Evangelicals Issue Warning on Budget Cuts
Cutting the deficit without sacrificing the needy is a moral imperative, several prominent evangelicals stressed Thursday in a push-back against debate over taking government budget cuts out of humanitarian aid.
"From a fiscal perspective, cuts in global health programs are insignificant; from a moral and humanitarian perspective, they would be tragic," said Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President George Bush and current Washington Post columnist.
Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, and Gideon Strauss, President of The Center for Public Justice, announced on a conference call March 3 that they, along with other faith leaders including Florida megachurch pastor Joel Hunter and Jim Wallis of Sojourners, have signed a document entitled "Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis."
The proposal, available at EvangelicalsforSocialAction.org and The Center for Public Justice, is a response to the "double moral challenge," in Strauss' words, to both reduce the debt level and maintain programs that provide aid to the needy and vulnerable.
Gerson acknowledged that amongst evangelicals, there are many disagreements on where spending cuts can be made in the budget. However, he said, "There is broadly shared agreement that a focus on cutting effective discretionary programs is a seriously misplaced priority." A spokesperson for USAID told CT that State and USAID comprise just 1 percent of of the federal budget.*
"We don't have a debt crisis because America spends too much on AIDS funds and malaria nets," Gerson said. "We have a long-term debt crisis primarily, in my view, because of entitlement commitments, health care inflation, and an aging population. ... I think cuts in federal spending are possible and quite necessary, but the right priorities matter."
Gerson criticized Congress for taking budget cuts out of AIDS programs, contributions to the Global Fund and child survival programs. He also said that educating new members of Congress on the effectiveness of programs such as PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003) and PMI (President's Malaria Initiative, launched in 2005) would be "an up-hill climb" in any attempt to emphasize the necessity of funding these programs to lawmakers. "There are a whole lot of members that don't know that history and don't know the dramatic success that's taken place," he said.
Addressing the recent Pew Research Center survey finding that more than 50 percent of evangelicals surveyed favor cutting economic assistance to needy people around the world, Gerson said, "There is an educational task here to convince not just Christians but others that these commitments that we make, which are relatively inexpensive, in fact both serve our values and our interests."
The same survey indicated that evangelicals tend to support increased spending on defense. "People think of those interests as just served by military power, but they're also really served by helping to create stability and hope in unstable parts of the work," Gerson said. "The case that needs to be made is that this aid is both a moral imperative but it's also in the interests of the United States."
Shane Claiborne, founder of social justice group The Simple Way, said he was "deeply troubled" by the results of the survey. "A country that continues to spend more money on military defense than on programs that social uplift is approaching a spiritual death," he said, also referring to the Sojourners' campaign question, "What would Jesus cut?"
Strauss had an answer. "We must cut federal spending, we must control health care expenses, we must make social security sustainable, and we must reform the tax code," Strauss said of their goals. "At the same time, government [must] ensure that appropriate steps are taken to address poverty."
"As soon as we get substantial numbers of signers, we will be using that [to contact Congress]," Sider said. "The process of dealing with our ongoing deficit is not something that will end when Congress agrees on our 2012 budget."
Jordan Ballor of the Acton Institute says that the proposal "consists of leaps in logic largely based on unstated assumptions about the role that government should have in administering that care."
The language of the statement doesn't seem to do justice to the principled positions that agree with the vague notion of the obligation to care for the poor, but disagree about the particular policy and budgetary implications at the federal level. Wallis and Chuck Colson recently agreed that Christians ought engage in principled and honest debate, and not demonize other positions, even implicitly. To cast the debate in the terms that budget hawks don't care about the poor I think violates this kind of commitment.
Original signers of the call to action include the following:
H. Dean Trulear
*The post has been updated to correct the percentage of international aid in the federal budget.