Posts tagged with: jim wallis

Here’s today’s offering from Jim Wallis’ Rediscovering Values for Lent on the Sojourners website:

Today, instead of statues, we have hedge funds, mortgage-backed securities, 401(k)s, and mutual funds. We place blind faith in the hope that the stock indexes will just keep rising and real estate prices keep climbing. Market mechanisms were supposed to distribute risk so well that those who were reckless would never see the consequences of their actions. Trust, security, and hope in the future were all as close to us as the nearest financial planner’s office. Life and the world around us could all be explained with just the right market lens. These idols were supposed to make us happy and secure and provide for all our needs. Those who manage them became the leaders to whom we looked, not just for financial leadership, but direction for our entire lives. That is idolatry. (page 29).

Last month, Fidelity Investments reported that the average 401(k) balance reached a 10-year high at the end of 2010 — two years after the financial crisis and recession. It also pointed out that “the majority (53%) of participants in 401(k) plans … earning between $20,000 and $40,000 do participate, and 71 percent of participants earning $40,000 and $60,000 participate.” That’s a lot of lower-income idolatry.

This is not a picture of the stock market

According to a report (issued in 2008) by the Investment Company Institute and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, “ownership rates for equities and bonds across U.S. households grew dramatically between 1989 and 2001, but have since tapered off. In the first quarter of 2008, 47 percent of U.S. households (54.5 million) owned equities and/or bonds. The overall ownership rate in 2008 is still much higher than it was in 1989.” The report noted that “ownership of these investment assets has declined since 2001, as increasing market volatility has reduced Americans’ tolerance for risk.” But, most likely, those investment funds will be saved somewhere or moved into lower risk vehicles.

Of course, if you are afraid that investing in the stock market, a mutual fund, a money market account, etc., makes you an idol worshipper, the cure would be to stuff your cash into the mattress or bury it in a coffee can. But would that be good stewardship?

Writing for the Huffington Post, Shane Claiborne is also asking “What Would Jesus Cut?” I’m still opposed to the whole notion of reducing Christ to budget director, as my earlier post points out. But Jesus as Secretary of Defense of the United States or rather, Jesus as secretary of peace as proposed by Congressman Dennis Kucinich is equally unhelpful. Mark Tooley, president of IRD, has already weighed in on Shane Claiborne’s not so brilliant drafting of Jesus for president.

As a signer of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” one should assume Claiborne is serious about deficit reduction. We should take him at his word, but what about defense spending for deficit reduction and the proper role of government? And as John has already pointed out in his post, and what everybody should know, is that defense cuts alone will not balance the budget.

There are responsible conservative lawmakers, like U.S. Congressman Justin Amash from right here in West Michigan, that have rightfully said defense cuts should be on the table as part of plan for fiscal responsibility. In terms of the proper role of government, defense spending is a clear federal mandate for taxing and spending (Article 1, Section 8). The constitution should still be relevant, and one could assume we may not be in the same spending mess we are in right now if it was taken more seriously.

Claiborne says, “Even though the 533 billion dollar military budget is the elephant in the room and the gushing, bleeding wound of America’s deficit … it has been the sacred cow.”

This is what is unhelpful, and Mark Tooley has already pointed this out in his own response to “What Would Jesus Cut?”, that “probably Claiborne doesn’t know that ‘programs of social uplift’ have out expensed defense for 40 years, starting with the Nixon Administration.” Defense spending is 20 percent of the annual budget, while Medicare and Medicaid takes up 23 percent of the budget and social security is 20 percent as well, but tack on another 12 billion in annual dollars. Claiborne says “As Dr. [Martin L.] King said, ‘A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” But this is clearly not the case as Clairborne just pulled out a pithy maxim without ever looking at any real numbers.

Tooley also makes a good point about Claiborne’s Anabaptist tradition as well:

Claiborne, an Anabaptist, is author of Jesus for President, a 2008 book describing government as the biblical Whore of Babylon. Oddly, many neo-Anabaptists ferociously denounce government as demonic, almost sounding Libertarian, while still demanding more and more government for politically correct social programs.

Claiborne believes America is the evil imperialist par excellence. But why is it then okay for God to ordain that same ‘evil’ state to fill the bellies of the masses and provide for their every social need through government fiat?

This brings up a good point about rhetoric versus reality. The nuclear freeze crowd of the 1980s hyperventilated across the United States and Western Europe with help from Moscow because Ronald Reagan was strengthening the NATO alliance by sending nuclear Pershing II missiles into Europe. Reagan’s efforts were disastrous for the Soviet Union, and the peace he achieved dwarfed the objectives of the same old arms agreements advocated by the nuclear freeze movement.

Perhaps, “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” would have been better served without the inclusion of such names as Jim Wallis and Claiborne. Serious matters call for a more serious discussion. I reviewed The Scandal of Evangelical Politics by Ronald Sider, who is also a signer of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice.” Still left of center, Sider praised market forces, saying, “On balance, a market economy respects human freedom better, creates wealth more efficiently, and tends to be better at reducing poverty.”

Claiborne can make no such statement. He seems to view the free-market as a construct of an evil imperialistic American empire. Markets seem only useful to him in the context of underpaid enlisted military men and women selling cookies to buy their uniforms. Claiborne may have something worthwhile to say every once in a while, his bio is interesting to say the least, but on budget matters and defense spending he’s clearly babbling.

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.

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.

Blog author: rnothstine
Friday, March 4, 2011

My first reaction to “What Would Jesus Cut?” is that it tends to reduce Christ to a distributor of material goods through government programs. Jesus is not a budget overseer or a dispenser of government largesse. Sojourners founder Jim Wallis has already countered this accusation with his own post saying, “We haven’t been trying to get Jesus to be the head of any budget committee, or think that he would ever want that job!”

But still, to use Christ as an example of a legislator writing budgetary law is facile when we recognize Christ as the fulfillment of the law (Romans 10:4). It reduces and trivializes Christ at a time when there is already too much theological confusion about the person, nature, and mission of Christ in this country. And while Christ certainly relates and guides us on the day to day questions as we work to uplift the social witness, this practice reduces the Word of Life to moralism when done in a frivolous manner.

As for how we help the poor, as we are commanded to do as Christians, we shouldn’t confuse the Kingdom of Christ with the power and agenda of the state. Evangelicalism, and proclamation of the person of Christ should not be reduced to baptizing and sanctifying the budget.

In October 2009, I wrote “America’s Uncontrolled Debt and Spending is the Real ‘Waterloo,’” agreeing with Jim Wallis that budgets are moral documents, but focusing rather on the immorality of chaining a nightmare of debt to future Americans. The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner, waxes eloquent on budget morality, too. He offered this sound byte in an address just last week to the National Religious Broadcasters Association in Nashville:

It is immoral to bind our children to as leeching and destructive a force as debt. It is immoral to rob our children’s future and make them beholden to China. No society is worthy that treats its children so shabbily.

I also agree with Jordan Ballor here and here in his aptly written remarks about the similar “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis.”

Wallis, who is a signer of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” has a very disappointing record when it comes to fiscal responsibility. He is on record of already opposing social security reform, welfare reform in the 1990s, slowing the rate of growth of government spending in the 90s, and even checking the rate of growth for SCHIP, as my 2007 commentary points out.

I wore “What Would Jesus Do” apparel for a short time during the fad, and obviously it is good to ask WWJD. But I stopped wearing it when I realized that I already knew what Christ would do, and I should be asking myself deeper questions about what I am really doing to magnify my relationship with Christ and my witness to others.

I think that is what bothers me with “What Would Jesus Cut?” It’s a reduction of the witness of Christ, with no greater context of his redemptive mission. This is a flaw of some, but not all, on both the religious right and religious left. There is a danger in over-politicizing the name of Jesus in the public square, especially when the Church in America is crying out for sound Biblical doctrine. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and to continually reinsert him into the budget debate, which are clearly prudential arguments, shrinks his real power and authority.

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.

A number of prominent evangelical leaders in America have issued a statement on the budget fights in the federal government. “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis,” is sponsored by the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action. Signatories include Ron Sider of ESA, Gideon Strauss of CPJ, Richard Mouw, Michael Gerson, Shane Claiborne, Andy Crouch, and Jim Wallis.

Here are some initial thoughts:

There is very little principle in this statement, which purports not to “endorse any detailed agenda.” The basic principle communicated is: “We ought to care for the poor because God does.” This is of course laudable and true, as is the commitment to “intergenerational justice,” as long as that is defined as not living today on the backs of the unborn and not code for something else.

But the rest really just consists of leaps in logic largely based on unstated assumptions about the role that government should have in administering that care. To wit: “To reduce our federal debt at the expense of our poorest fellow citizens would be a violation of the biblical teaching that God has a special concern for the poor.”

Given the current state of affairs, which the statement acknowledges is a “crisis,” I don’t think it is helpful to energize the grassroots to petition to save particular programs from scrutiny and reform. Things are so bad that everything should be on the table. The situation is not an either/or between social spending and military spending, as Claiborne and Wallis would have it. It’s a both/and, and that includes entitlements.

Which brings me to my next point: There isn’t nearly enough in here about entitlement reform. Social Security must become “sustainable,” but there is no mention of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. These are the real drivers of huge swaths of our national debt. Non-discretionary spending needs to be scrutinized.

But that’s not all. This call wants to place “effective programs that empower poor Americans or contribute internationally to economic development or the advancement of health” out of bounds. The fact is that many of these programs are busted, and I think it is disingenuous for those who know that to say that we have some kind of moral obligation to keep throwing good money after bad simply out of some vague concern for “the poor.” That is more like a salve for guilty consciences than responsible social action.

The language of the statement doesn’t seem to do justice to the principled positions that agree with the vague notion of the obligation to care for the poor, but disagree about the particular policy and budgetary implications at the federal level. Wallis and Chuck Colson recently agreed that Christians ought engage in principled and honest debate, and not demonize other positions, even implicitly. To cast the debate in the terms that budget hawks don’t care about the poor I think violates this kind of commitment.

So 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. Once we’ve decided what government is for you can start to make some principled decisions about funding priorities…things closest to the core mission of government should get the highest priority, and so on.

And the focus really shouldn’t just be on what government should and shouldn’t do. Many of these leaders are religious leaders. The focus should be on what these other institutions can and should be doing, beyond simply serving as lobbying organizations for governmental programs.

I guess, needless to say, I won’t be signing.