Michael Gerson

As a moral matter, federal budgeting lies somewhere between bimetallism and abolitionism, leaving room for healthy debate. Two recent, dueling efforts have attempted to draw out the ethical implications of budget choices. A group of Christian leaders called A Circle of Protection asserts, "The moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable people fare." "The Christian community," its statement goes on, "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."

Some members of the Circle succumb to the Brazile temptation, asking, "What would Jesus cut?" -- implying that certain policy choices are not just mistaken but apostate. Another group, called Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE), offers a corrective, pointing out that the accumulation of debt and economic stagnation are also moral challenges, and noting that some well-intended social spending is ineffective. "We believe the poor of this generation and generations to come," its statement reads, "are best served by policies that promote economic freedom and growth."

CASE, however, seems to engage in some overreach of its own, asserting that compassion is "best fulfilled through Christian charity and spiritual counseling, not government programs." If this is an affirmation that religious charities have unique advantages over public bureaucracies, it is noncontroversial. If this is an assertion that charity and counseling can replace public programs that provide school meals, AIDS treatment or health care for the poor, it is dangerously oblivious to the real world. The scale of private efforts is not sufficient to meet the demands of public justice -- which gives government an important role.

The arguments of the Circle and CASE both have merit. But the Circle's approach is more urgent. Public spending on poverty and global health programs is a sliver of discretionary spending and essentially irrelevant to America's long-term debt. A political argument giving equal weight to cuts in poverty programs and reductions in entitlement spending is uninformed about the nature of the budget crisis, which is largely a health entitlement crisis. A simplistic philosophy of "shared sacrifice," focused mainly on cuts in discretionary spending, requires disproportionate sacrifices of the most vulnerable. If religious people do not make this case, it is difficult to determine what distinctive message they offer.

This is not an argument endorsed by God, but it corresponds to budgetary reality. And this has a virtue of its own.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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