The timing of the meeting was significant. One day earlier, the so-called “Gang of Six” in the Senate announced its proposal to address the budget deficit—a proposal that did not confront the explosive growth in anti-poverty spending that is contributing to our nation’s fiscal crisis. And shortly after talking with the religious leaders on Wednesday, President Obama entered budget meetings with congressional leaders.
The Christian leaders used their 40 minutes with the President to discuss the Circle of Protection, an ecumenical statement that asks for government anti-poverty programs to be walled off from budget-reduction debates. According to Wallis, “The most vulnerable need a special exemption from all spending cuts.… We told President Obama that this is what God requires of all of us.”
Unfortunately, these kinds of sentiments are helpful neither to the ongoing budget debates nor to Christian citizens seeking thoughtful engagement in the public square. And they also fail to do true justice to the poor.
First, statements like “Funding focused on reducing poverty should not be cut” are simplistic and lack discernment. Such declarations imply that every government program that intends to help the poor actually does so. It would be great if that were true. But with over 70 federal welfare programs on the books, it’s naïve to suggest that they all work effectively to lift people out of poverty. Yet the faith leaders who met with the President seem to lump all government programs together. They therefore fail to call government to exercise good stewardship of its resources by determining which programs are more and less effective.
Second, it’s not helpful to reduce complex issues like the federal budget down into moralistic sound bites (e.g., “budgets are moral documents”) and biblical phrases. When Christian leaders do so, they undermine thoughtful Christian engagement in the public square.
After his visit to the White House, Jim Wallis told MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough that he was pleased to hear President Obama use the phrase “the least of these.” “When [the President] said ‘the least of these,’ we all knew that he knew Matthew 25, where Jesus said, ‘as you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.’ So it’s nice when the President knows the text.” It’s problematic, though, to suggest that government officials should jump directly from a line in the Bible to specific policy decisions. It’s also problematic to confuse the audience of Jesus’ message in Matthew 25 with the modern nation-state. The fact that Jesus calls his followers to care for the poor is not a mandate for the government to expand the welfare state.
Finally, as critics have rightly noted, some religious leaders speak as if only government entitlements and transfer payments count as legitimate expressions of Christian charity. These leaders therefore ignore the tendency for government welfare programs to foster among those in need unhealthy dependence on the dole. They also ignore the way in which these programs often crowd out civil society efforts to fight poverty, leaving the poor with less personal and comprehensive care.
The budget is indeed a moral document, but it is also a morally complex document. Protecting ineffective government programs doesn’t protect the poor, and reducing the debate to simplistic catchphrases doesn’t foster an informed public discussion. Religious leaders could serve this discussion better by modeling more discernment in their application of ancient biblical wisdom to modern policy issues.