WASHINGTON -- With varied motivations, human beings tend to invoke the name of God in foxholes, in the throes of passion and in budget debates.
During the recent debt-limit showdown, Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., credited "divine inspiration" for his opposition to Speaker John Boehner's initial proposal. Democratic activist Donna Brazile tweeted, "Last time I checked, God is above this partisan stuff. But I believe (as a woman of faith) Jesus would be fair and support shared sacrifice." It was not immediately clear if the Son of God endorses corporate loophole closings or prefers tax-rate increases.
On the testimony of some of his followers, God is both to the right of Boehner and to the left of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (who didn't include revenues in his approach). Both parties read the same Bible and pray to the same God -- but apparently listen to different economists.
This use of religion in politics is a source of cynicism. It should raise alarms when the views of the Almighty conveniently match our most urgent political needs. A faith that conforms exactly to the contours of a political ideology has lost its independence. Churches become clubs of the politically like-minded. Political dialogue suffers, since opponents are viewed as heretics. And when religion becomes too closely identified with a detailed political platform, both are quickly outdated. Despite William Jennings Bryan's best efforts, who now recalls God's view of bimetallism?
Yet religion is not a purely private matter. There is a reason that, two millennia after his execution as a rebel in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, people still ask, "What would Jesus do?" Despite his indifference to Roman politics, his teachings on compassion and human dignity have had dramatic public consequences. While a Christian position on monetary policy is a stretch, Christian opposition to slavery or segregation is a matter of consistency. Faith does not dictate specific policies, which are properly determined by the prudent assessment of likely outcomes. But religion helps define the priorities of politics, which include solidarity with the disadvantaged.
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.