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Debt, Spending, and Taxes

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a Faith & Law gathering on the topic, “Thinking as a Christian about Debt, Spending, and Taxes” alongside my friend, Sojourners Communication Director Tim King. This post is adapted from those remarks.

Faith & Law exists to help Congressional staff understand the implications of a Christian worldview for their calling to public life. It’s a privilege to offer an introduction to what will be the more policy-focused portion of the event featuring Jennifer Marshall and Gideon Strauss. If Tim and I are able to provide a helpful prolegomenon to their discussion I think we will have succeeded.

The question this morning is “How should Christians think about debt, taxes, and spending?” It’s a timely question, of course, and one that is likely to remain relevant throughout the duration of President Obama’s term. Barring some unforeseeable development, the election of 2012 will be won or lost based on America’s fiscal health and the policy solutions regarding spending and entitlements being offered by each side.

But those involved in these policy debates, including most of us gathered here today, would do well to remember that this focus on fiscal issues doesn’t mean we aren’t dealing with moral questions. Jennifer Marshall and her colleagues at The Heritage Foundation have already made the definitive case for a seamless approach to public policy that blends fiscal, social, and defense issues under a banner that might appropriately be called a “worldview.” My own work at the American Enterprise Institute focuses on the morality of capitalism and free enterprise. There’s obviously more to be said here, but before I get ahead of myself it’s important to take a step back. Before asking, “How should Christians think about debt, taxes, and spending?” we must first ask, “How should Christians think?” Actually, before asking “How?” we should ask, “Why should Christians think?”

Unfortunately, evangelical Christians like me are not often recognized for our thinking skills. Whether or not this is warranted, it’s fair to say that Christians often don’t fully understand the implications of what Jesus declared the most important commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

Christians have a responsibility to love the Lord through stewardship of their brains. Such stewardship means many different things at various times for a group as diverse as Christians. That said, three basic principles for brain stewardship are especially applicable for this conversation:

Principle One: Consider the Full Counsel of Scripture

The Bible is a long, complex book written in multiple languages over thousands of years in a variety of ancient culture. It’s hard to understand. Anyone who has ever waded into the deep waters of biblical hermeneutics knows how daunting – and dangerous – of a task it can be to understand scripture. Yet, we are assured that the Bible is God’s primary means of revelation and is just as relevant today as the day it was written (or spoken, as the case may be.)

It’s easy to shy away from the hard work of biblical study and rely instead on an Occam’s Razor-style hermeneutic: the simplest answer is the right one. And, actually, there’s something to simplicity and understanding the Bible at face value. Scripture reminds us that the Holy Spirit will illuminate the truth, that revelation does not necessarily require worldly learning.

However, Occam’s Razor the Holy Spirit are not one in the same. Simplicity often means laziness. There is a temptation to hold the illumination of the Holy Spirit in your back pocket as a trump card for proof-texting.

Loving God with our minds requires us to go about the business of rigorous Biblical study with the Holy Spirit as our guide.

Principle Two: The Gift of Reason

We are heirs to a scholastic tradition that understood that scripture is limited in the specific answers it provides. The Lord gave us the ability to reason to fill in the gaps. Reason is imperfect, and believers will often disagree in the application of reason. In such events, reason provides the most fertile soil for constructive Christian conversation. This leads to the third point:

Principle Three: All Truth is God’s

Wherever it is Found We need not fear in our search for truth. Whether in conversation with others personally or conversation with a book, we can rely on the truth that whatever is good comes from God and whatever isn’t good, doesn’t.  The search for truth requires perspicacity, patience, and faith. Exercising these virtues in the pursuit of truth is yet another example of stewarding our minds.

Now we are prepared to go deeper into the question,“How to think like a Christian?”  Here I want to emphasize the processes of Christian thought rather than the ends.

As I was preparing for today, I thought back to a day in high school when I was driving home with my dad and I asked him, “Can you be a Christian and a Democrat?” He flashed me one of those looks and said, “Of course you can.” And, of course, he was right.

My question was grounded in an inability to reconcile support for a party associated with certain policies with a belief in the teachings of Jesus. While I understood that acceptance into the Kingdom of Heaven is not premised on adherence to any political doctrine, I considered support for certain political positions to be no-brainer outcomes of Christian thought. In this way, I made support for certain public policies “fruits of the spirit” if you will.

But over and over, Jesus focuses on the motivations of those He encounters, rather than the ends of actions. He confronts a rich young ruler whose motivation is the preservation of self-reliance. When the woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume and the disciples complain that the perfume could have been sold instead and the proceeds given to the poor, he scolds them. Her motivation was worship, and that’s what mattered most.

Much of the substantive work of Christian thinking will be done discussing the motivations underlying approaches to public policy. This is where reason comes to bear. In conversation with those motivated by a search for truth whose reasoning has led them to a different conclusion, we will find that the difference is the result of differing prioritizations, and not fundamental misunderstandings of Truth with a capital “T”.

For example, anyone who studies the Bible will quickly see that God cares about the poor. A lot. He often commands His followers to care for the poor. There can be no disagreement about this truth. However, individual Christians motivated to help the poor can (and do!) vary widely in the ways their reason leads them to support certain approaches to charity over others. The focus of our dialogue across these differences must be on the reasoning, not the motivation.

Too often, this isn’t the case. And in the recent debates about health care reform and entitlement reform, those on the political Left have often demonstrated an unbiblical response to others by failing to acknowledge the good motivations of Christians on the Right. For example, in reference to Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis said Ryan was acting like a bully by picking on those who have no clout. He went on to say that Ryan must simple have never spent any time with poor people or else he would understand the need to help them.

Such distortions belie a desire to put political ends over deep Christian thought. The truth is that Paul Ryan has expressed a desire to reform entitlement programs for the poor in order to salvage them for those in need – and to remedy America’s broader fiscal crisis. The conversation regarding his plan shoul dn’t focus on whether Ryan does or doesn’t care about poor people, but whether his plan helps the poor or harms them.

Furthermore, Sojourners has committed an error of Christian thought by asking the inane question “What Would Jesus Cut?” To steal a quote from Wallis, God is not a Republican or a Democrat. God is a monarch – and the only one we can ever trust. Whether Jesus would raise the top marginal tax rate in order to provide more money for Medicare is as unknowable as the date for the end of the world. Our job is not to pick and choose theocratic answers when they are convenient; it’s to filter potential policy solutions through the complex weave of Biblical principles and human reason.

We have established why Christians should think, outlined principles to guide the process of Christian truth-seeking, and affirmed the important point that the process will entail working through diverse prioritizations. Now, finally, I want to lay out what I think are the primary questions for Christians to consider about debt, taxes, and spending.

First, we must be serious about identifying the problem. It seems to me that most acknowledge that the problem is our revenues are insufficient to pay for our spending.

Second, we must think about what the proper role of government is in society. We can’t begin to make determinations about spending priorities without an understanding of what government is good for and what other social institutions are good for. If concern for the poor is to be a priority, what helps the poor most?

Third, we must ask what resources will be required for each aspect of society to fulfill its role. Prudence demands a thorough cost-benefit analysis to enable us to allocate our scarce resources appropriately.

Fourth, having established an understanding of the role of government and the role of other social institutions, we should ask questions of accountability. If we are going to grant responsibilities to government, how are we to ensure that government is acting most efficaciously and efficiently?

Rahm Emmanuel said, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Unfortunately, evidence suggests our elected officials intend to use the crisis of our finances for the same old political gamesmanship rather than utilizing it as a catalyst for real, lasting reform. Christians must not fall victim to the same. We have a biblical mandate to take seriously the task of answering hard questions about debt, spending, and taxes, and, in so doing, to be agents of salt and light.