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Three Views: Is the $17 Trillion Federal Debt Immoral?
Image: Illustration by James Steinberg

Immoral and Unwise

David P. Gushee

At the moment my fingers hit these keys, the U.S. government debt had reached $17.071 trillion, or $58,853 per citizen. Our debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio sat at 107 percent. Our credit rating had fallen to AA plus, with a negative outlook—the first time our rating has been downgraded. By all these measures, our country is falling behind Canada, Great Britain, Germany, and other peer nations.

Most progressive evangelicals who address government spending focus on compassion issues. They connect God's care for the poor to U.S. government spending priorities. This often seems to mean by default that all cuts to social welfare spending are bad, and that all increases are good.

I agree with my progressive evangelical allies that our government—which projects spending $3.77 trillion in fiscal 2014—seems to have sufficient resources to provide for the sick, the aged, the poor, and the uninsured. I agree with an overall reading of the Bible that prioritizes physical human needs over most other priorities. But I protest a too-easy move from "God cares for the poor and calls Christians to do the same" to "God wants the secular government of the United States to spend x on social welfare." Translating a sacred text into a political ethic is not that easy.

Still, we have a moral problem on our hands: While our nation budgets $3.77 trillion for spending in fiscal 2014, it forecasts revenue of $744 billion less than that. If a nation does that for long enough, it ends up with a debt of $17 trillion—and rising.

A government that develops a pattern of spending considerably more than it raises behaves immorally. But its immorality ...

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