Sequestering the Moral Questions

On the eve of sequestration—the indiscriminate federal budget cuts—various interests are aiming to capture the moral high ground of the debate over government spending. Which raises the question: What exactly is the moral argument for slashing deficits and balancing budgets?

I’m very familiar with moral and religious appeals against budget cuts, particularly those affecting the poor. This week, for example, nearly 100 religious leaders issued a public appeal for Congress and the president to leave anti-poverty programs off the chopping block, declaring—“God calls for protection of poor and vulnerable people.”

Less clear is the moral case in favor of the meat ax. Yes, deficit hawks will deploy the language of moral responsibility, especially with regard to future generations that are allegedly endangered by government spending today. But these appeals are seldom grounded in moral and biblical principles such as solidarity, human dignity, and our collective obligations to “the least of these.” It’s mainly liberals (of a spiritual sort) who trade in such precepts.

On the right, perhaps the most identifiable moral claim is the generational one—that we are saddling our children and their children with a crushing debt burden. There’s room for debate about how unreasonable that burden will be, and whether fiscal austerity right now, in the midst of a still-undernourished economy, is a smart way to deal with the problem.

But there are larger questions about the generational argument. For example: Do our obligations to the future extend only to the national debt? Do our children also need good schools to get them started on their paths? Are we going to hand them a public infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) that isn’t crumbling all around them? And what about environmental protection—one of our most profound obligations to generations yet unborn?

All of that requires public investment now, and has to be balanced with the goal of easing the debt burden.

I’ll keep watch for moral content in the arguments for balancing the government’s books, and speak with some thoughtful fiscal conservatives on that score. I’ll report on those sightings and conversations before the next partisan crisis—which is due in late March, when the government runs out of money. …read more

The Other Romney (and Obama) Videos

A broad Christian coalition unveils the poverty videos

As the post-debate spin cycle continues, it’s clear who was left behind in the huffing at Hofstra on Tuesday—the 42.6 million people who dwell below the poverty line. Maybe they should be grateful that along the way of indicting President Obama’s economic policies, Mitt Romney mentioned poverty in passing (which is more than Obama did). Aside from that hit and run, the steady mantra of the evening in Long Island was “the middle class.”

The poor shall always be with you, but not so much in election year discourse. Still, there was a resonant moment back in September when Obama and Romney sounded as though they were reading from the playbook of Matthew 25 (“As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me”).

As I report in this week’s Our Sunday Visitor, Romney and Obama appeared in separate videos in which they grappled with the moral challenges of domestic poverty. These were not secret videos, taped behind closed doors. The campaigns produced them in response to a request from the Circle of Protection, an anti-poverty coalition of Christian leaders spearheaded two years ago by the Sojourners community.

Leaders of the initiative made much of the harmonious convergence between the two contenders. And there was a fair bit of that, on the surface at least.

In his message, Romney said he was grateful for “the opportunity to share my plan to protect the poor and vulnerable among us.” Obama said his own faith teaches him that poverty is a moral issue, and “The Bible calls on us to be our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper.” Each message ran a little over three minutes and was unveiled at a Circle of Protection press conference on September 12.

Both Romney and Obama spoke of poverty reduction as an urgent priority (“more important now than at any other time in recent memory,” the Republican said). Both vowed to slash the deficit, but Romney promised to “proceed carefully,” adding: “Our government rightfully provides a safety net” for the needy that must remain intact. And, aiming straight at his opponent, Obama said the poor and struggling shouldn’t have to “sacrifice even more … just so we could offer massive new tax cuts to those who have been blessed the most.”

The commonalities faded as the two spoke of how they would tamp down poverty levels. The thrust of Romney’s message was that this would happen as a consequence of a more robust economy, ushered in by his administration (and its plan that he did not specify). Obama spoke more about specific government action, including health insurance coverage and other “vital assistance for the least of these.”

The Faith Factor

There was nothing earth shattering in these messages, and they drew little notice beyond the constituencies of the Circle of Protection, which brings together leaders of some 50 evangelical, liberal Protestant, and Catholic organizations. (In that sense they might well have been, for all practical purposes, secret videos.)

But what the Obama/Romney videos tell me is that that politicians feel they have to say the right things about poverty, when they’re in the right settings. And I can’t think of a context other than faith-based discourse that would lead both party standard bearers to speak with such sympathy and resolve about the poor, even for just three minutes.

Maybe this means there should be more, not less, religion in politics. Signs are that young evangelicals, for example, are finding little use for the politics of the religious right. In the future, evangelicals may not be cheering when Republicans say unflattering things about the poor, or when Democrats say nothing at all.

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