Acton Institute Powerblog

Why Christians Should Oppose the Debt Ceiling Charade

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636_debt_ceiling_0When it comes to political policy, Christians in America have a wide-range of opinions about what should be done. Even when we agree on a general principle, we tend to disagree about how that informs our policy choices. We recognize, for instance, that we have an obligation to care for the poor but differ on the type and degree of government involvement.

Such differences can lead us to believe that there is nothing we can agree on. But I don’t believe that is true. There are indeed some issues that all Bible-believing Christians should be able to agree on.

One such area of potential agreement is paying debts. The Bible is clear that believers are to pay what we owe. The Apostle Paul tells us, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed . . .” (Romans 13:7). Similarly, the Psalmist warns that, “The wicked borrows but does not pay back . . .” (Psalm 37:21). And Proverbs tells us, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you.” (Proverbs 3:27-28).

The Bible is clear that when an individual incurs a debt they are required, to the best of their ability, to pay what they owe. But does this same principle apply to governments?

Because of the differences in roles and responsibilities not all principles that apply to the individual apply to the state. However, it seems clear this is one principle that clearly applies to both.

In our form of government we elect representatives to act in our behest, including taking on contractual debt obligations. We may not agree with either the levels of spending or the priorities, but these legislators have been duly elected to incur debts on our behalf that we – or our grandchildren — must pay.For this reason, I believe as Christians we should not refuse to pay for the legal obligations that we have authorized.

In policy terms this means we have two general choices: we can raise the debt limit and borrow money needed to cover our shortfall or we can immediately raise taxes in order to generate the revenues necessary to pay the government’s bills.

Member of Congress who are refusing to raise the debt ceiling (or raise taxes) until their ancillary demands are met are acting immorally, since they are refusing to pay the debts they themselves authorized. Hopefully, they are only bluffing and have no real intention of throwing the country into a financial crisis. But even if they are lying about their true intentions, they are threatening to act immorally if they don’t get their way. As Christians we should find such behavior unacceptable. The fact that they are representing us makes such an action intolerable.

Many of us Christians in America have become jaded and cynical, willing to accept, or at least overlook, dishonest charades that are carried out in our name. Isn’t it time we stop tolerating such nonsense? If we as citizens are to pay taxes to whom taxes are owed, and revenue to whom revenue is owed, shouldn’t the authorities set up as “ministers of God” be expected to do the same?

There are few policy issues on which both the Biblical principle is clear and the issue transcends the political categorization. We shouldn’t waste this opportunity for Christians on the left, right, and center to come together to tell Congress to stop this political theater.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • tamsin

    In policy terms this means we have two general choices: we can raise the debt limit and borrow money needed to cover our shortfall or we can immediately raise taxes in order to generate the revenues necessary to pay the government’s bills.

    Huh? What about option three: cut spending?

    Do not reauthorize certain expenses that must legally, contractually, be reauthorized?

    Legislate to remove automatic increases in spending in certain programs that are less important than other programs?

    • What about option three: cut spending?

      In the present situation, spending cuts would likely not lower the obligation enough to pay what is owed. Most of the current obligation is non-discretionary so even if we cut that out we’d owe in the future we still couldn’t cover what we need to pay now.

      Do not reauthorize certain expenses that must legally, contractually, be reauthorized?

      That is what should have been done during the budget process. I whole-heartedly agree that we need to reduce spending. That is essential. But I get annoyed by members of Congress (mostly in the GOP) who pretend that fighting for spending cuts during the debt limit charade is really doing something. They are merely trying to provide a fig leaf so that they can tell their constituents they “did something.” But if we keep letting them get away with this they’ll never feel pressured to act when it really matters, during the budget talks.

      • tamsin

        I was going to try to compose a response regarding the discretionary definition of “non-discretionary” obligations; the question of which party feels less pressure to act during “budget talks” because they expect we can always print more money until taxes are raised; and the immorality of printing money to “feed the poor”… but much more able commenters have posted below.

  • Ryan McGrath

    For the record, debt-rating service Moody’s Investors Service Inc.
    said in a memo this week: “We believe the government would continue to
    pay interest and principal on its debt even in the event that the debt
    limit is not raised, leaving its creditworthiness intact.”

    Just to be clear, it added: “There is no direct connection between the debt limit … and a default.”

    Read More At Investor’s Business Daily:

    • They are referring to default on the national debt (i.e., interest on bonds that have already been borrowed). But default in contract law implies failure to perform a contractual obligation. In that sense there is a direct connection between default and the debt limit. If we don’t raise the debt limit then we default on such contractual obligations as pay for our military servicemembers.

      • Charlie Harris

        Joe, I heard someone mention in a discussion the other day, contracts (with venders/contractors) won’t be breached, during the shutdown/debt ceiling delay, because the contracts have clauses, which if they aren’t paid “on time”, then interest accrues. In such cases, there is no “default”. Because, the gov’t could be late on its vendor payments for a variety of reasons, hence the clauses.

  • I am all for cutting spending. But the Senate passed a budget in April and Republican in both the house and senate have blocked even name people to the conference committee that would agree to the budget terms. Not once but 19 times last I counted.

    It seems immoral to me to shut down the government because of a lack of a budget, and at the same time actively prevent even discussion of getting a budget.

    • tamsin

      (Note: the Senate only passed a budget in April, the first time in four years, after the House threatened to suspend Congressional salaries.)

      From The Hill on October 1,

      Senate Democratic leaders shortly before midnight rejected a House Republican request to appoint conferees to negotiate a short-term government funding bill.

      The move made it all but certain there would be a government shutdown after midnight.

      “We will not go to conference with a gun to our head,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the Senate floor.

      “The first thing that the House has to do is pass a clean six-week [continuing resolution]. They have that before them,” Reid said. “If they do that, then we’ll agree to work with Republicans on funding for the government for the remainder of the fiscal year.”

      Less then two hours later, the House voted to go to conference, and House Republicans named conferees.

      They are Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.), Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (Ky.), Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (Mich.), and Reps. John Carter (Texas), Ander Crenshaw (Fla.), Rodney Frelinghuysen (N.J.) and Tom Graves (Ga.).

      Read more:

  • maxime1793

    I have another option still: We can nationalise the Fed, cancel the interest on T-Bills held by the Fed and its previous owners, and issue debt-free money, ending the charade of giving free money to private banks to then buy T-Bills back from the Treasury.

  • riw777

    Sorry, Acton, but you’re completely wrong on this one. First, the US doesn’t need to go into more debt to service it’s debt. The first time you call your credit card company to ask for a credit increase so you can pay your credit card –that is when you know you have a spending problem.

    Your second point is that the US Government would “default” on “contractual obligations” if the debt limit isn’t raised. You then mention military pay. This is a massive misdirection –you need to get out of the Democratic talking points, and deal with a little reality here. If the US government only paid what it is actually under direct contract to pay, there would be tons of money left over. Let me give you a hint: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and most other social welfare programs; aid to foreign nations; paying for Obama’s next vacation; paying for 70% of Congressional Staffer’s health care; grants to states for education; and many other things are not _contractual_ obligations on the part of the US Government. Paying to create and disseminate advertising to get people to sign up for health insurance isn’t a “contractual obligation,” either.

    Although those who love big government would like you to think your social security check is a “right,” the courts have ruled a number of times that it’s simply not.

    The problem is we’ve all been lied to so many times that we no longer really understand what the truth is here. We’ve allowed the church, at large, to step away from its obligations in the name of “social justice.” Sorry, but “social justice” isn’t taking money person A at the point of a gun to give it to person B. We’ve forgotten the basic principle of subsidiary (something Acton talks about constantly), and we’ve incurred debts we cannot ever hope to pay. Ever.

    The solution is not to make everything the government does into a “contractual obligation,” that must be paid for in the name of “social justice.” Instead, it’s time to return to our personal responsibility for ourselves, our families, our friends, and our communities.

    Are you with us, Acton, or not?

  • Jeff Johnson

    Thank you for this clear and wise exhortation – and may I add a courageous one.

  • Jonathan Watson

    “Member of Congress who are refusing to raise the debt ceiling (or raise taxes) until their ancillary demands are met are acting immorally, since they are refusing to pay the debts they themselves authorized.”

    Does this depend on any or all of the following assumptions, Mr. Carter?

    a. These are the same members of Congress who, in fact, authorized any given modern debt and therefore, implicitly agree even if such a member voted against a law;
    b. Debts accrued through actions of prior Congresses (e.g., SNAP or Social Security) are binding on current members who disagree with that spending;
    c. No spending is used or has been used for immoral purposes (e.g., on abortions or targeting of conservative groups, etc.), or in other words, a contract incurred for immoral purposes is still a contract and must be paid;
    d. Any member of Congress who disagrees with the spending and is using the shutdown to attempt to force change either keeps his / her job and implicitly agrees with all spending undertaken by the government, or disagrees but cannot use strong-armed tactics to force change, or must resign rather than force potential default if change of a law is impossible.
    e. The “power of the purse” held by the House was not intended to be a check on government spending, as most government spending is paid after the fact and therefore, such a check is meaningless.

    I would appreciate your thoughts, sir.

    • If you operate a business is it immoral for you to refuse to pay a debt that was legally made even if you were not the one that authorized it? Or is it immoral for a wife to refuse to pay a debt that her husband made even if she was not present when he purchased the item?

      • Jonathan Watson

        “If you operate a business is it immoral for you to refuse to pay a debt that was legally made even if you were not the one that authorized it?” – Presuming that you: 1. Knew the debt was made, and 2. The debt is not in itself for some immoral purpose, then yes, it ought to be paid.

        “Or is it immoral for a wife to refuse to pay a debt that her husband made even if she was not present when he purchased the item?” – Your analogy is faulty or lacking here. If she was not present AND did not authorize or agree to the purchase, then she is not acting immorally in refusing to pay for it.

        But, neither situation fits what is going on here well. The second is better however – the political situation is more akin to a wife agreeing to all of the husbands’ purchases, but refusing to pay for those she thinks are themselves immoral, for those for which she didn’t agree, and refusing to extend a credit limit on her credit card to permit more drunken spending.

        • Your complaint only has validity if you don’t believe in representative democracy. If you believe in representative democracy then the votes of the congress obligate future congressional actions until the future congress changes the law.

          The problem with the debt ceiling argument that you are making is that no spending cuts are being voted on and passed. So the government is obligated. A minority of a representative government cannot refuse to pay the bills obligated by the majority. You can suggest that the form of government change, but that is the government we have. So I agree with Joe Carter, refusal to pay for bills already agreed to is an immoral position.

          • Jonathan Watson

            “If you believe in representative democracy then the votes of the congress obligate future congressional actions until the future congress changes the law.”

            Precisely what the House was attempting to do here. They were willing to raise the debt ceiling, fund the government, etc. in return for delaying the individual mandate and removing the medical device tax. That sounds quite a bit like seeking to change the law. I do not believe that representative democracy requires gentle tactics.

            Moreover, I still do not believe that representative government requires the payment of immoral debts.

            Tell me, what does the Bible say about taking on debt beyond what one is able to repay? I ask this in all seriousness, as I do not know. Is it moral? Immoral? Somehow neutral?

          • But what was the laws proposed? And why not work on spending in a budget process, which is where spending levels should be addressed instead of blocking a budget from being voted on.

            I am all for cutting spending. But removing the device tax is cutting funding not reducing spending.

            Why is no one proposing serious spending cuts through a normal process. For instance cutting Part D, a very expensive entitlement added during a Republican administration. Or reforming medicare (which many Republicans spoke against in the recent election process.)

            This was not about cutting spending, this was about making political points and never had a serious possibility of doing anything about spending. All it did was waste money.

            And spending has been cut every year of the Obama administration. Highest deficit was the year Obama was elected and the budget was set under Bush. Every year since that year the deficits have been lower. This year the deficit is $250 billion less than last year. That is not insignificant.

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  • deacrick

    It is preferred that private charity and individuals take care of the anawim; however history has shown that they are not up to the task which is why the government must step in.

    The Catholics call it subsidiarity; the more local the better but government acting is preferred to nothing.

  • RIRedinPA

    @Tasmin – Cutting future spending is a debate (and one that has been happening – see sequestration), paying past debt is an obligation. You do not curtail the former by refusing to do the latter.

    • tamsin

      Define debt. Define obligation — and to who. You, and Joe Carter, are bundling many other government promises-to-pay with debt. Debt is borrowed money, both the principal and the interest.

      We are taking in ten times the tax revenue we need to pay interest on our legal debt. So that’s covered. Why have a debt ceiling at all, if it is only theoretical? Always raised? More money is always printed? The Fed keeps interest rates artificially low and is devastating mom-and-pop savers… and where are the jobs to show for it? Etcetera.

      I’m the last person who wants to break promises. But our generous entitlement spending is not written in stone; entitlement spending must be reformed, for instance, by changing eligibility rules. Reagan and O’Neill worked together in the 1980s to raise the age to begin collecting Social Security. Was that immoral? They changed an “obligation” to elderly American citizens that was made by previous “democratically elected representatives”.

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  • aja

    I’m sorry, the argument above sounds “reasonable” but isn’t. I think Jonathan Watson’s comments highlight some of the unspoken assumptions which seem to be implicit in the piece. What would Mr. Carter do in a “democracy” where all of the government dependent people outnumbered all of the private sector people thereby assuring themselves political victory in elections and never ending government spending to satisfy their whims, confiscating the earnings of all the private sector people to pay for it? Do Christians have an obligation to support such spending and any policies such an elected government make without fighting back … with tactics that, if successful, would no doubt frustrate the “majority”? No, I don’t think the attempt was a charade. It was an attempt to force members of the other house and branch of government to compromise on a program and its expenditures that weren’t fully committed yet. If such tactics are immoral , then we might as well not have two houses of the legislative branch or 3 branches of government. Let’s just make Obama King and let him lead us where he will.

  • Teri B

    No, the country was formed with a system of rights. And there is nothing right with our country. That’s taking our freedoms away every day. The main stream media, is running the show, controlling how the conversation. Will go. People in this country Christian or non deserve better, we want the truth.

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  • Clare Krishan

    “Member of Congress who are refusing to raise the debt ceiling (or raise
    taxes) until their ancillary demands are met are acting immorally, since
    they are refusing to pay the debts they themselves authorized.
    that would depend on your definition of moral hazard’s mathesis universalis wouldn’t it?
    What purchasing power do the units of the metric of account that banks loan our employers to pay our wages – and those taxes – with possess? Funny that, financial institutions are privilieged to create them first and then dilute them out to us at 1:10 multiplier effect called fractional reserves that instantly dilutes (and thus inflates prices including interest to be paid on said debts) the purchasing power of this non-money, the currency we place our trust in… for nothing else backs it. Perhaps God created the mineral gold for a reason yet we have chosen a tyranny of relativism of our own making …

    America cannot defy economic gravity for ever… a day of reckoning is approaching and I fear we may be ill equipped to handle reality (now that the Bureau of Labor statistics has been caught in a lie)

  • InflationFighter

    Interesting topic, one point I would add is that much of the US debt is held by the Fed. An organization that exists at the whim of the American people. As such the debt held by the fed is like money owed to ourselves. Those debts could really be written off. I am not advocating avoiding payment on debt we owe to foreign nations or private people, just money we owe to ourselves. If I opened a can of worms in regard to whether the Fed is beholden to the American people than Hurray! More importantly than the debt ceiling I think Christians should be looking at the morality of fractional reserve banking as a monetary system in general. The ability to transfer wealth from person A to person B without the consent of person A seems a lot like theft to me. And the bible definitely says theft is wrong. (Exodus 20:15) Also some other biblical concepts on debt are also important in this discussion like Proverbs 6, Romans 13:8 and proverbs 22:7 to name a few.