GOP budget fails moral standard
by Jim Wallis
This piece appeared in the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal on April 4, 2013.
The Republican budget for 2013 is a moral document, as budgets always are, telling us who and what is most and least important to the budget-makers. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently released a study saying two-thirds of the cuts in this budget are from programs that benefit low- and middle-income workers. The cuts are then used to offset the cost of more tax breaks for the wealthy.
That is the direct opposite of biblical principles and Catholic social teaching, even though the primary author of the budget, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), is a Catholic.
If these priorities of moral reversal were enacted, they would continue the shift we've seen in this country over recent years that rewards wealth over work while denying the obligation we have as a society to help the least among us. Such a drastic proposal raises a more fundamental question: Will America be a country in which everyone is on their own and out for themselves or one that promotes the common good - another Gospel principle embraced by Catholic social teaching?
The world watched with great anticipation as a new global leader for the Catholic Church was selected. Then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, said in 2007: "Nowadays, the war of the powerful against the weak has created an abyss between the rich and the poor." These words, while spoken of our global economic system, describe the moral direction our budget debate should take.
The observation of the new pope as to the state of those living in poverty is an example of a central teaching in the Catholic Church that is called the "preferential option for the poor." As an evangelical Christian, this concept has been highly influential to my thinking since the Bible makes clear that God has special concern for those in need and that a good and righteous people and nation should have as well.
While Ryan often cites his Catholic faith as informing his values, he has consistently presented budgets that fail this moral standard, creating a preferential option for the rich at the expense of the poor. Thus, his budget priorities have received widespread condemnation from Catholic leaders and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Currently, one in three Americans lives below or near the poverty line. Working poor and middle-income families want to succeed economically and work physically harder than many white-collar executives. For many Americans, it is our faith that compels us to respond to that need.
As an evangelical, I do not view government as the only solution or believe government can ever take the place of family, church or community. But I also cannot deny that these proposed cuts to the federal budget will destroy the small opportunities families have to lift themselves out of poverty. Government does have a role to play in safeguarding the common good - that's what the Bible says.
Churches and people of faith are required to serve those in need directly, but they also have the responsibility to call the government to account when it fails to serve the common good.
The problem with the Ryan budget is that it gives lip service to our ideals while appealing to our most selfish interests. It fails to recognize the reality of what it takes to create opportunity for those living in poverty in America today. Ryan repeatedly has failed to listen to the counsel of some of the nation's largest charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities USA.
I believe society tends toward domination by the powerful and subjugation of the weak and vulnerable unless we otherwise intervene. The common good is not something that naturally occurs; it must be discussed, debated, planned and worked for. Unless we intentionally prioritize struggling families, they will get left out and left behind - especially when budgets are more politically determined than morally shaped.
The path toward fiscal responsibility and sustainability is a moral and necessary one, but must not be sought at the expense of the most vulnerable and the common good.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the positions of Oxfam America.
Jim Wallis, CEO of Sojourners, is a bestselling author, public theologian, speaker, and international commentator on ethics and public life. He recently served on the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and currently serves as the chair of the Global Agenda Council on Faith for the World Economic Forum.