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Taking His Name in Vain: What Would Jesus Cut?

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Ray’s post pointed to something that’s been bugging me about Jim Wallis’ “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. As with the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign (“Transportation is a moral issue.” What isn’t these days?), Wallis’ campaign assumes the moral high ground by appropriating the Holy Name of Jesus Christ to advance his highly politicized, partisan advocacy. Jesus becomes an advertising slogan. And what is implicit here is that those who oppose Wallis are somehow at odds with the Gospel of Christ; those who agree with him are on Christ’s side and especially as it concerns “the least of these.”

But watch the video above and listen to the language of this MSNBC program host. What Wallis and his organization have done is give occasion for the use of Christ’s name for the most partisan, mocking and disrespectful purposes. Wallis should be ashamed of himself, but instead he lets this all pass so he can right away get to his simplistic talking points about “the budget as a moral document.” He arrogantly does this as the voice for the “faith community.”

Did I say simplistic? I should have added “dishonest” to my description of what Wallis is doing.

No serious person would take Wallis’ sound bites or the Sojourners campaign as a real help to understanding our nation’s grave budget and debt problems. In that respect, what Wallis is doing is aggravating a problem that has cried out for honest, bipartisan cooperation for many years. He makes inflammatory assertions about cuts to programs for nutrition, malarial bed nets, and the like, and generally raises false alarms about budget cutters abandoning “the most vulnerable.” Really? If this were true, it would cast those Christians on the other side of Wallis — those who honestly believe we need to do something serious about the budget and mounting debt — as haters of the poor. Look at the White House chart on the budget and show me where this abandonment is happening. Just the opposite.

And all these vague, unattributed assertions, like the bed nets. If you don’t see it the way Wallis sees it, you must be indifferent to children dying of malaria. Right? That’s insulting to say the least. How many mosquito nets flow into Africa annually? Where do they come from? What share of these is funded by U.S. taxpayers? Are they effective? We don’t get answers to these questions. Maybe Wallis should read this article in the left leaning Guardian newspaper that explains why “Mosquito nets can’t conquer malaria.” How is malaria defeated? Economic growth.

Against his claims of abandoning the poor, Wallis harps on defense spending. Again, this is a dishonest diversion. Defense spending is not the main problem as this chart vividly shows (HT: Heritage Foundation).

Should defense spending be treated as a sacred cow? No. Is there waste in the defense budget? Undoubtedly. But let’s not make vague assertions about children going hungry because of redundant or unneeded military programs.

What’s more, Wallis seems to be impervious to the fact that spending on welfare and War on Poverty programs has been a massive and costly failure. His use of anecdote and selectively trivial factoids serves as a smokescreen for this reality. Is is possible that government nutrition programs might be wasteful or redundant? He doesn’t seem to be aware of that possibility. In a recent report on duplication in government programs, the GAO said this about nutrition programs:

Domestic food and nutrition assistance is provided through a decentralized system of primarily 18 different federal programs that shows signs of overlap and inefficient use of resources. [But] not enough is known about the effectiveness of many of these programs. Research suggests that participation in 7 of the 18 programs— including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and SNAP—is associated with positive health and nutrition outcomes consistent with programs’ goals, such as raising the level of nutrition among low-income households, safeguarding the health and well-being of the nation’s children, and strengthening the agricultural economy. Yet little is known about the effectiveness of the remaining 11 programs because they have not been well studied.

Reality gets complicated. Talking points are easier. Writing in 2005, Washington Post columnist George Will described how a freshman Sen. Barack Obama used a string of “old banalities” to attack the Bush administration for not doing enough to alleviate the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina. Will wrote:

[Obama] included the requisite lament about the president’s inadequate “empathy” and an amazing criticism of the government’s “historic indifference” and its “passive indifference” that “is as bad as active malice.” The senator, 44, is just 30 months older than the “war on poverty” that President Johnson declared in January 1964. Since then the indifference that is as bad as active malice has been expressed in more than $6.6 trillion of anti-poverty spending, strictly defined.

At least Obama had the decency not to invoke the name of the Lord. As for the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign, the “faith community” hasn’t been spared that.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Marc Vander Maas

    What Would Jesus Cut?

    Hmm. I don’t know. Do we know if Jesus was a federalist? Because if he was, he might not have so much trouble with cutting social spending on the Federal level. But I suppose it would also depend on whether or not Jesus would have thought that driving an entire nation to the point of financial armageddon was a worthwhile trade-off for making sure the poor receive a check from the feds to meet their most basic physical needs while neglecting deeper spiritual needs (that might actually be the root cause of some of those physical needs, natch).

    But wait – Jesus didn’t leave us a road map for the perfect system of government. He left principles for his people to operate by in whatever system of government they found themselves in. And thus, while Christians cannot disagree about the imperative that we must help those in need, we can and do disagree about the prudential matters of how to go about that task, including questions of how, or even whether various levels of government should be engaged in the task of assisting the poor.

    Most of that probably goes over Wallis’ head, because let’s face it: he’s more of a lobbyist for the welfare state than anything else. It’s a shame that he’s taken seriously anymore.

    I hope I’m not being uncharitable, but I’m just sick and tired of his schtick.

  • Randy Zabel

    If I am not mistaken, Jesus was quoted as saying things like, “Let the dead bury the dead,” “We will always have the poor.” His message was that to use charity as a justification to behave in ways counter to His truth is not acceptable. Jesus was not very sympathetic to politics. He told those near Him that what the government did was unimportant “Give unto Ceasar” what was important is the Kingdom of God.

  • Bill Quinnan

    While I agree with this post in general, I do think it’s a little inappropriate for a Catholic Web site to be referring to anyone as a “gas bag.” I think we can put ourselves above name-calling.

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  • Bill: Thanks. I have replaced “gas bag” with “program host” although I thought the description particularly apt given the high-pressure verbal flatulence escaping from the host’s head with a roaring, rushing sound. But I see your point. Also, I should point out that the Acton Institute is not a Roman Catholic organization. Acton is a broadly ecumenical research and educational organization drawing its researchers, lecturers, conference participants, collaborators, supporters and benefactors broadly from among Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Jews and Muslims.

  • Chuck Serio

    This line of argument brings to mind the following quotations:

    “Every member upon this floor knows it. We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right so to appropriate a dollar of the public money.” ~ Congressman Davey Crockett

    “’Of that which remaineth, give alms.’(14) It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity – a duty not enforced by human law.“ ~ Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum

    After viewing the video, I believe that the term “gasbag” should be reinstated.

  • Roger McKinney

    Marc, Jesus did design a government. If Jesus is God, then he designed the Israeli government under the judges. He warned the Israelis not to take a king and expand state power. In the only government that God designed, there was no executive or legislative branches of government, only a judicial branch. The priesthood taught the law to the people.

    So what would Jesus cut? Based on the only government God ever designed he would cut out the legislature and the executive branch. Also, the nation didn’t have a standing army, so he would cut the military budget.

  • Roger McKinney

    PS, as much as I don’t like Wallis, I have to agree with him that we need substantial cuts to the military.

  • Roger McKinney

    “War on Poverty programs has been a massive and costly failure”

    That’s true, but so have most of our military ventures overseas. We need to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, Europe and Korea and cut the military budget by a huge amount.

  • Marc Vander Maas

    Just a reminder:

    FY2010 Military spending by US govt: $685.1 billion
    Projected FY2011 federal deficit: $1.65 trillion

    Cut all military spending out of the budget, you still end up with a $1 trillion deficit. Argue all you want about whether military spending is justified or wasteful or whatever, but don’t forget that it amounts to little more than a sideshow in the federal spending circus.

  • Roger McKinney

    Marc, I wouldn’t call $685 billion a side show. Of course we can’t cut military spending to nothing. We have to cut all programs to some degree. Yes, Wallis is an idiot. But on the serious side, we need to quit policing the world.

    Francis Schaeffer had a book on love in which he wrote that part of demonstrating true love is to not infringe on other people’s domains. The US has been guilty of that since WWI.

    Just to take one example: the US could have allowed the Arab League to take care of Saddam Hussein. The Egyptian military is has been US bought and paid for since 1978. They could have stopped Hussein any time they wanted to.

    Allowing others to police their own groups follows the principle of subsidiary, which is a practical principle of justice but also of love.

  • Marc Vander Maas

    Roger, that’s all well and good, and I’m sure that there’s worthwhile arguments to support your view on the size of the military budget and US foreign policy and whatnot. But in terms of the current US budget crisis, I could care less about the military budget, because even if every dollar the US spends on the military is thrown into a pit and burned, the defense budget is not driving the debt problem that we face. The problem is the mandatory entitlement spending. If we don’t get a handle on that, it’s pretty much over. So yeah, it’s a side show. It’s a distraction from the real issue. They could radically reform defense spending this year but if they leave entitlement spending untouched, we’re not really any better off.

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