A common liberal slogan holds that "budgets are moral documents." Yet this is not literally true. A document cannot be moral anymore than a brick can be entrepreneurial. Morality requires responsibility, and responsibility requires some threshold of agency and understanding. What these commentators and activists mean to say, of course, is not that the documents are moral but that they disclose the morality of the people who made them. Budgets are records of decisions that reflect values and priorities, and the budgeters are morally accountable for these decisions just as they are morally accountable for the virtues and vices that shape them.

This is not semantic nitpicking. The United States—from the federal government to state governments and municipalities, to millions of businesses and families—now staggers under mountains of debt. Wise budgeting is one of the preeminent economic and ethical challenges of the age. Slogans like "Budgets are moral documents" or "What would Jesus cut?" serve more to confuse than to clarify.

Let's imagine a simple budget that directs $20,000 to a soup kitchen, $20,000 to savings, and $60,000 to expenses. Is this budget moral? Who knows? The morality of the budget does not inhere in the document, but depends on the character and context of the budget and its budgeters.

What, for example, is the type of budget? Devoting 60 percent to operating expenses and 20 percent to a soup kitchen is generous for most companies, but not for a charity whose purpose is to support the soup kitchen. We have different moral expectations for different types of budgets. Or what is the source of its funds? Money given voluntarily by investors implies one set of obligations. Money coerced from the poorest of the poor, in order to serve the less poor, changes the moral calculus.

Then there are considerations like the intent of the budget and the effectiveness of the means it employs. If the budgeter gives $20,000 to a soup kitchen, but does so for the sake of political gain, this shades the "morality" of the budget. Or if the budgeter seeks earnestly to benefit the needy, but funds programs that actually worsen their plight, the budgeter may be morally culpable for what he should have known. And any number of contextual factors may also change the moral value of a budget. Is the budget heavily financed by debt? Does it fulfill all its responsibilities? Does it take on responsibilities better left to others? Does it save wisely? If the budget should save $30,000 in order to avoid bankruptcy, then it may be more moral in the short term to give less money to the soup kitchen in order (say) to preserve the company and pay its employees and have the opportunity to continue giving to the soup kitchen for years to come.

Much of this kind of nuance has flown out the window in recent debates over the morality of the federal budget and the most moral way to balance the books. A recent study from the Pew Research Center showed that evangelicals, compared to the general populace, more strongly favored reductions in spending on aid to the world's poor, unemployment, environmental protections, and college financial aid. And evangelicals were more likely to favor increases in spending on the military, crime-fighting, and counter-terrorism.