Budgeting for Jesus

I happen to disagree. I believe the waste and graft of international aid has been overstated, and top-notch organizations like World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, and Bread for the World are worthy recipients of federal money. But it hardly makes evangelicals immoral or uncompassionate if they believe that the federal government is not a charity, and that money given the American government should be used to serve American citizens. The "uncompassionate" claim makes little sense anyway, since conservatives and especially religious conservatives give more of their time and treasure to charitable organizations, whether national or international, religious or secular. And little noticed amid the flood of complaints was that evangelicals were more likely to favor an increase in spending for poor Americans. The preference to cut overseas aid does not mean that evangelicals are uncaring but that many, reasonably enough, do not view the federal government as the best vehicle for their global compassion.

In a similar way, evangelicals presumably favor lower levels of spending on environmental protections, unemployment and college financial aid because they are more skeptical that these are necessary or effective or serve our long-term social interests. And presumably they favor higher levels of spending on national defense, counter-terrorism, and crime-fighting because they view these as the essential roles of the federal government, roles that create the conditions for a flourishing society here and around the world. Evangelicals are less likely to favor soaking the rich because they, being more conservative as a general rule, believe that doing so would drain money from the private sector and undermine economic growth—and this receding tide would lower all boats.

At the same time, evangelicals are deeply concerned about the morality of a budget that actually plans to add $7 trillion to the national debt in just ten years. A sharp spike in federal spending was understandable (whether or not it was wise) as a short-term response to the financial crisis, but continued profligate spending, financed by massive debt to unscrupulous nations, reflects a general culture of debt and irresponsibility and a political culture that abandons its most fundamental responsibilities for the sake of short-term political gain.

The next great American leader will take up the economic and moral imperative to put aside partisan interests and electoral calculations, tackle our entitlements, and chart a course back to fiscal responsibility. Judging by his atrocious budget proposal, Barack Obama is not that leader.

In the meantime, as we bicker over relatively minor cuts to discretionary spending, it's best to recognize that "What would Jesus cut?" is not actually an easy question to answer. It's no simple matter to transpose the financial principles Jesus taught to individuals in an ancient barter economy into policies that should guide the budgets of governments in a contemporary capitalistic marketplace. The assumption that Jesus would favor anything that is ostensibly for the poor and oppose anything that ostensibly benefits the rich is simply facile.

3/8/2011 5:00:00 AM