The Common Good

'Tis The Season

Date: December 23, 2005
WASHINGTON -- At Christmas time, church officials might be expected to focus on the fairly momentous birth of their Savior. Instead, many are bewailing Republican budget "cuts" as an attack upon the meaning of Christmas.

"During the very season that we celebrate the difference that Jesus Christ made in the world, we unfortunately have to recognize that not all use their power for good," darkly noted National Council of Churches chief Bob Edgar.

Thanks to a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Cheney, the U.S. Senate has approved $40 billion in "cuts," i.e. reductions in projected increases, out of $14 trillion in expected federal spending over the next five years. The U.S. House of Representatives has already approved the budget but will have to vote again because of minor differences in the Senate and House versions.

According to liberal church officials, this small reduction in the growth of the federal welfare state is virtually the Apocalypse.

"Vice President Cheney's one vote tipped the balance of this budget from need to greed," said the Rev. Edgar, himself a former Democratic congressman and ordained Methodist minister. His NCC includes 35 denominations and claims to speak for over 40 million American church members.

The one-vote margin "shows that half the Senate understands how billions of dollars of cuts in social programs would hurt the poor and voted for those in need," Edgar said, "The other half of the Senate, in granting continued tax cuts for the rich, voted for greed."

On the Religious Left, Edgar was not alone in his anger. Before the congressional votes, over 100 religious leaders led by Sojourners activist Jim Wallis were arrested in front of the Cannon House Office Building while ostensibly kneeling in prayer to protest the "immoral budget and tax agenda which slashes spending on the poor to finance tax breaks for the rich."

And top officials of the United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian (U.S.A.), Episcopal and United Church of Christ denominations jointly insisted that "there should be no compromise" regarding proposed spending "cuts." They prayed "that Congress will use this Advent season for purposeful reflection and in so doing conclude that the compromises required are unfair."

Their joint statement evoked Isaiah's prophecy (61:1) of a Messiah who would come "to bring good news to the poor." This prophecy is sometimes read at Advent as a foretelling of Christ's ministry. But the five mainline officials unashamedly applied this scripture to their own preferred Messiah: the U.S. government.

"We have viewed the budget through the lens of faith and our values and found the FY '06 Federal Budget wanting. Now we ask that it be defeated once and for all," the mainline church officials intoned. They offered no specific alternatives to the budget proposals assembled by Republican leaders in the House and Senate, pronouncing them all to be "unacceptable choices."

The church officials complained that "Congress continues to make decisions which benefit the rich but are paid for by the poor." They particularly objected to reductions in projected spending for programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. They neglected to mention that these supposedly draconian "cuts" were 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. 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.

Proposed "cuts" in food stamps ended up being shelved before the Senate vote. But "despite the food stamp victory, the remaining cuts -- including cuts to Medicare, child support enforcement, and student loans -- are devastating to the "least among us," fretted Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. "As people of faith, we will continue to fight for an honest and moral budget in 2006, 2007 and beyond."

The Congressional "cuts" will slightly raise interest rates on student loans, increase premiums for better off Medicare patients, and tighten asset-transfer rules for Medicaid beneficiaries. There are also slight reductions in agricultural subsidies. Hardly very dramatic.

Yet the five mainline church officials warned that "the lives and future of the poor of this country" are at stake in this budget debate. Before the congressional votes, NCC chief Bob Edgar called the "cuts" both "unconscionable" and "sinful." According to Edgar, "We religious leaders cannot be the conscience of the Congress but we have faith that our elected officials can still be taught whose side God is on."

Congress has now passed an "immoral" budget that is based on the "assumption that the poor are expendable," Edgar bewailed after the votes. "Vice President Dick Cheney, in casting the deciding vote, has demonstrated a particular cynicism that history will not forget."

You will not find Religious Left leaders defending the doctrines of their churches as ardently as they defend the virtues of an unendingly growing federal welfare state. For them, the state is nothing less than messianic. Any compromises about its scope and power are "immoral." This political advocacy is supposed to be "good news for the poor." But these church officials, having exchanged the Gospel for liberal politics, are clueless that the true Good News is not based on events in Washington, D.C.