Reading the newspaper one day late as I normally do, only this morning did I run across Michael Gerson’s op-ed in the Sunday paper commenting on the prominence of religious appeals in the recent public debate over the national debt crisis, and I thought the piece well-worth a brief blog entry. In this piece, he contrasts two action groups in particular that lay claim to Christian moral principles in advocating two diametrically opposed responses to the unsustainable fiscal situation our government now faces.
On the one hand, there is a group of high profile Christian figures called Circle of Protection, which calls for the redirection of funding cuts from programs that aid those most in need. On the other hand, the group calling itself Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) focuses on financial stewardship and economic responsibility as the more fundamental conditions for the possibility of meeting the needs of the poor.
Both groups adopt theological language and ground their appeals in claims of faith; yet both also seem to represent mere religious transpositions of party platforms. All too predictably, this kind of correspondence leads more and more people to reject outright any religious arguments in the public square. As Gerson puts it,
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 And when religion becomes too closely identified with a detailed political platform, both are quickly outdated.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?
It was encouraging to find a major political commentator expressing this sentiment, which I feel many of us (most?) who participate in this blog share. Gerson goes on to give a brief account outlining the proper boundaries of religious arguments in the public arena:
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.
While I wish he wouldn’t have called faith-based moral judgments on monetary policy a “stretch” (how about “relatively more indeterminate” instead?), he asserts here the crucially important point that religious ethical claims in political contexts need to be properly differentiated. Word care and the circumscription of communal boundaries are paramount in this era where a sitting congressman can publicly declare divine intervention for his actions and a sitting governor (and potential presidential candidate) can organize a prayer rally in a football stadium.
Religion and politics cannot and should not be completely compartmentalized, but nevertheless Christians have from the very beginning been very careful (and for good reason) about what they disclose to the “world” and how they disclose it. My family and I attend a Byzantine church where part of the ancient liturgy of John Chrysostom has the deacon yell out just prior to the profession of the Creed “”the doors, the doors, in wisdom let us be attentive,” which hearkens back to the days when the Christian worshipers would literally close the church doors to the wider public. I feel the line could apply equally well to the present challenges of Christian participation in the political arena: we need to know the proper limits of where and how our faith should impel us to enter into the fray and for what end– “the doors, the doors, in wisdom let us be attentive.”
To this end, Gerson himself (of whose religious background and identity I know nothing) suggests a very reasonable line of attack:
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.
I heartily agree with Mr. Gerson, and just as heartily recommend his brief op-ed. This is precisely the direction which I feel Christians can and should take in their forays into the public square.
Patrick – Thanks for your post. An interesting op-ed I would not have seen otherwise (as I don’t read the Post often). I agree with the points about the Circle of Protection’s message being more urgent – I do, however, question the statement that Circle of Protection is a transposition of party politics. Gerson is a bit simplistic on this…
The breadth of the Circle of Protection is unprecedented: USCCB, National Association of Evangelicals; the Salvation Army and the National Council of Churches; Bread for the World, CRS, and the American Bible Society; African American and Hispanic churches; and dozens more. This isn’t just Jim Wallis’ regular group….which the CASE website makes it look like. While their statement (in my opinion) does fall more in line with one party’s platform than the other…I do not think it is fair to view the Circle of Protection through that political lens. (That they are banding together in such an unprecedented way speaks, I think, to the force of their message as Christian leaders, groups, etc).
I think Gerson makes some valid points but I have to agree with Ms. Clark, the Circle of Protection is not beholden to partisan interests unless that party is vulnerable people. That being said, there are legitimate questions about prudential judgments, the role of faith in politics and etc. The Church offers principles and suggestions for the common good of society. It is compelled to speak up on behalf of poor and vulnerable persons and others in need.
While the two political parties are worried about offending the middle class and the next election, the Church and its allies are the only groups raising this important message. The particulars of how policy is implemented is the responsibility of legitimate civil authorities. As a side note, I also think Gerson fails to mention the parts of the Circle’s message which promotes jobs and econmic growth and does question the long term health of the economy.
The Circle asks policy makers to ask themselves this question: will policy or political decisions lift up and protect the poor, the hungry, the unemployed and others in need?
Patrick– Nice link here. Gerson is an interesting figure – he was a speechwriter for GW Bush, I believe, but is David-Brooks-like in his commitment to a much more socially aware conservatism than the standard pro-market, libertarian stuff. He also has always taken religion seriously.
The fact that he says Circle is more urgent shows that there are certain kinds of judgments to be made here about what Christian faith actually prioritizes. However, I think he also makes a valuable point that advocacy can sometimes mislead groups into simply producing religious reiterations of standard policy perspectives. I learned way too much from Stanley Hauerwas to not see this mistake happening constantly. I will add that what is most irksome is that groups use religious language, but distort the factual situation. Gerson nicely points out that anyone who claims we have a crisis because we are spending “too much” on the poor and on aid to foreigners – well, this person simply doesn’t know what they are talking about. Religions easily become ideologies when they stray from facts (even keeping in mind the slippery nature of facts). So at least we can recognize problems when we see distortion of facts.