Acton Institute Powerblog

Why Christians should oppose the debt ceiling limit

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When 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’s always 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 we, as Christians, should not support policies that refuse to pay for the legal obligations 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.

If a Member of Congress refuses 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. The same goes for a president who vetoes debt limit raising legislation. Hopefully, no one involved in current debt limit negotiations has any real intention of throwing the country into a financial crisis. But even if they are prevaricating 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 and abolish the debt limit.

A Treatise on Money

A Treatise on Money

A Treatise on Money is a selection from Luis de Molina’s larger work On Justice and Right. In these selections, he examines the various kinds of contracts and businessmen of his day and applies the scholastic method to analyze the nature of currency and exchange, offering a unique and indispensable look into the origins of modern monetary theory.

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).

Comments

  • Nonsense. Refusing to borrow more money is absolutely not the same as refusing to pay what you owe.

    • Joe Carter

      You are almost correct.

      The money has already been spent. So Congress has a choice: Immediately raise taxes to cover the deficit or borrow money to cover the debt.

      There is absolutely zero chance that Congress is going to raise the tax rates high enough to cover the deficit. In fact, the probability is probably less than zero so even considering that option is a fantasy. That leave the only option to borrow to cover what is owed. If Congress is refusing to take the only option *they will even consider* to pay what they owe, then they are acting immorally.

      • First, if the money has already been spent, the debt limit has already been exceeded. If it has not been exceeded, it is false that money has already been spent.

        Second, assuming you are right, consider what you just said: “That leaves the only option to borrow to cover what is owed.”

        Suppose your only option for paying off a credit card debt was to apply for another credit card and do a balance transfer. Would you have a moral obligation to do so?

        The idea is ridiculous on its face. This is not paying your debts, but transferring them. You are saying the US government has a moral obligation to transfer its debts from one place to another. It does not, nor does anyone else.

        • Joe Carter

          ***First, if the money has already been spent, the debt limit has already been exceeded. If it has not been exceeded, it is false that money has already been spent.***

          To say the “money has already been spent” is merely to say that the government was allowed to buy good and services on credit.

          ***Suppose your only option for paying off a credit card debt was to apply for another credit card and do a balance transfer. Would you have a moral obligation to do so?***

          The moral obligation lies in paying what one owes to a legitimate creditor. The government isn’t like a household since it really only has three ways of getting money: print it, borrow it, or get more through taxation.

          Print it just causes inflation, which is good for debtors but bad for the economy. Raising it through taxation would be an option but one the government has rejected. That leaves only the third option of borrowing money and leaving future generations to pay the bill.

          • “To say the “money has already been spent” is merely to say that the government was allowed to buy good and services on credit.”

            What kind of credit? If this is true, the debt limit has already been passed, since credit card debt or any equivalent is still a debt. So there is no need to “raise” the limit, since according to this it has already been exceeded.

            “The government isn’t like a household since it really only has three
            ways of getting money: print it, borrow it, or get more through
            taxation.”

            No. The government can sell goods and services or invest and so on, just like other people.

            “That leaves only the third option of borrowing money”

            Again, that is not a way of paying debts, but transferring them. It is not a moral obligation for anyone, including the US government.

  • Pete Smith

    Refusing to raise the debt ceiling forces some hard choices. It might mean immediately raising taxes or perhaps printing the money to pay the debt or cutting spending down to where a slight surplus is achieved which can be used to pay down debt. The US government is obligated to pay what it has promised, but holding to a hard ceiling does not necessarily mean immediate default.

    • JR_Walker2100

      If you already spent the money, cutting future spending won’t change anything on the current ceiling. Unless you’re looking at it like someone who returns merchandise on the credit card, you can’t “cut” what has already been spent.
      What needs to happen (after this ceiling is raised) is future budgets need to be constrained and reduced — and not permitted to continue to grow.

      • This is precisely the point I was making about money that is already spent. As I understand it, Carter is wrong; it is false that the debt limit has already been passed. What is really the case, is that plans have already been made to spend enough money to pass the limit. But plans are not debts. You can change your plans without refusing to pay what you owe.