It’s Time to Balance the National Budget! – Fixing the Moral Deficit

The following is my contribution to the Patheos Book Club for Fixing the Moral Deficit.

I recently read, Ron Sider’s newest book. This is a book that is timely. In an age when poverty is rampant and spending is through the roof, Sider cuts through political agendas and gets to the heart of a biblical approach to budgeting and caring for the poor. To begin let me simply say that I highly recommend the book, Fixing the Moral Deficit: a balanced way to balance the budget.

Many Christians are asking questions about the recent debates about our deficit and how best to balance the US budget. Many of us lean a little more to the right and hold that cutting programs is the only way to ensure the balancing of our budget and the stimulus of our economy. Others of us to lean towards the left and recognize that we need to cut areas like military spending but also need to ensure that the poor are taken care of and that we do not perpetuate systems of injustice. Of course, there are extremes in both directions. If we move too far to the right we end up with an Ayn Rand sort of libertarianism that essentially functions for the good of the individual and no one else. If we move too far to the left we end up with a Marxist philosophy that believe that everyone should have an equal amount of income and property. Certainly this is an oversimplification of the extremes, but simply to point out that both extremes get things terribly wrong. This is why Ron Sider’s book is so important as it tries to present a balanced way to balance the budget.

Sider effectively gives an overview of the history of the US budget. He also helps us to understand the way in which political philosophy plays into how many people approach politics and budgeting issues. If you feel like you don’t understand national economics as well as you would like, this book helps to cut through the jargon and get down to the facts of how the system works and how it affects rich and poor alike.

Rather than give the conclusion of the book away to you all, I think it will be helpful to lay out some biblical principles that he uses to guide conversations about government spending. No matter how political philosophy we ought to cling to these seven principles more than any governmental ideology.

1. Persons are made both for personal freedom and responsibility, and for communal interdependence.

2. Christians have a responsibility to our neighbors.

3. God and God’s faithful people have a special concern for the poor. God measures societies by such a standard.

4. Justice does not demand equal income and wealth, but it does require that everyone has access to the productive resources (land, capital, education) so that, when they act responsibly, they will be able to earn an adequate living and be respected members of society.

5. Economic equality is not a biblical norm. But economic inequality that harms the poorer members of society and prevents them from gaining access to productive resources is wrong.

6. Government is only one of many crucial institutions and society, and its power must be limited but in biblical teaching, there is a significant, legitimate role for government and caring for the poor and promoting economic opportunity. It is simply unbiblical to claim that carry for the poor is only a responsibility of individuals and private organizations…

7. Intergenerational justice is important. One generation should not benefit or suffer unfairly at the cost of another.

After giving the seven biblical principles he then goes on to offer seven more concrete prudential norms:

1. We must keep and strengthen effective programs that serve and empower poor people.

2. We should cut ineffective, duplicative and wasteful programs.

3. Everyone should contribute, but those with the most resources should contribute the most.

4. We must include the defense budget as we cut federal expenditure.

5. We should continue to invest in education, infrastructure and research.

6. We should adopt roughly equal (50-50) mix between increased revenue and cuts in spending.

7. We should move decisively (but not instantly) to substantially reduce and then largely and budget deficits.

Based on the seven biblical principles and seven prudential norms, Ron Sider then goes on to integrate these ideas into a proposal for reducing the national debt.

In my opinion, this is a book that both moderate conservatives and moderate liberals can get behind. I think that if we would read proposals like this and have honest discussion, we might find that we have a lot more in common than we have that separates us as Christians involved in American politics.

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  • It also seems to align with Catholic Social Teaching. Putting it on my (long) to-read list.

  • I read “Completely Pro-Life” by Ron Sider a few years back and enjoyed his insights’s there, too.

    However, while I agree that government has responsibility towards the poor, I think that Sider and others have put too much faith in the government and processes to do so. Additionally, the government responsibilities described in the OT were in a culture where the monarch was explicitly recognized as not just the seat of government but practically a priestly position themselves. So, judgements against Kingdoms were judgments against nations who had a national identity that was deeply connected to their recognition of their connection with the supernatural. Such is not the case today and, as you and I are both found of pointing out, the “Christian Nation” status of the USA is a myth.

    So, while I agree with these principles and such, I think that the means of bringing them about as outlined both in “Completely Pro-life” and, apparently (although I haven’t read it yet) in this book, are misguided. Dr. Fitch at Northern put up a Yoder quote recently pointing out (and I paraphrase) that the shalom of Christ is not something that can be achieved in the absence of faith in Christ. We can pass as many laws and regulations as we want to and try and make a “just” budget, but without establishing, first, a moral foundation in the hearts, minds, and lives of the people in the nation, it will ultimately fail either because of the law of unintended consequences or because morally corrupt people will simply find other ways to continue theur morally corrupt ways and circumvent the laws. Trickle down morality works as well as trickle down economics.

    Still, I will read this book because, even though it seems mistaken in the implementation, the principles are ones that I can most cettainly agree with.

    • Shari Nyles

      Rob, I also haven’t yet read the book but hope to get for our church library.  Based on Kurt’s outline of the book Sider seems to be right on.  In a civilized nation there need to be laws, regulations and budgets that are for the common good of everyone.   What are you referring to when you say this can’t be done without first establishing a “moral foundation” ?    If you aren’t referring to some sort of Christian theocracy which I’m sure you’re not why should we as Christians fear laws.  Of course we live in an imperfect world/country.  Certainly the government is flawed.   We know Christians too can fail and find ways to circumvent laws.  People are people – all created in God’s image and worthy of a dignified life.    It puzzles me when Christianity is used to advocate against gov’t structures that attempt to lift those most oppressed in our society.  

      • You read me wrong, Shari. I’m not saying government is evil or has no responsibility and that good cannot be achieved.

        But what good does it do to pass a law “Don’t steal” if the people are not personally motivated not to do so? A person bent on stealin, even in the face of the harshest laws, will still find a way of doing it. Laws don’t make people good. All laws do is show how NOT good people are. Such is the gist of Paul in the book of Romans.

        If there is no spiritually moral foundation, motivated by a transformed heart and mind, achieved by an alignment with the resurrected Christ, nothing Sider proposes will have any lasting good. To advocate for these moral principles and norms is good…but legislating them without giving people a heart-change reason to follow them does no good.

        What good did the entire law of Moses do to the nation of Israel? Nothing because intead of committing to it in their hearts as Moses asked them to do in Deuteronomy, they made it all about the Law and not about the God BEHIND the law.

        This is the “moral foundation”. Government is good…but it is not the highest priority for us who know The Way. The highest priority is to make dicisples, not make more laws. A disciple is trained to have a heart change so that the law no longer has any bearing. Make disciples, and the rest will fall into place. Asking people who don’t even believe in God to follow “biblical principles” is futile, pearls before swine. Reason and rationale can easily counter act anything claimed to be “biblical” in the hearts and minds of people who don’t have the spirit BEHIND the words motivating them.

        Vote, participate…ask for justice…but don’t expect it from people who don’t even think our brand of justice is the right one.

        • To be entirely blunt and honest, I could really care less about what goes on in Washington DC or Harrisburg, PA, or whereever as long as those of us who KNOW better are doing absolutely NOTHING about it.

          We sit in our pretty little churches, we dress in our fancy clothes, we use big words and talk about all sorts of great and wonderful ideals and we vote and we boycott and we write letters to the editor and sit back and let others do the work because, well, we did our part, right? We put money in the offering and did our little duty.

          “We have not yet suffered to the shedding of blood”

          There are times when I am ashamed to be called an Amaerican Christian because, quite frankly, we haven’t done anything worthy of the label. And I am even more ashamed, at times, to be called Mennonite because of how far away we have come from the ideals of what it really means to live out the gospel in our daily lives.

          Yes, vote. Participate. Speak for justice. But if that’s all we’re doing, count me out.

          • Matteo Masiello

            Robert, I couldn’t agree more. I can’t help believe that only liars or fools involve themselves in politics. I can’t see which will benefit from Mr. Snider’s book as vague as his excerpts sound.

            I won’t assume that you would share this view, but I am also hard pressed to believe that human government is the best God can do and can of pray that He comes soon. The servants are inept at keeping the master’s house.

          • Human government is not the best God can do, obviously, but it’s the second best that fallen, flawed humans can do (church being the best, and frankly, that’s about as jacked up as gov’t from where I’m sitting).

          • Mike Ward

            Robert, What exactly are you doing that you feel everyone else needs to be doing too?

          • Lessee…

            First, don’t go after all the latest gadgets and gizmos so that, financially, you’re free to do more.

            Then, look around your neighborhood and actuallly be a neighbor rather than just a stranger up the street. And don’t stick to those comfort zones of “folks like us”, either.

            Take time out to get to know people so that, when there is a need, you can help.

            Buy a bag of groceries for the single mom struggling to make ends meet.

            Spend vacation time helping out at a homeless shelter instead of heading to the beach.

            In general, be the Kingdom where you are rather than expecting others to do it. And I don’t except the excuse “that’s not my calling” because that’s just a bogus statement unfounded on anything remotely related to the gosepl.

            Beyond that, don’t just do these things because they are “what you do”, so them because the Christ that is in you drives you to. Don’t have that? Well, that’s the problem then, isn’t it?

          • All good stuff, Robert, and you’re right on in calling us to do it.  Where I think you’re wrong is that, while you are correct in saying gov’t can’t legislate righteousness or justice, that does not excuse us  the government from culpability in actions/policies that have the net effect of unrighteousness or injustice.  Nor does it excuse us to the extent we support those policies (or oppose others).

            Where the conservative “don’t expect the gov’t to do it” argument falls furthest short, IMO, is that if the net effect of a gov’t policy is less justice/freedom for the poor or more freedom for the powerful to gain at the poor’s expense, no rationale can change that net reality.  It doesn’t really matter whether you believe the government or the church should be providing a way out for the poor…if the policy for which you advocate (or which you do not oppose) has the net effect of constraining or lessening the opportunity for the poor, it is on that basis alone antithetical to the way of Jesus and the clear teaching of the Law and the Prophets.  It doesn’t matter, frankly, whether your philosophy says there’s a better way to do it…unless it is being done already, breaking the chains of the oppressed is right in and of itself.

            There is, of course, the ol’ law of supply and demand at work here too.  If the churches of America really stepped up to the plate at the magnitude necessary to address systemic poverty in America, instead of trimming around the edges, then maybe gov’t wouldn’t have to try–however imperfectly–to fill the gap.  Perhaps good-old supply-side theory should be applied to reducing the supply of poor people?

          • It is your last paragraph which is the crux of my argument. If Christians were truly doing what they say they believe in, would the govt programs even be necessary?

            A question always in my mind, which is more effective, spending moneyc time, and energy to add to the beauracracy in the name of caring for the poor, or going into a poor section of our country and expending the same amount of resource in direct action?

            A secondary question which is implied in my statements: Does it make sense to hold people accountable to a standard based on Christian faith when they themselves do not hold to that faith? Such is the case even more now than in 1972 when John Howard Yoder posed the same premise in “Politics of Jesus”. Necessarily, we need to speak to our government and ask them to realize their proper role of structure and order in society, but when it comes to enforcing by rule of law a set of standards that an increasingly diminishing percentage of people adhere to, I find that irrational.

            And finally, as I posted in my own blog some short time back, I note that generally in the US, for all of it’s 225 years, politics has not been an area that has acted with any sense of grace, humility, and peace. To participate in that kind of politics, while the ends may be laudible, it seems to me that Christ is calling us to an equally high standard when it comes to the mans by which we interact with the world.

            So…and I HATE repeating myself… I am not anti-political. I am apolitical. There’s a subtle difference, that being that, when it comes to priorities as a believer, I tend to aim for the more eternal results. As nice as the USA is, it’s time, in the light of eternity, is brief. In fact, I don’t expect our nation to last more than 20 more years at the rate things are going, both due to internal struggles as well as due to external influences. Why spend money on a dying horse?

          • …and to the extent you’re truly apolitical, Robert, I may be guilty of associating you with the highly-political right wing of conservatives and libertarians I usually hear making the arguments about the church’s, vs. the government’s duty to the poor.  Those whom I have observed aren’t just apolitical, not trying to make the gov’t do the church’s job.  Rather, they actively oppose the secular government’s efforts to make tax policy and/or social policy that helps the poor, and actively elect candidates who militantly deconstruct such efforts.  This is where I oppose their work so strongly…because the net effect of these efforts is to destroy the government’s safety  net (however inadequate or inefficient it may be), without making a commensurate increase in private support efforts.

            This, then, is the crux of my opposition to American conservatives.  They vigorously fight for efforts that result in a net increase in poverty and a net decrease in help for the truly disadvantaged, labeling them all “freeloaders” and “welfare queens,” and their efforts–if any–to minister to these in Jesus’ name are fractional in proportion to the need.  Apolitical Christians aren’t the problem I’m trying to address…it’s very political conservative Christians who, to my way of thinking, are actively exacerbating the problem.

            But maybe this doesn’t describe you.  To the extent it doesn’t, perhaps you need to take pains to clarify the difference between your position and that of those quite different from you, who use some of the same rhetoric.

            Finally, if I read the Gospels and the Prophets correctly, ministering to the physical needs of the poor *does* have eternal results in its own right…and so does fighting for one’s wealth at the expense of the poor.

          • I would not say I vigorously fight against government policies.  I think it is a good thing when government does good for the poor.  But I think there are limits.  And, as mentioned above, I think it is foolishness to expect people to be held accountable for something they subscribe to.  If they aren’t convicted to the faith of God, they will find a way around any laws.

            I think that the government as it stands right now is bloated and hyperpolicized.  As much as even our current president seems to be speaking about justice, the hypocrisy of some of his personal actions seems to speak towards political expediency and power ploys.  And, frankly, most of the Republican candidates up for the job are the same.Government can do good.  But our government I think has a lot of problems.  And the amount of legislation going on out there adding the the beauracracy…I think there are ways government can fix things… but I think what has been done within the last 10-20 years has been entirely the wrong track.

          • Let me add some more stuff.  Here are links to three articles I wrote on my own discussing the role of Christians and politics.




            I hope this clarifies my position.  Not that I’m not advocating for the extremes of the right or the left nor am I advocating for complete quietism concerning politics.  I’m advocating for approaching politics in the public arena in a completely different fashion than what has been conceived of or practiced of late.

        • That is one of the best responses I have ever read anywhere, being completely serious. Trying to legislate Kingdom behavior via the means of the world, expecting unregenerate people to behave and respond like those who have been born again is foolish and has been proven utterly ineffective over and over again. The seven policy prescriptions listed are little more than liberal political positions dressed up in religious language, which is every bit as illigetimate as conservative politicial positions being dressed up in religious language. We need to realize that neither capitalism nor socialism is inherently a Kingdom system.

          • ellie_1

            true. the Kindom is not inherently capitalistic or socialistic, but the Kingdom through us and and because of God’s love for the world is now an inherent part of the world. to be in the world and not of it requires a bit of poise I suppose.

        • ellie_1

          the good in making and promoting Godly laws is that it restrains evil to a degree which is a good thing. certainly, it doesn’t equal being born again, but it does matter. 

  • Thanks for sharing on such a charged issue where moderation is a curse word. For me, the largest problem I have in trusting the government IS trusting the government to effectively administer beneficial programs. If I thought that the government would use a short term tax increase to pay off the debt, I would probably be for it. But, I just think they would take the new money and increase spending.Therein lies the problem. Just my ¢2.

    • Precisely my point. Government has the great potentialz for good, but only if it is motivated by that which gives rise to Sider’s principles. Adopting the principles without adopting the spirit BEHIND them is the same as the Pharisees trying to figure out what “Sabbath” meant without understanding WHY.