WASHINGTON — A group of Christian leaders addressed the United States budget as a moral issue, claiming that the programs which lead the federal government to go into debt constitute an "idol" for churches and people alike and hurt the poor and future generations.
"Idolatry is at the heart of this problem," Josh Good, program manager for the Values & Capitalism initiative at the American Enterprise Institute, declared in a Thursday panel discussion hosted by The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "We need to be careful, it seems to me, about centrally planned solutions that originate here," Good urged. He encouraged people and government "to push solutions out to more local levels where people who are relationally connected to the poor can lead the way."
Jay Richards, distinguished fellow at the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics, declared that "essentially, what we're dealing with on the national debt is an externality where the benefit is in the present and the cost is for someone else in the future." Richards insisted that it is always wrong to saddle future generations with debt in order to get a short benefit in the present. He argued for a non-governmental safety net, in order to avoid national debt and achieve more effective charity.
Explaining the purpose of the event, the Reverend Dr. David Gray, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, argued that there are three things people of faith agree on: leadership and tough choices are needed, the debt is a problem that has to be addressed at some point, and there are moral dimensions to this question.
The Debt Problem
"Our debt levels are currently extraordinarily high, by both historical and international standards," Marc Goldwein, senior policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, explained. America's debt, compared to Gross Domestic Product, is at the highest level it's been since the end of World War II, Goldwein reported.
Nevertheless, the policy director delivered two pieces of good news. "By our calculations, we've reduced the deficit over a ten year period by a total of $4 trillion," if the government enacts the various budget acts and fiscal deals agreed to in the recent past. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, "debt will be on a downward path for the next four to five years." Goldwein also praised recent political compromises which have enabled Congressmen to make the cuts in intelligent ways.
Unfortunately, the Federal Government is "doing the wrong kind of debt reduction." Because the cuts have come quickly, it could weaken the economy. Most of the cuts have come to investments, such as infrastructure and education, rather than the drivers of the debt — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
"We've done some projections that suggest that, by 2018 or 2019, debt's going to go back on the same unsustainable path," Goldwein added. He continued direly — "sometime in the 2030's, our debt is going to exceed the total size of our economy, that's going to rise to two times our economy in the 2060's."
The Idols of Government
Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), explained the reason behind such growing debt, also attacking government entitlement programs as an "idol." Tooley referred to a group of Christian churches called "The Circle of Protection" which organized to protest budget cuts in 2011. "The faith that unites these groups seems to be in perpetually expanding the Federal Government," the IRD President alleged.
"That this false idol will deliver endless debt and reduce the economic opportunity without helping the poor does not seem to distress these self-proclaimed prophetic voices," Tooley explained. Many of the programs intended to help the poor actually undermined their family structures and trapped them in poverty. Rather than asking "what would Jesus cut?" Tooley argued these groups should be asking "whom would Jesus indebt?"
John Allen Newman, senior pastor of The Sanctuary at Mt. Calvary Church in Jacksonville, Florida, insisted that Christians should not favor Democrats or Republicans, but take "a policing role" in politics. He attacked the Bush Administration policy of allegedly hiding the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in calculations of the budget, but he also attacked the nonchalance of churches when it comes to allowing the government to care for the poor.
"The faith community needs to lead" in taking care of the poor, Newman argued. "In our congregation, for instance, we feed the homeless every week, and last year we gave away enough food to feed 20,000 mouths — all of those things we do without a dime from the Federal Government," the pastor reported.
Nevertheless, Newman did not argue for a complete withdrawal of government from the social safety net. "Should we, must we, reduce spending and raise revenue for the financial security of our nation and our children? By all means," the pastor declared with a caveat — "But the faith community cannot be unwilling accomplices in political hypocrisy."
"I think that anything you end up putting before God, whether that's a government program, whether that's an ideology, that can be idolatrous," Newman told The Christian Post in an interview. Although he identified as a "progressive," he argued for churches to take a stance above and beyond the political realm.
A Gospel Solution
Richards argued that there is no perfect size of government, but Americans need "a government strong enough to enforce the rule of law but not large enough that it becomes an enemy to the common good and the rule of law."
In order to truly tackle the debt problem, Good argued that Americans have to take a hard but Biblical path. "We have to do something that is hard and requires leadership, something that is squarely at the heart of the Christian Gospel, we have to sacrifice," Good explained.