Should the Church Take a Stance on the Moral Budget?

WASHINGTON – Over 200 faith leaders, lay people and faith-based service providers to the poor went to church Tuesday night with their prayers and compassion to prepare for a peaceful kneel-in at the capitol.

Yearlong efforts to protect the country's poor families from the proposed spending cuts that are slated for final votes in the House and Senate this month have culminated to the final week of prayers and action. Hundreds stand ready to be a voice for the voiceless at the National Prayer Vigil on a Moral Budget Wednesday morning. They will be joined by believers in 32 other states where two-day local prayer vigils have been planned for at the offices of the district and state Senators and Representatives.

Organized by Sojourners and Call to Renewal, the National Week of Prayer and Action for Compassionate Priorities kicked off on Monday with a press conference and a worship service at Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill the following night.

Starting out with prayer, service attendants expressed their determination and faith in the power of prayer as most were readying for Wednesday's hour-long vigil in the cold winter day. In a fight to keep the Senate and House from passing a budget bill that could cut up to $50 billion in spending from Medicaid, Food Stamps, and other programs for the poor, faith leaders kept their voices loud as they sang a rendition of Kumbaya.

"Someone's hungry, Lord, stop the cuts," sang the attendants.

"The reason I came was just to take advantage of the opportunity to put faith in action together at the same time for a cause that really is morally worthy," said John McCarthy, 37, who attended the worship service. "Budgets are moral documents and they are a reflection of the priorities that we as a country hold in common and so to cut entitlements to the poor while giving tax benefits to the wealthiest, I think is morally wrong."

McCarthy traveled down to join the service from Boston where he attends Harvard Divinity School as a first year M. Div. student.

While faith leaders continue battling the budget cuts until the final draw, Institute on Religion and Democracy Interim President Alan Wisdom says the church leaders are going beyond their role in an issue that is a "quintessentially partisan political" one.

"Budget is quintessentially a political document," he told The Christian Post on Tuesday. "It's a statement of the plans of the entire government in every area in which it works and it's an incredibly complex document. It always involves all kinds of trade-offs between different interests.

"Obviously, the interests of the poor are among those."

Making it clear that IRD does not take a position on the budget issue, Wisdom said Scripture does not tell them what the best balance between the competing interests are and that churches should not speak so confidently on the issue.

He further explained that the budget cuts are a marginal reduction from the social programs where spending has been increasing for the past five years.

"The church officials complain that 'Congress continues to make decisions which benefit the rich but are paid for by the poor,'" said Wisdom in a released statement. "They object particularly to reductions in projected spending for programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. They do not mention that these supposedly draconian 'cuts' are actually small reductions in the rates at which spending on these programs has been increasing.

"During the past five years, Medicaid spending has increased by 56 percent and food stamps by 79 percent, he continued. “Under the current House and Senate proposals, the expected federal spending increase would go down from 39 percent over the next five years to 38 percent."

While the issue is a concern as it would affect the poor families, Wisdom said there are all kinds of factors going into the equation in terms of balancing the budget and making efforts to make programs to serve the poor more efficiently.

"Members of Congress are trying as they best understand it for the overall good of the country. They would probably be the first to admit that this budget is far from the perfect document."

Nevertheless, the church should not take sides, according to Wisdom.

He noted that church leaders have constantly taken advantage of the liturgical season for political purposes. During ex-president Clinton's term, the National Council of Churches had used the season of Lent as a "time of resistance to the Republican budget proposal then."

Witnessing the same thing this year as church leaders try to "score political points," Wisdom said they "can't leave the liturgical season alone for its original purpose but instead they have to borrow it for other political purposes" as they rally the support of their followers.

"But the vast majority would agree that the good news of this season centers on the birth of Jesus Christ, not on government spending patterns,” he said.

"For these officials of declining denominations, unquestioning defense of every penny spent on the messianic welfare state is a matter of infallible doctrine," Wisdom continued, referring to the leaders of the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. "They do not understand that differing estimates of the public good, and compromises among those holding the differing estimates, are the very essence of politics. Therefore, they have no constructive advice for the Congress. And they have little true 'good news for the poor,' because even in Advent they prefer to preach about politics rather than about the Savior of the world."

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