What Tim Keller and Michael Gerson Want You to Know About How America Spends Its Money

“It’s possible for a church with deep resources for doing good to get co-opted by nationalism. I don’t want that to happen now.”
What Tim Keller and Michael Gerson Want You to Know About How America Spends Its Money
Image: Mike Kemp / Getty Images

Tim Keller’s national reputation doesn’t come from his political positions. As the founder and newly retired senior pastor of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian, his claims to fame come from his thoughtful theological work and intellectual engagement. Yet 2017 may have been Keller’s most politically active year yet. Keller, along with more than 500 evangelical leaders, took out a full-page ad in TheWashington Post asking the administration to reverse its temporary ban on refugee resettlement and its proposed reduction for the next fiscal year. After the Trump administration announced a budget that proposed significant cuts to foreign aid, Keller’s former church held a global poverty event sponsored by Bono’s ONE Campaign. There, Keller joined former George W. Bush speechwriter and adviser Michael Gerson and the World Bank Group’s Edith Jibunoh to discuss where the church’s presence and perspective belong in American foreign assistance conversations.

Keller and Gerson recently sat down with writer Sarah Kate Neall to discuss that moral vision, the nationalism which threatens benevolence, and the key facts in a conversation about foreign aid.

Why is it important to have a conversation about global poverty and foreign aid now?

Keller: I’m concerned that there’s a growing resistance to foreign engagement stemming from rising tides of nationalism around the world. It’s not just America; more and more people are saying, “We’ve got to take care of our own. We’ve got to care about here.”

This sentiment is the reason the conversation has to go on. I see a lethargy and indifference growing. I also see a feeling of negativity and despair about nearly everything. As a pastor, I think the Christian faith and the church have enormous intellectual and spiritual resources to lend to this kind of initiative.

You can argue that universal benevolence—that everyone is my brother and my sister regardless of race or their nationality—is a Judeo-Christian idea. Christianity isn’t the only one, but historically Christianity has had a lot to do with that very impulse. It would be very alarming if a lot of modern Christians stopped seeing that as part of their job.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent a lot of time wondering why most of the German church swore an oath of fealty to Hitler. It’s possible for a church with deep resources for doing good to get co-opted by nationalism. I don’t want that to happen now.

I want my people, church people from New York City, to hear what’s happening. I want them to be a part of it; I want them to support it. I want them to see it as part of what it means to be a Christian. I’m not saying only Christians can do it or should do it, I’m just saying Christians ought to be very involved in stuff like this.

Gerson: I have concerns about the direction of Christian political engagement. There does seem to be some retreat from a forward role for America in the world and more of an internal focus. This strikes me as problematic not because we’re doing nothing, but because it could stop some pretty extraordinary momentum.

For instance, I spent time in Africa in 2003 at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It was a cresting wave of death. In some parts of Africa, AIDS was on the verge of making society impossible. You had the emergence of this tremendous global inequity, where there were drugs in vaults on the other side of the Earth that could save millions of lives. Rarely do you have a problem where you know the right thing to do. We announced PEPFAR at the State of the Union in 2003, and it was law four months later with broad bipartisan support.

[PEPFAR is the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a “sustained HIV/AIDS response” that works to “accelerate HIV prevention and treatment through transparent, accountable, and cost-effective investments”]

Sometimes arguments for cuts to foreign aid are framed as taxpayers needing to get their money’s worth. How do you talk about that?

Gerson: It’s essential that people know how much we actually spend on foreign assistance. It’s significantly less than one percent of the budget. We’re actually getting a huge amount of results for a minimal amount of contribution compared to our budget.

Some things we do out of universal benevolence, but they’re not necessarily inconsistent with national interest. A lot of the problems in the world we saw when I worked in the Bush administration didn’t emerge out of great power rivalry. They emerged from poorly governed or ungoverned parts of the world where some of the worst problems of the world gather, whether it’s terrorism or pandemic disease or refugee flows or human trafficking or criminal gangs. We do have an interest in making sure we promote hope and health as the alternative to anger and hatred.

I would make the case that there have been periods, like the Cold War, where a significant amount of foreign assistance, say in Africa, was not done to get human outcomes. It was done to get geopolitical outcomes. So it’s not absurd for people to think at various points that [foreign aid] was actually not being used to aid people very much. I think we’ve seen a revolution in the way that foreign aid is done in the last 20 years.

Keller: There is the reputation is that the money just goes into the coffers of the elite and never gets down to the people who need it.

Gerson: I think we do it better than we did in a different time, and we do it for different purposes that are not narrowly geopolitical, even though there are geopolitical implications. PEPFAR was a response to a grave human need that we had within our power to address. [Addressing grave human needs abroad] is ultimately a moral and religious commitment to a viewpoint about universal human rights and dignity. I regard that as a very American commitment, ingrained in our own founding but also rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I’ve been to places where there’s so much death. People live short and difficult lives. You’re left thinking, “Does everybody really matter? Does everybody count?” The Christian response is a resounding “Yes. They are equal to us.” I think it’s an exciting part of being a Christian, that you have this vision that everybody matters and counts.

Do you see the proposed cuts as a rejection of that American commitment?

Gerson: First of all, it’s necessary to say that the proposed cuts have already been blunted by people in the US Congress who think that they’re absurd. There has really been a bipartisan resistance to this idea that you could cut 33 percent of foreign assistance aid without hurting a huge number of people.

The proposed cuts represent a misunderstanding of what’s being accomplished and a simplistic approach. I don’t think everyone who thinks there should be cuts in foreign assistance hates humanity. I think they’re genuinely mistaken about what America can do in the world and the principles we can serve.

I’m bothered because we’re within reach of some extraordinary goals. The Global Fund and the President’s Malaria Initiative have halved malaria deaths in Africa in the last 15 years. Bill Gates talks about malaria eradication as a realistic human project. We know exactly how to save 10 million lives from tuberculosis with existing technologies over the next decade or ending mother-to-child transmission of AIDS. We have these realistic prospects, and we’re messing around with unrealistic budget proposals, rather than providing the kind of leadership that could confront and defeat some of the worst and oldest enemies of humanity.

Tim, you mention a cultural climate of reluctance to help others, and Michael, you mention a lot of reasons for excitement and hope in the fields of global health and development. Why do people feel so differently about the good of foreign aid?

Keller: The decline narratives are much stronger now. Look at Hollywood in the last 10 years. All the dystopian movies. Where’s Star Trek? Science fiction once assumed progress, and now all the science fiction is breakdown and—

Gerson: Post-apocalyptic.

Keller: That’s right. There’s a huge lack of hope that comes partly from a mistrust of institutions. Many people would call that the “acids of modernity,” a belief which started in the Enlightenment when people declared you find truth not by looking at tradition, not by looking at religious authority, but using your brain. This idea that you can figure it out yourself leads to individualism and a willingness not just to do what religious authorities tell you to but to think it for yourself. However, it seems to have overshot, in such a way that we really don’t trust any authority or any institution—and maybe that’s part of the problem.

There’s also a question about whether we have enough moral consensus. We are in a situation where people are very afraid of any kind of metaphysical claim, like, “This is right. The acids of modernity make it hard to appeal to some moral source outside of you and, frankly, people have seen a lot of corruption in institutions.

Those are possible reasons it’s hard to get the whole American nation behind this. It seems to me like a generation ago, everybody would have said, “This is incredible. Let’s do it. Let’s increase the giving. Let’s increase foreign aid. Let’s wipe out malaria.”

I know it’s even hard to get the word out, isn’t it? In some ways, frankly, the current administration sucks up all the oxygen. Not what’s being done, but what’s happening in it.

Gerson: The drama—it’s difficult to draw attention to anything outside of the center ring.

Bread for the World recently calculated the money each American congregation would need to raise in order to compensate for the proposed cuts. Each of the 350,000 churches in America would have to raise its budget by more than $700,000 a year for the next decade. What can we learn from this?

Gerson: That is the reality when you get into policy, like on AIDS, government is required to get to scale. There is no way that private institutions can get to proper scale when you need millions of people on treatment. But the reality is that in a lot of these [foreign aid] programs, the money was implemented through private religious institutions. They were trusted in communities; they had standing. So they were essential. But they could not have played that role alone.

Keller: Biblically, God created three institutions. One is the family, one is the church, and one is the state. In different ways and at different scales, every one of them is supposed to take care of its members, its citizens. There is a danger of trying to turn the state into the church, but there’s plenty of places where the Bible indicates that God wants all the institutions to be benevolent. They’re all supposed to be caring. So it’s wrong to say that the state shouldn’t be helping the poor. … But I’m afraid [the argument that the church, and not the state, should be the institution helping the poor] is a pretty strong conservative argument.

Gerson: It’s a pretty common argument.

And it’s not feasible?

Keller: No, it’s not.

Gerson: It would be like the church taking the role of Medicaid. It’s just insane.

How do you talk to yourself about the sovereignty of God when these important messages of human dignity and compassion, or these policies you’re trying to advocate for, are drowned out by “the drama?”

Gerson: I have to believe they ultimately matter, otherwise I’d quit my job. It’s still possible for political leaders to lead in this country in ways that are not just an appeal to tribalism. It’s a difficult moment. But I guess if I didn’t believe that, I’m not sure. That would be a form of surrender.

Keller: The advantage of believing in God is that your ultimate standard is to be faithful rather than successful. If you believe that God wants you to do it, and you only get one percent done, you can know that God is in charge, he’s looking at you, he sees you doing your best. If you don’t get there, God’s pleased with what you’re doing. You may not get there. You can leave it in his hands.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Sarah Kate Neall is a former teacher and currently works at a startup. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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What Tim Keller and Michael Gerson Want You to ...