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Wrangling in Washington over the national debt has featured speeches and sound-bytes from right and left, from the president on down. The bitter stridency suggests that these are not merely political games about balancing the budget but a serious moral crisis about the national character. Some in Washington make the budget an end in itself, so that just as you would consider it wrong to sell a car that didn’t start, the budget has to be balanced for government to do its job. The Catholic point of view, however, makes a budget the means-to-an-end. In other words, fiscal balance is not as important as the results it brings to the people.
Bishop Stephen Blaire has clarified the USCCB Catholic teaching. The billions cut from affordable housing programs are “not justified,” says the bishop, “in light of the continuing housing crisis.” Cuts to job training programs are “unwarranted at a time of high unemployment and low job creation,” because says the bishop, “This will prolong the economic pain of those seeking adequate training to re-enter the job market.” Cuts to Title I, IDEA, Head Start, and Pell grants are “particularly disturbing and unwise.” The bishop puts it clearly on the line in his letter to the Senate: “Put poor and vulnerable people first as you consider how to spend limited federal resources.” Some Evangelical groups also urge seeking Gospel values before fiscal ones and the United Church of Christ anticipated the president’s April 13th message by advocating cuts in military spending and higher taxes.
In fairness to both sides, the Republicans argue that their plan will eventually produce the same or even better benefits to the public; and Democrats admit to the need for reducing the debt and restraining the rate of spending that is simply unsustainable. So if the partisan rants could ever be quieted, a substantial and focused debate might produce workable compromises.
The religious fervor that fuels the dissent, however, makes me doubt easy resolution. The issue divides us theologically as seen in the polls showing that that conservative Protestants are more likely to view budget cuts as the end in itself, and this religious group is the backbone of the tea party. The basis for these slants to political issues, I think, comes from skepticism about human ability to change God’s predestination about who is saved and who is damned.
Calvin never really said that wealth alone was a sign of God’s election, but by placing earthly riches among the blessings that God gave to his chosen ones, vulgar logic leapt to the conclusion that if the “poor are always with us” (Mt. 26:11) it was futile for governments to alleviate poverty by the redistribution of wealth. You can find these views expressed on ultraconservative websites like that of the Institute on Religion and Democracy where Jesus’ call to help the poor is interpreted as a “private” matter. Rush Limbaugh has said that the taxing the wealthy is equivalent to “stealing”and that social programs are “spending money to make people dependent.”
It is tempting to see these statements as the line from just one radio host or right-wing blog, but there are just too many others repeating it. It smacks of a religious worldview that sees charity towards the needy is unavailing and even harmful. The power of religious faith, in other words, has been transferred to the politics of rugged individualism. Ironically, Obama said as much by categorizing opposition to social spending as “their article of faith.”
Now I realize that not all Catholics follow church teaching: in fact Speaker Boehner and Rep. Ryan are Catholics, while the Catholic view of social justice is embraced by non-Catholics like Obama and Senator Reid. But even if we cannot pretend that Catholic America needs to chose one party over another, we are obliged by our faith to be pro-life. The bishops have told us we need to put people before profits. The crisis of the budget issue has stripped Catholics of excuses for dismissing the problem as “politics as usual.” In fact, Jesus told us (Mt. 25) if we don’t make the right decision about social needs, we could go to hell.
“The spending choices of Congress have clear moral and human dimensions; they reflect our values as a people,” said Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, in a March 4 letter to the U.S. Senate. “Some current proposals call for substantial reductions, particularly in those programs that serve the poorest and most vulnerable people in our nation. In a time of economic crisis, poor and vulnerable people are in greater need of assistance, not less.”