Religion pervades government in America. It's evident in the debates on abortion, religious freedom, gay rights and a host of other topics. But now a Christian leader is arguing that religion needs to be inserted into the one area where it isn't mentioned: the federal budget.
Writing in the Huffington Post, Jim Wallis, CEO of Sojourners, argues that the basic Christian precept of caring for the poor and vulnerable should be made a part of budget negotiations. “[T]hose always in most jeopardy during Washington's debates and decisions are precisely the persons the Bible instructs us clearly to protect and care for — the poorest and most vulnerable,” he says, adding that whereas corporations and pressure groups have access to lobbyists to push for cash, the poor have no one to speak for them.
A multi-faith coalition has formed around this issue, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Salvation Army, and many other faith groups across America. It argues that if the government increases corporate subsidies, defense spending and tax cuts for the rich at the cost of programs for the poor, the faith community should protest the budget.
Q: Does the federal budget need an injection of religious morality?
How about morality, regardless of whether it's religious? I know who Wallis is, and I like the things for which he stands. And I think he is right on target on this issue. Fiscal responsibility is certainly a good quality, but when some lawmakers in Washington put fiscal responsibility above the needs of the poor, I believe they are flat-out wrong. It is good to have a balanced budget, but it is evil if that budget is balanced on the backs of the poor.
We are all familiar with the Ten Commandments, and so too was Jesus. We all know that adultery is immoral, and so too did Jesus. But when the woman caught in adultery was brought before him, did he opt for justice, or for compassion? If you have a smattering of knowledge about Jesus, you know that he chose compassion over justice every time.
And Jesus wasn't the first to do that. Consider King Solomon, in the Old Testament. You're probably familiar with the story of the two women who fought over the same baby. The wise king offered to cut the baby in two, going for “justice” and giving each woman an equal half.
But one of the women, choosing compassion for the child, said to give the baby to the other woman who wanted the child cut in two. Nice compassionate mother, right? The wise Solomon opted to give the baby to the woman who would spare the child because she responded with compassion, unlike the other woman, who wanted “justice”.
So, Republicans in Washington, how about a little compassion? We can get to your cherished “balanced budget” after we have had concern for the most needy among us. Besides, most of you guys claim to be Christians, right? How about acting a little more Christ-like and having some compassion for your neighbor?
The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Canada Congregational Churc
The wording of this question exposes one of the major problems of our culture. Morality is equated with religion, according to popular thinking, and our government is forbidden from establishing religion. So the inevitable conclusion many people make is that our government shouldn’t do anything on the basis of morality. When we reject morality, we deprive ourselves of its benefits.
We have seen the rotten fruits of this mindset multiply in the last couple of decades. The more distanced our culture has become from biblical morality, the more immorality has propagated and even been promoted.
God’s ways are good, and they are good for us. Whether or not morality is religious, it works. So yes, our national budget should provide care and defense for the poor, and we shouldn’t subsidize the rich. If we give, it will be given to us.
In the Law of Moses, God prescribed national and personal charity: “… and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do” (Deuteronomy 14:29). National blessing is ours to either claim or reject.
Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
Yes, I would say the federal budget needs an injection of morality. I would hesitate to advise an increase of religious morality alone. While I don't agree with all religious moral beliefs, I support Wallis' priorities for the budget arguments.
There is an obvious need to bring morality and ethics into the discussion about budgetary, political and economic decisions. Presently the political arguments are stilted, limited and lacking in understanding of the multiple options available. In addition, perhaps more discussion of ethical values in the political discourse could reduce the polarized animosity we see so much of in politics today.
Some aspects of moral and ethical values can serve common sense and logical purposes. For example, Wallis' ideas can be supported on economic grounds. Because one dollar in the hands of a less wealthy person circulates more quickly in the economy than a dollar in the hands of a wealthier person, Wallis is making a sensible economic proposal.
But just saying we need more religious morality in politics may not make a difference. After all, all but two or three of the elected politicians in America profess to be practicing members of one of the major religions. So religion is well represented in our politics. What we need to see more of are moral and ethical values.
South Pasadena Atheist Meetup
Often, when religious leaders in our country talk about applying their moral beliefs to our government, they mean restricting the rights of people to do things with which they disagree — things such as abortion, same-sex marriage and their religious freedom. What Wallis is suggesting is something quite different. He is proposing that religious values be infused into our U.S. budget in ways that expand the rights of people and allow them to live with dignity and prosperity, rather than lack of respect and poverty. He is encouraging us to use a moral lens to view the way we allocate our funds so that the rich do not succeed at the expense of the poor.
Virtually all religions that I know about advocate support for marginalized people. There are a great many passages in both the Christian and Hebrew scriptures that urge people to support those who are in need. And one of the major directives that every Muslim is required to follow is the giving of alms to the poor. Likewise, Hindus are expected to behave with compassion toward others. And as Unitarian Universalists, our seven principles include affirmations of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.”
Why, then, does it seem to be so difficult for our leaders to recognize these values in the ways we run our country? How we spend our money is a reflection of what we truly believe, not just an economic theory. Wallis is not suggesting that the doctrine of a particular religious group be imposed on others, blurring the lines between government and religion. He is simply asking us to put into practice what we say we already believe as people of faith.
I, for one, support his heart-felt challenge. If we all put our faith into action instead of rhetoric and name-calling, our country would be a much better place for all of us to live and thrive.
The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
Yes, the federal budget sorely needs an injection of morality, and a dose of sanity, as well.
To cite one example from Wallis’ blog post, a cut of $36 billion from the government's agriculture budget is set to come entirely from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, AKA food stamps. Billions going in subsidies to rice, corn and sugar producers, mostly huge agribusiness corporations, would be untouched in this proposal.
In addition to being morally wrong, using the example of the agriculture budget, such unbalanced cuts are unwise.
Economists describe the food stamp program as being as important to grocery stores as it is to poor families. The grocery sector is already hurting from the recession; reductions in food stamps cut further into the business. The ripples through the economy exacerbate the downward spiral.
Relative to social spending, the military budget has continued to increase during the recession. We have no moral right to try to dominate the world through military might. Let's be rational and admit how utterly that effort has failed.
A bloated, wasteful military at the expense of the civilian sector is also bad economics. A 2011 University of Massachusetts study confirms earlier research showing that spending in clean energy, health and education creates many more jobs than does the same amount invested in the military budget.
At the end of the Cold War we blew an opportunity to invest the peace dividend more profitably here at home and more peacefully abroad. I hope we are not again so stupid as to go looking for unnecessary wars as we finally end our current ones.
Every decision made by the government is a moral one. Does it have to be religiously injected? It cannot help but have religion factored in if the governors are elected from among a mostly religious people. If their religion teaches them to care for the downtrodden, and not to steal, then they have some real moral parameters from which to draw when discussing aid to the poor and whether or not they should legislate to fatten their own purses. If they have no religion at all, where are they getting their direction for budget decisions? Themselves? We all trust that, don’t we?
Without religious input, laws would just be just utilitarian, and government really couldn’t declare such things as prostitution illegal because there would no moral standard declaring it so, only popular human whim. It would just be a service, like paper delivery. There has to be something driving the decision-making, and most religions have similar directives for moral society. If the religious are to be governed, how can governors not avail themselves of religious wisdom when constructing laws that concern them?
The point of our government is to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.” Deciding how to bring these about is a matter of weighing good against bad. What defines the good? The moral beliefs of the office holders. People that reject God are not good.
Now we all are tired of hearing how people bilk the system for welfare money to avoid work, and how the military buys $400 hammers, but we also wince when we see truly starving children in other countries whose governments could do something, but would rather spend elsewhere. In America, we do have such poor people, and this shouldn’t be. Our government needs to take the “one nation under God” pledge seriously and end poverty while simultaneously ending undeserved handouts. All of our financial resources are actually God’s, and any governing person is “God's servant” (Romans 13:4 NIV). There’s my answer.
The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
Yes, and the state budget, too. Sojourners, California Faith Action, the United Methodist Church, and a whole host of other faith-based organizations have been pointing this out for a long time. A budget is a moral document. It reveals what we together think is “good” and “right” for our common wellbeing.
If applying faith values to budgets seems like a suspicious concept to you, think about your own budget and how you decide where to spend your money. How much money do we spend on ourselves and how much on others? How much do we spend on today’s needs and how much do we save for future needs? Our values are reflected in our budgets and our lives. We are assessing those values all the time — what do we think is most important for our wellbeing? What are we willing to sacrifice for? When are we willing to go into debt for what we want, and how far shall we go before compromising our present happiness and future choices? What is the “good” and “right” (moral) thing to do with our money?
While we as individuals and families make these budget decisions for ourselves and our wellbeing, our government is supposed to be us assessing our values and using our pooled resources for our shared wellbeing. We are constantly shaping that vision of the common good. Some set of values is always in play, such as an Ayn Rand brand of “rational self-interest,” or a fear-based buildup of the military. There is no such thing as value-neutral budgeting.
For those of us whose values have been shaped by Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures, it should be terrifically difficult to ignore, as Wallis points out, the several thousand verses in the Bible on the poor and God’s response to injustice. These must be part of our moral assessment of personal and public priorities as expressed through our choices around money. A budget that grinds the faces of the poor (Isaiah 3:15) is not a moral budget. Faith communities must speak out on what is “good” and “right” for all of God’s people.
The Rev. Paige Eaves
Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church
Helping those less fortunate is not strictly a religious principle, but rather a widely held ethical code for people of almost all backgrounds and beliefs. Acts of compassion and caring represent some of the best aspects of humanity, and should be incorporated into our lives, regardless of whether we hold public office or any other occupation. With that said, I do think that our federal government could benefit from some religious guidance on how to most effectively help the poor and needy.
In the Bible, God commands us many times to take care of the poor and the disadvantaged in our midst. We are required to assist in feeding, clothing and housing those who, for whatever reason, do not have the financial means to subsist on their own. Interesting to note, however, is that this responsibility is placed first and foremost on individual citizens. Only if the general population is unable to provide for the underprivileged is the government then obliged to step in and subsidize the shortfall.
Religious organizations and house of worship already have charitable distribution funds and effective infrastructure in place to help the needy. Therefore, I feel that we should be pressing the federal government to augment these existing institutions by increasing faith-based assistance programs. Clergy and other leaders at the grassroots level usually know best the financial situation of our community members. We are also uniquely capable of efficiently and swiftly channeling assistance to those who need it most.
I believe there is much wisdom in this approach, and if effectively implemented, it can help many more needy people than a program administered by some distant bureaucracy. And when aid is delivered by a lean, locally based organization run with transparency and oversight, there is an opportunity to avoid much of the waste and fraud that often accompanies government programs.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center