Acton Institute Powerblog

A Response to ‘What Would Jesus Cut?’

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Jim Wallis and a number of other Christians involved in politics are trying to gain attention for the question, “What would Jesus cut?” The answer to this question is supposed to be as obvious as it is in other moral contexts. For example, would Jesus lie about the useful life of a refrigerator he was selling for Best Buy? No way. Would he bully a kid into giving away his lunch money? Not a chance. Would you find him taking in the show at a strip club on interstate 40 in Arkansas? Unlikely to the extreme.

Would he agree to a 2% cut in the marginal tax rate for income made above $250,000? Would he EVER accept a cut in welfare spending? Those take a little more thought. Jim Wallis and others think it’s a no-brainer. Let us reason together.

As I look over what Wallis wrote, I see several things worth noting. For example, he complains that some Republicans want to cut domestic spending and international aid, while they support an increase in military spending. The implication is that this is obviously a sub-Christian position. But is it? Probably the most essential purpose of government is to protect the life and freedom of citizens. The government achieves this goal through military means. Unless one takes the position that Christianity implies corporate pacificism, then it is unclear the Republicans have blundered according to Christian ethics. Now, match the question of military spending versus international aid and/or domestic spending. Are the latter obviously superior to the former? No. It depends on not only what the stated objective is for the different types of spending, but whether they actually achieve their purposes. To simply state that the Republicans want to bolster military spending while cutting international aid and domestic spending is to achieve nothing at all by way of an indictment.

Here’s another example. Wallis complains bitterly that tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans add billions to the deficit. He is referring to the extension of George W. Bush’s cuts in the marginal tax rates that existed under Bill Clinton. The first question I have is how does Jim Wallis know that the level of taxation was just to begin with? And why take Bill Clinton’s tax levels as the Platonic form of taxation? Maybe they were too high or too low. The highest marginal tax rates have fluctuated drastically in the United States during the last century. John F. Kennedy made a big cut, with impressive economic effects, as did Ronald Reagan. Is Wallis sure that by cutting taxes those men robbed the poor and gave to the rich? Maybe a lot of poor people got jobs because of them. And we aren’t even getting into the question of whether rich people actually have an enhanced duty to pay taxes. If there is a community need, is it righteous to grab a rich person and employ the power of legal coercion to extract the needed funds?

Still another problem with this redistributionist attitude about taxes and spending is that it assumes a zero sum state of affairs. For example, one could assume that the most people would be better off under a system like the old Soviet Union that spread resources out to citizens in a way that prized equality of rations. The United States system didn’t do that nearly as much, not nearly at all. But which of the two systems provided a better life for people? The answer is easy. The United States and its emphasis on liberty did. Why? A more free economic system produces far more wealth than an unfree one. If your equality system produces a little, bitty pie, it may give you a lot of philosophical satisfaction, but it doesn’t do as much actual good for people as the system that prizes free productivity and success over equality.

What Jim Wallis is saying comes from a good heart. He is worried about things like fairness and, of course, about helping people. But the reasoning he employs in doing so assumes that federal programs actually achieve what they set out to do, which is far from obvious, and that they don’t create incentives for behavior that results in greater problems, which often happens. He also assumes a zero sum society. It is entirely possible that economic thinking that concerns itself more with productivity than with equality will actually leave the great majority of people better off.

Hunter Baker Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science at Union University and an Affiliate Scholar in Religion & Politics at the Acton Institute. He is the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student's Guide.


  • Warren Jewell

    Frankly, Wallis has been one of those too-many folk we have been wasting our time and other resources listening to. He is an anachronism, maybe of a pre-dating of, say, Marx, or even Rousseau. In reference to enlightenment processes, his likes should have been scraped from our work boots long ago.

  • Brad

    Interesting response. Wallis speaks a lot today to the values crisis in corporate america, and makes a lot of sense. Just as you point out that Wallis may be making assumptions, you yourself assume that the market will do what’s best. The plain and simple truth is that the market has not and is not. This is caused by values issues within business and society today. For example, we value R&D investments within the business world. We categorize these departments as investments in the future eventhough they are really an expense that may not produce profits until many years later. When it comes to education in society we have begun to look at it solely as an expense. Education is our country’s R&D department and should be viewed as an investment.

    Likewise, there is no redistribution of wealth and a war on the wealthy. Those are political tactics plain and simple. The truth is that we need to take a hard look at our values within our corporate structure. We have companies laying off thousands of employees while protecting (and often increasing) high-level salaries at the executive level within those same companies. Makes little sense and we are sacrificing productivity to benefit the few. This idea that protecting the wealthy at all costs will produce jobs is absurd. Trickle down hasn’t worked. Let’s be realistic. That job that might bring that person out of poverty is not going to be created here because someone pays lower taxes. They are going to reap the benefits of lower tax and ship the job off-shore gaining even more benefit.

    Last thing, we have a real whacked value system when it comes to wealth today. We criticize teachers for being paid $51k plus benefits in Wisconsin while defending those making $250k per year as not making all that much? So 1/5th of $250k is too much while $250k is not that much? I may not hold a Masters Degree in economics, but it seems to me that their is something wrong with the math and that line of thinking.

    Read Wallis’ book, think, and then revisit this post. You’ll see a great deals of holes in your thought process I’m sure.

  • Brad, I think you’ve misread my post. I don’t commit myself to as much as you attribute to me. All I argue, in pretty modest fashion, is that Wallis can’t take for granted that he is right about these things without further evidence.

  • Brad: We have read Wallis’ book. Go to the following link, read the review, and please come back and tell us where the “holes” are. Thanks. Commentary: Prophet Jim Wallis and the Ecclesia of Economic Ignorance.

  • Karen Cook

    I’m confused…how does this ‘response’, an attack on Jim Wallis’ philosophy, ‘respond’ to ‘What Would Jesus Cut’, which is an attack on Jim Wallis?

    Is this “I hate him!” vs. “I hate him more!”?

  • Karen: The writer says, “What Jim Wallis is saying comes from a good heart.” Did you miss that? Your comment aims to grossly distort what Hunter Baker actually wrote, and the spirit in which he wrote it. You are the first person on this thread to use the word “hate.”

  • Karen, I can’t tell if you are responding to me or not, but I don’t think anything I wrote corresponds to hating Jim Wallis at all. I take issue with some of his conclusions, but I don’t use any invective. In fact, I’ve posted this same piece at American Spectator where I was excoriated by commenters for giving Wallis the benefit of assuming his good will.

  • Roger McKinney

    Brad, no one at Acton thinks the market will always do what is best. Economics has proven that a free market (not just any market) will always provide better outcomes than a centrally planned market, but the emphasis is on free. We do not have a free market in the US. It is as centrally controlled as any socialist economy in Europe.

    But even a free market will not produce the results that people like Wallis demand of it. It won’t produce equality of incomes. However, freer markets (though not perfectly free) have lifted more people out of poverty than any government system of redistribution, which has a record of impoverishing people.

    A free market won’t equalize teacher pay with the pay of pro athletes, either. The only possible way to do that is a pure Marxist society, and we have witnessed the results of that in history.

    As for business values, Wallis violates the Biblical command to not judge your neighbor harshly. Yes, some examples of greed exist, but they are the minority. Wallis tries to make people believe that all businessmen are evil and greedy and need politicians to rein them in. But are there no examples of greedy politicians? Why does Wallis hate businessmen and worhship politicians?

  • I like how this post exposes Wallis’ misplaced trust in central planning. However, I’d like to see a little more skepticism from the author when it comes to military spending. A large proportion of military spending today is not spent on defense, but offense.

  • Jim Thibodeau

    Hunter thanks for your writing, I ejoyeed it and see you put a good deal of thought into it. I know little of politics but I can see that you haven’t read much about Jesus’ because he certainlly would be at the strip club, Admiring the fathers work and looking to get those pretty girls off the drugs.

    I do know that other peoples faith is very important to him quote. “If you have the faith of a musterd seed, you can move mountains”. I do believe we have a responsability to pay our taxes like Mary and Joseph and as a country if we don’t, China wouldn’t be paid in a timely manner.

    The debt is not something we should Ignore we really must pay it. Pay our taxes, tax the wealthy and get China off our back.

  • Jim Thibodeau

    Also I don’t think that cuting wealfare is an option. Think about it. the little money these people get from the government pays for food and not to much more. That in turn pays farmers and wealthy business’ that pay taxes. Thats a no brainer for me Hunter. Thanks again for your post.

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