In the debate over the joint statement by Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action called “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal for the Debt Crisis“, Jordan Ballor, of the Acton Institute, doesn’t like that the agreement says nothing about what the proper role of government should be. He writes,
These religious groups’ focus on government’s role in ameliorating poverty, however, leaves largely unaddressed the real core of the problem, and the necessary steps to address it.
He also argues that a statement of principles that included an understanding of the role of government, and the federal government in particular, would help to guide us out of our budget crisis.
This means that the fundamental role of government in the provision of various services must likewise be explored. This requires a return to basics, the first principles of good governance, that does justice to the varieties of governmental entities (local, regional, state, federal) and institutions of civil society (including families, churches, charities, and businesses). We must ask ourselves: What is government for? What is the federal government for? Is the government primarily and essentially a means of upholding civil order by the application of retributive justice? Are civil magistrates “God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Ro 13:4 NIV)? Or are they primarily to be agents of the redistribution of wealth, to take from the rich and give to the poor?
Ballor is correct on both counts. The signers of the document, while all Christian, come from different political ideologies and likely support correctives to our debt burden for different reasons. The (politically) liberal side probably wants to reduce our debt so we can continue to fund social welfare programs that they support. Conservatives likely want to get our debt under control so that we can lower taxes and help our businesses become more competitive. Also, if a majority of our political leaders agreed on the proper role of the federal government, it would be much easier to cut out the parts of the budget that did not fulfill that role.
So, yes, the signers of the “Call” disagree on principle. To agree on policy solutions, however, it is not necessary to first agree on the principles behind those policy solutions. Debates about the proper role of government are important, but context also matters. The “Call” was not written in a vacuum. It was written in the context of an important debate taking place in Congress today. Whether Congress acts on the important budgetary matters highlighted by the “Call”, will depend much on the messages Congress members hear from the public.
Ballor cites a Michael Gerson article that argues, as I have, that debates over how much to cut from non-defense discretionary spending avoids the real issues behind our budget crisis, namely Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and defense. Ballor then, however, makes the same mistake by focusing most of his attention on the parts of the “Call” that deal with non-defense discretionary spending. He writes,
The ‘What Would Jesus Cut?’ and ‘A Call for Intergenerational Justice’ campaigns want to make particular social programs immune from these calculations. But the government’s fiscal straits are so dire that no program or area of spending can be privileged thus.
Since the “Call” admits that changes must be made to Social Security, health care, and defense, the social programs that it seeks to protect would obviously come from non-defense discretionary spending—a small part of the budget. Funding programs that Jim Wallis likes but I, or Jordan Ballor, don’t like is a small price to pay for avoiding disaster.
The time for action on our federal budget crisis is now, and Congress can only accomplish this task by working in a bipartisan manner. Solutions to the crisis will be painful to many voters. Neither political party, therefore, will tackle the problem by itself because to do so would be disastrous for that party at the next election. What our politicians most need to hear at this time is—doing nothing is not an option, cut a deal with the other party, and let us get our fiscal house in order. The more that members of Congress hear, on the other hand, “stick to your principles, don’t compromise with those other people,” the less likely we will avoid a pending financial catastrophe. When the boat is sinking, debates about its faulty construction matter less than getting to shore.