When the political debate turned earlier this year to deeply cutting the federal budget at the expense of programs that protect the poor, a number of goodwill Christians voiced opposition.
EthicsDaily.com editorials questioned what House Republican cuts would do to churches, wondered if evangelicals really cared about the poor, and saluted the bipartisan group of U.S. senators advocating for shared sacrifice.
EthicsDaily.com columnists weighed in. Jim Evans asked what would Jesus cut from the federal budget and explained why as a pastor he advocates for the poor. Larry Greenfield spoke to budget-cutting politicians and defended the vulnerable. Colin Harris addressed economic and moral deficits. He noted that some object to social welfare entitlements but ignored the entitlements of greed and power.
EthicsDaily.com offered a robust moral critique as illustrated by these and other articles.
At the same time, other evangelical, mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic – white, African-American and Latino – leaders stood in the gap. They formed a circle of protection around the poor.
They identified themselves as the “Circle of Protection” in an April 27, 2011, press release.
“As Christians, we believe the moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable people fare. We look at every budget proposal from the bottom up – how it treats those Jesus called ‘the least of these’ (Matthew 25:45). They do not have powerful lobbies, but they have the most compelling claim on our consciences and common resources,” read their statement. “The Christian community has an obligation to help them be heard, to join with others to insist that programs that serve the most vulnerable in our nation and around the world are protected.”
They named a biblical text as foundational for their position and noted that because the poor lacked political power they needed the church’s voice.
Predictably, two weeks later, the Christian Right reacted. They identified themselves as “Christians for a Sustainable Economy.”
Rather than first speaking up for the poor and powerless, they spoke out against the Circle of Protection.
They complained that President Obama had met with leaders of the Circle of Protection and charged that those kinds of Christians “do not speak for all Christians.”
When they accused the Circle of Protection of not speaking for all Christians, were they saying that other Christians don’t speak up for the poor? Were they saying that Christians needed to speak up for the non-poor?
What is indisputable is that the Circle of Protection focused on the poor, while the Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) focused on the economy.
The economy obviously affects the poor. Yet that kind of expansive language also includes more than the poor. It includes those unthreatened by budget cuts that harm the most vulnerable in our society.
After CASE said it cared about the poor, CASE claimed that the poor needed more than material provisions.
That claim is a spiritual truth but it is one often used by those who really care little about meeting human needs and doing justice. It’s a tried-and-true way to water down our social duty as churches and a society.
The CASE statement also complained that the “whole counsel of scripture” needed to be considered – not just Matthew 25. They opposed taxes and charged that the government created dependency.
No amount of sprinkling religious language through their letter could cover up the fact that their thinking was rooted more in free-enterprise ideology than in Christian moral responsibility.
CASE signatories included Southern Baptist Convention fundamentalists, opponents of public education, deniers of climate change, creationists and anti-tax advocates.
Primary signatories of the Circle of Protection included the president of the National Association of Evangelicals; the heads of Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief, World Vision United States and Church World Service; bishops in the Roman Catholic, Church of God in Christ, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and United Methodist Church; and any number of other denominational leaders.
“The nation needs to substantially reduce future deficits, but not at the expense of hungry and poor people,” said the Circle of Protection. “Funding focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. It should be made as effective as possible, but not cut.”
They called on national leaders to “review and consider tax revenues, military spending, and entitlements in the search for ways to share sacrifice and cut deficits.”
Sacrifice, justice, protection and moral reflection flowed through their letter.
The Circle of Protection statement was an explicitly Christian document; the CASE statement was a Christian veneer over the secular ideology of social Darwinism.
“The arguments of the Circle and CASE both have merit. But the Circle’s approach is more urgent,” observed Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President Bush and now Washington Post columnist. “If religious people do not make this case, it is difficult to determine what distinctive message they offer.”
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.