American Christians at odds over national debt
The question of how to address the US's national debt and care for the poor is a source of contention for Christians
Social justice advocate and influential progressive evangelical Jim Wallis wants to clarify that he believes debt is a moral issue, even as he staunchly oppose any cuts to federal programmes in the for low-income people as an option to reduce the US's national debt.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Wallis, CEO of Sojourners, asserted that the Christian anti-poverty coalition he is a member of, Circle of Protection, has been misrepresented by the group Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE), as endorsing a “blanket defense” of government programmes for the poor and not considering the national debt as a moral issue.
“They shouldn't say that the signers of the Circle say that debt is not a moral issue, because we say that all the time. … Every time we talk about this, we say 'debt is a moral issue,' so they shouldn't say that we don't say that because we do,” Wallis maintained.
He continued, “We say growth and jobs are part of the solution, so they shouldn't say that we don't, because we do. They shouldn't say that we offer a blanket defense of every government programme or that government is the sole answer to poverty. We say the opposite. We don't say that, and they shouldn't say that we do.”
The Circle of Protection document, announced on April 27, asked government leaders to “resist budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity and rights of poor and vulnerable people.”
The signers included many leaders from mainline Protestant and Catholic churches. It also included representatives of politically left-leaning evangelical organisations, such as Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, and Jim Wallis. But also signing the document is Leith Anderson, president of the conservative National Association of Evangelicals.
On the opposing side is CASE’s “Letter to the President”, which was signed, in part, by representatives from politically conservative Christian organizations, such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy, the Acton Institute, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Concerned Women for America.
“Wallis and the 'Circle of Protection' do not speak for all Christians,” CASE asserted. “However laudable their intentions, the consequence of their action is to provide a religious imprimatur for big government and sanctify federal welfare programmes that are often ineffective – even counterproductive,” the letter said.
Responding to CASE’s letter, Wallis claims that Circle’s position was unfairly represented.
The CASE letter claims that the Circle believes “biblical mandates preclude limits to federal programs for low-income people,” suggesting that the Circle offers a “blanket defense” of government programs for the poor.
CASE’s claim likely comes from the second of the Circle's eight key principles: “Funding focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. It should be made as effective as possible, but not cut.”
That statement suggests that anti-poverty programmes should be off-limits to cuts or elimination.
Tim King, director of communications for Sojourners, clarified to The Christian Post on Friday that a “cut” is not the same as a “savings” in the federal budget, and the Circle favours “savings” but not “cuts”.
“Policy-wise, there is a distinction in terms. When lawmakers are talking about programmes, they talk about reducing spending in two different ways. One is to cut and one is to find savings, and to find savings is to find ineffective programmes, duplicative programmes or waste, fraud and abuse and to reduce spending through savings. And, a cut is simply a reduction in services,” King explained.
Wallis similarly said the Circle does not seek to protect all government programmes for the poor from any budget cuts.
Although the CASE letter talked directly about Circle’s alleged “blanket defense” of anti-poverty programmes, it does not, however, directly accuse the Circle of not believing that debt is a moral issue, as Wallis claims. The letter does argue, however, that the Circle statement takes the wrong approach toward debt reduction.
The CASE letter reads, “The debt disaster is a spending issue. Tax revenues are finite, while the growth of government is unceasing.” The Circle statement, on the other hand, specifically mentions “tax revenues” as an alternative to spending cuts.
Wallis was more explicit in his interview: “The Bible has no objection, in my view, to making the wealthy pay their fair share, which is more than they're paying now, and I think most Christians would agree with that.”
The CASE letter also does not directly accuse the Circle of not seeking economic growth as part of the solution to reducing poverty, as Wallis suggests, but it does argue that increasing taxes is not advisable as part of an economic growth strategy.
King agreed that there were differences of opinion on the issue of raising taxes. He also said there was “a difference of opinion on the role of government”.
There are, however, areas of agreement between CASE supporters and the Circle supporters.
Among them, Wallis cited “concern for the poor”, an important role for “private charity,” the need for some government “social safety net,” and concern for “long-term deficits”.
While the groups represent opposite sides of the political spectrum, with the Circle’s more liberal view and CASE’s more conservative stance, the interview with Wallis revealed the potential for collaboration between the two groups.
The first step to collaboration would be a clarification between the two groups on where they stand on the issue of reducing the national debt. Wallis pointed to some areas where CASE implicitly misrepresented Circle, but Wallis also misrepresented CASE in the interview.
King admitted that he and Wallis could be interpreting the CASE letter through the prism of blog posts written by some of the signers of the letter.
“The CASE letter itself was very thoughtful; not everybody who talked about the letter after took that same care and consideration,” King said.
In particular, King mentioned a blog post by Fr Robert A Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, for National Review Online, in which he said that for the Circle supporters, “there’s no problem with prostrating yourself, your Church, and your aid organisation before Caesar.”
King believes that characterisation to be unfair.
On the other hand, Wallis has also been uncivil in his characterisations of those who disagree with him on budget cuts. In an April 14 editorial for The Huffington Post, Wallis characterised those who supported the budget cuts passed by the House of Representatives as “bullies,” “corrupt,” and “hypocrites.”
Many, if not all, of the CASE signers certainly count themselves among those who Wallis targeted with his slurs. Ironically, Wallis' editorial came just four months after he co-authored an editorial with Chuck Colson in Christianity Today on the need for Christians to be civil in politics.
When asked by The Christian Post if he thought his accusations in the Huffington Post editorial were civil, Wallis replied that he would “stand by" what he wrote.
Despite the animosity on both sides, Wallis said he and other members of the Circle decided at their last meeting that they would like to have more dialogue with CASE signers in the future. King, similarly, said that he has had several conversations with Eric Teetsel, one of the CASE letter’s authors and programme director of American Enterprise Institute's “Values and Capitalism” project, about areas where the two groups can work together.
Regarding any future dialogue with CASE, Wallis remarked, “Let's be honest and specific, and, of course, civil.”