that so many social programs in the states are funded by federal block grants. And this is precisely the problem: Whose problem is it when basic societal structures like the family break down? So far the response is generally to say “Not MY problem” or worse – in the case of my domain (child welfare) children suffer and the cycles perpetuate at a 35% intergenerational transmission rate. For the most part, it is *social capital* that breaks this cycle. But people are even more stingy with time than they are with money.

  • Nic Van Engen

    Your argument to strictly follow principle has an unintended consequence (a.k.a. backfire) which must be addressed. What the Call is asking for is to maintain funding for a *minute* percentage of ‘government giveaways’ – and while we should oppose this, there will be immediate and dire consequences if the plea is not answered.

    To “start with our principles on the role of government” will not bring about any real entitlement reform, but will result in funding cuts to programs which depend on it – and really do work – and that will have very real short and long-term consequences for these programs and the poor who are enabled by them. For example if the recently passed house budget becomes law, we will leave a cavernous hole where the government used to provide support (albeit wrongfully so), and the result will be more poor people and a louder cry for more government intervention. The cuts will actually raise more voices *against* the cause for smaller government. So until we are fully prepared to “fill in” this hole (which I assure you, we are not) we need to side with our Christian brethren even when our principles aren’t aligned with theirs.

    You need to sign the Call and force the debate over towards budget items that effect both the rich and the poor. I admire your integrity in standing on principles but systemic change starts with actions that won’t backfire. In a dysfunctional system people will pull every lever they can in
    order to avoid the real issue. Starting with principles rather than signing on with the Call gives people permission to pull the discretionary spending lever without addressing

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  • Roger McKinney

    Nic, it doesn’t really matter. When the US guv gets to the same situation that Greece and Ireland are in, the cuts will happen without much discussion. We can live beyond our means only for a short time.

  • Nic Van Engen

    When a person’s household budget comes up short, what should they look at first: grocery bill, sell the boat, cable TV bill, or the heat bill?

    Certainly all areas are subject to at least some cutbacks, but you wouldn’t stop buying food altogether in order to go boating on the weekend.

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