Society and Culture

When Are Religious ‘Progressives’ Going to Get Serious?

In response to Republican attempts to reduce the growth in federal spending by a miniscule $61 billion, Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, and other “Christian progressives” have signed a statement asking: “What Would Jesus Cut?” We’ve definitely crossed the point of diminishing returns with this cliché. It started with the popular slogan What Would Jesus Do? Then it morphed into the silly campaign What Would Jesus Drive? and several other trivializing spin-offs. And now we’re supposed to ask, with respect to federal spending: What Would Jesus Cut?

There are several problems with this question. First, it’s not especially useful. Jesus had a unique mission on Earth. The moral question for Christians, if they want to frame it this way, should be: “What would Jesus have me do (or drive, or cut)?” not “What would Jesus do?”

The second problem is that the statement identifies God’s will quite simplistically with public policies that involve prudential judgments rather than self-evident moral principles. As Pete Wehner notes, “To pretend that the budget Jesus would bless just happens to be at the current discretionary spending levels rather than, say, what they were in 2008, is close to offensive.” It’s also morally unserious.

The third problem is that the statement/question provides pious camouflage for what is otherwise horrendous moral reasoning. Here’s a sampling from Jim Wallis:

“They’re talking about cutting bed nets for malaria and leaving every piece of military spending untouched,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, who leads the Christian group Sojourners, referring to Republican spending proposals for the rest of this year.

“Are we saying that every piece of military equipment is more important than bed nets, children’s health and nutrition for low-income families?” said Wallis, whose group paid for Monday’s ad. “If so they should be ashamed of themselves.”

Unfortunately, this “argument” fails to attend to the trade-offs in the specific issues involved. For instance, it’s possible that the programs involving “children’s health and nutrition” are unhelpful or redundant. And Wallis’s reasoning fails utterly to grapple with the question: What should the government do? As Arthur Brooks argues in this week’s Wall Street Journal, we all need to be asking this question. We can now see, with some certainty, where the “Santa-statism” advocated by Wallis and others will lead us: to fiscal destruction. With federal deficits running as high as a trillion and a half dollars per year, there are few issues more morally significant than government spending.

Wallis avoids the problem of out-of-control spending, however, and suggests instead that everything other than military spending that the federal government does is something Jesus wants it to do—and at the current levels of funding. Give me a break.

To take another of his examples, anti-malarial bed nets are great (as is rational use of DDT). Americans should do whatever we can to help provide such things for people in the developing world; but it’s hardly self-evident that such funding is the primary responsibility of the federal government.

In contrast, according to the Constitution, the federal government’s primary purpose is to provide for the common defense. So defense spending should be maintained even on a draconian triage budget (which we have not yet experienced). That doesn’t mean that we should be profligate or ignore waste in defense appropriations. But it does mean that simplistic comparisons like the ones Wallis draws—guns bad/bed nets good—ignore a central aspect of the issue. They also insult the intelligence of thoughtful believers, whatever their political orientation, who try to apply their faith critically to public policy.

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