Is a balanced budget a moral issue?

Wrangling in Washington over the national debt has featured speeches and sound-bytes from right and left, from the president on … Continued

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.”

  • Tancred2

    The Bishops need to stop campaigning for the DNC and start saving souls again. Their engagement with political issues is hard-hearted and cynical.

  • WmarkW

    Jesus was an apocalyptic who thought the world was going to end soon (and put him and the Apostles in charge), so his opinion on deficit spending isn’t really relevant.

    The federal government is currently paying about 2.5% annual interest on the debt. If inflation should double that (and deficits eventually cause inflation), it will push up the deficit even further, leading to death spiral of obligations that get harder and harder to meet.

    There are certainly legitimate cases to be made that different groups deserve to be the targets of cuts. The working lifetimes of the baby boom generation (now approaching retirement) should have been a period of DECREASED debt, not increased. The argument is understandable that they have over-consumed and deserve to have their government pension obligations reduced.

    Or one can make the opposite argument that they paid into the trusts all their lives and now deserve to get it back. When advocating not reducing services to the poor, keep in mind that about a third of the poor in America are Hispanic, primarily recent immigrants, many illegal, and their recently-born children. Whether we should favor to target our spending at them instead of at people with a long family and taxpaying history in America is a hard argument to make.

  • playfulboyatl

    My only objection to this article is the use of the term “Conservative Protestants” in place of the word Evangelical which is the categorization the pew research that is being referenced uses. Evangelical refers to certain denominations and strains withing all denominations and is a more precise term and the one used in the research. There are many liberal protestants in denominations that have evangelical wings or strains. Lumping protestants together under the term conservative is simply misleading and less precise.

  • davivman

    The bishops have no particular allegience to either politcal party. They have and will continue to advocate possitions they belive to best correspond to Catholic teachings. And whether you like it or not, they will continue to do this despite the fact that they may take the side of a political party that is different than yours on a particular issue.

  • ns269

    I think the link for “Evangelical groups” is broken. Any help?

  • edbyronadams

    I can’t see how leaving a colossus of debt to succeeding generations who had nothing to say about its accumulation can be seen as anything but a huge moral failure, regardless of creed or denomination.

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