Budget cuts can provide a good deal of insight into the priorities and values of those with the scissors. The House of Representatives is in the process of slicing off 60 billion dollars (no small task) from the federal budget. These reductions have prompted the Pew Research Center to conduct a study into what areas of spending Americans are most willing to cut. While the results of the study are obviously open to interpretation, at first glance the results are both stunning and troubling, in particular with regard to the evangelical American population and its exposed priorities, interests, and concerns.
The study, as reported in a recent online Christianity Today article, reveals that the category evangelicals are most willing for the government to cut is economic assistance for global poverty. Fifty-six percent of evangelicals preferred to chop from the federal budget aid for the world's poorest people. The next highest choice, at 40 percent, was economic assistance for the unemployed. As the CT article notes, evangelicals were more supportive of decreasing spending in these areas than were other Americans. Evangelicals were much more reticent, on the other hand, to cut terrorism defense and military defense. In fact, 45 percent of evangelicals favored increasing spending for military defense, a percentage well higher than non-evangelicals (28 percent).
What does this mean?
First, it's important to note that, in the face of immense and mounting national debt, the proverbial purse must be tightened. The issue is not whether we should or shouldn't reduce the overall budget (though we have the corollary question of tax rates); rather, the question is what these spending preferences reveal about our underlying theological commitments and social priorities. At the very least, the meaning of these preferences needs to be explored.
Second, we can acknowledge that the data may not necessarily suggest a widespread lack of concern among evangelicals for the world's poor and for the unemployed. Instead, it may reflect evangelicals' beliefs about the role of government. Government should not be in the global charity business, some may argue.
And yet, it is troubling that alongside of a willingness to cut aid to the world's poor there is a parallel willingness to increase spending for military defense. It is difficult not to see these things together. The fact is that we rely on our government to make choices about how our collective funds are spent. This reveals a choice in favor of a stronger military for the strongest and richest country in the world and in favor of less solidarity and assistance for the most desperate people in the world. No matter how charitably we interpret the data, it would be irresponsible not to raise hard questions about our priorities as evangelicals and the fundamental theological positions that these socio-political priorities expose.
At a theological level, at least two possibilities must at the very least be considered.
1) A Gospel Fail? Evangelicals consider themselves to be people defined by and shaped by the Gospel. Of course, this immediately raises the issue as to what the "Gospel" is. For some evangelicals, the Gospel is thoroughly and completely encapsulated in the language of "substitutionary atonement." Christ died on the cross for sinners so that they might be saved and granted eternal life with God.
Evangelicals ought not lose an emphasis on "penal substitution" and the eternal implications of Christ's salvific work for individuals. But in so doing we ought not reduce the meaning of the Gospel to individual salvation only. Darrell Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church, argues that evangelicals too often reduce the Gospel and the mission of the Church to individual salvation and to its individual benefits (131-132). If salvation is only about getting to heaven after we die, how do we make sense of Jesus' consistent proclamation that the Kingdom of heaven has come now, and that the Gospel is good news to the poor, sick, and downtrodden in the midst of their conditions?
Luke 4 tells us that Jesus went around preaching good news to the sick and to the hungry. Was the good news simply that their troubles are only temporal and that eventually they'll go to heaven when they die? I think the Gospel has much more of a word of hope to say to the poorest of the poor than about what happens after they die; I think it also has a word of hope and validation within their present circumstances. Jesus, through the Gospel of the inbreaking Kingdom and the mission of his Church offers a new and lasting dignity to the world's poor. Those who have no name in the society and the world have a name in the Kingdom. They matter.