The Common Good

Budgets Are Still Moral Documents

The "What Would Jesus Cut?" campaign, launched by Jim Wallis and the good people of Sojourners, assumes that massive budget cuts are coming, but raises the question of where we start. If budget cuts are a fiscal necessity (more on that in a minute), asking what we cut is a moral necessity. The campaign's title, therefore, is intended to attract the attention -- and stimulate the conscience -- of American Christian voters. We all need to be reminded in the midst of what can become budget-frenzy that budgets are moral documents, and that the love of money can cause people to commit all sorts of evil things.

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Circle of Protection for a Moral Budget

A pledge by church leaders from diverse theological and political beliefs who have come together to form a Circle of Protection around programs that serve the most vulnerable in our nation and around the world.

I agree that living within our means is a financial necessity, and long-term deficit spending is stupid and short-sighted. I think it's sad, however, that Republicans have managed to paint Democrats as the bad guys on this, since it was a Republican administration that most recently turned a surplus into a deficit through tax cuts for the wealthy and two unfunded (and at least one unfounded) wars. I also think it's sad that our discussion of the deficit jumps too quickly to prescription, not taking adequate time for careful diagnosis.

Such diagnostic examination would explore a number of causative factors, including the possibility that our national debt is in large part a consequence of a broken political campaign system where votes can be bought with the currency of short-sighted, self-interested promises. In this system, Republicans can buy votes and loyalty from rich people and want-to-be-rich people through tax cuts and promises of more security through an ever-bigger military. And Democrats can buy votes and loyalty from poor people and want-to-help-poor people through entitlements and promises of a stronger economic safety net. The latter strikes me as a more honorable form of vote-buying, I suppose, since poor people need help more than rich folks do. But buying votes isn't a great way to run a democracy either way. One hopes more attention will be paid to these dimensions of our deficit in the process of reducing it.

The Republican House recently unveiled their plan for deficit reduction. Their proposal represents what Republican Michael Gerson rightly calls a squandering of an important Republican legacy. That's why it's important for more and more Republicans to speak up -- not against getting our fiscal house in order -- that's a necessity -- but about what should be cut and why. And Democrats need to enter the fray, not as anti-Republicans, but as responsible partners, and, probably in this case, balanced and thoughtful leaders who tell the whole truth that needs to be told, inviting the American people to be grown ups and face the facts.

Cutting programs that save lives in Africa, Asia, and Latin America is morally unacceptable. Far better is to ask questions like these:

  • How can we increase taxes on what we want less of (pollution, waste, pornography, tools of violence) and reduce taxes on what we want more of (work, earning, education, research and development, alternative energy, etc.)?
  • Why does a small segment of the super-rich control a larger and larger portion of national wealth; what are the consequences of this trend; and what should be done about it?
  • What percent of the national budget should be spent on the military? Are we heeding Eisenhower's well-known, but too-little-heeded warning and advice about the "military-industrial complex"?

Eisenhower, we should remember, was a Republican. Like Gerson, he had a broader and more intelligent vision than the narrow, one-dimensional, reactionary one we see sweeping today's Republican party like a tsunami of tea. Perhaps this is a good time to remember his parting words as he left the presidency 50 years ago this year:

So -- in this my last good night to you as your President -- I thank you for the many opportunities you have given me for public service in war and peace. I trust that in that service you find some things worthy; as for the rest of it, I know you will find ways to improve performance in the future.

You and I -- my fellow citizens -- need to be strong in our faith that all nations, under God, will reach the goal of peace with justice. May we be ever unswerving in devotion to principle, confident but humble with power, diligent in pursuit of the Nation's great goals.

To all the peoples of the world, I once more give expression to America's prayerful and continuing aspiration:

We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease, and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.

That is the kind of American moral ethos I hope will prevail in re-calibrating the American budget in the weeks and months ahead.

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren is an author and speaker whose new book is A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.

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