The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, center left, holds hands with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. while singing “We Shall Overcome” during a civil rights rally at Soldier Field in Chicago on June 21, 1964. Photo courtesy of OCP Media
In the media and in our popular imagination, the religious right towers over our political landscape. So much so, in fact, that one could be forgiven for thinking that reflexive Republicanism is the only widespread expression of Christianity in politics.
The religious right’s shadow is so large that it is usually the reference point for any discussion of the religious left. Each election cycle, a spate of articles, essays and columns, mostly by white journalists, appears, inquiring why the religious left is not as important as the religious right. Is there a religious left at all?
After their party largely neglected faith outreach in 2016, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates seem to have caught the religion bug, and to hear them talk some might think the religious left has a chance this cycle to counter the religious right’s decades-long hold on American politics.
If you’re like me, the debt-ceiling debate seems like one more opportunity for various political operatives to sling mud without offering real solutions. But since the House of Representatives voted to approve a “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill Tuesday that President Obama said he would veto and Senate Democrats are expected to reject in favor of the “Gang of Six” plan, perhaps it’s time to give the debt-ceiling debate serious thought.
First, what is the debt ceiling?
Reporting for NPR in June, The Root’s Cynthia Gordy said the debt ceiling is “the amount of money, set by Congress, that the federal government can legally borrow in order to pay for its commitments — things like Social Security, Medicare and military operations.” She reported that the government has been overspending since the end of the Clinton administration and borrows money by selling U.S. Treasury bonds, notes and T-bills to the public, financial institutions and other countries. We reached the current $14.3 trillion debt limit on May 16, according to Gordy, but by suspending payments to federal retirement funds, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner prevented a default and estimated that the government could continue borrowing until Aug. 2.
Now that we know what it is, what are Christian leaders saying about the debate?
Baptist Press reports that the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy enitity, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is “sponsoring a three-part standard — including congressional approval of a balanced budget amendment — that must be met before raising the country’s debt limit.”
The “Cut, Cap, Balance Pledge” consists of substantial spending cuts, enforceable spending caps, and passage of a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, “but only if it includes both a spending limitation and a super-majority for raising taxes, in addition to balancing revenues and expenses.”
The Family Research Council (FRC) published an action alert this week that said, “The House of Representatives will vote Tuesday on Cut, Cap, and Balance to ensure immediate cuts to government spending, place caps on future spending, and would grant the President’s request to lift the debt ceiling only if the Balanced Budget Amendment is passed and sent to the states for ratification.” The organization advises its constituency to contact their U.S. Senators to “urge them to oppose any ‘back-up’ plan, such as Senator McConnell’s surrender plan,” which it says will “allow the President to lift the debt ceiling and only allow Congress a vote to stop it if it could garner a super majority.” FRC advises instead that constiuents ask their sensators to support efforts to pass the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act.
In a July 7 Sojourners blog post, Jim Wallis described the debate as a “clash between two competing moral visions,” one that pits “those who believe in the common good and those who believe individual good is the only good.” Wallis wrote:
“While a biblical worldview informs Christians that they should be wary of the rich and defend the poor, a competing ideology says that wealth is equivalent to righteousness and God’s blessing. It is a morality play in which Washington, D.C. is the stage, politicians are actors, lobbyists are directors, the ‘debt ceiling’ is the conflict, and we are the audience who will pay the cost of the production, whether we enjoyed it or not.”
A group of Christian Circle of Protection signatories including John R. Bryant, Senior Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Stephen J. Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America; and Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-facilitator of the National African American Clergy Network issued a statement that listed the debt ceiling among its concerns:
“Budgets are moral documents, and how we reduce future deficits are historic and defining moral choices. As Christian leaders, we urge Congress and the administration to give moral priority to programs that protect the life and dignity of poor and vulnerable people in these difficult times, our broken economy, and our wounded world.”
UrbanFaith has not yet found any explicit Christian endorsements of the Gang of Six plan. CNN reports that the plan, drafted by three Democratic and three Republican senators, would “impose” $500 billion in budget savings, reduce marginal income tax rates, and ultimately abolish an alternative minimum tax, but create three tax brackets to generate an additional $1 trillion in revenue, require cost changes to Medicare’s growth rate formula, and cut the Pentagon budget by $80 billion.
Is the Religious Right driving the fight?
At The Huffington Post, anti-evangelical curmudgeon Frank Schaeffer, as he is want to do, blamed the current debate on the “religious right”:
“The reality is that the debt ceiling confrontation is by, for and the result of America’s evangelical Christian control of the Republican Party. It is the ultimate expression of an alternate reality, one that has the mistrust of the U.S. government as its bedrock ‘faith,’ second only to faith in Jesus.”
We’ll spare you the rest of his diatribe.
Finally, is this debate really about racism against President Obama?
Believe it or not, there’s a race angle to this fiasco, as well.
At National Review, Andrew Stiles quotes Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas) as “strongly suggesting” racism against President Obama is at the root of Republican opposition to raising the limit. Said Jackson Lee:
“I do not understand what I think is the maligning and maliciousness [toward] this president. … Why is he different? And in my community, that is the question that we raise. In the minority community that is question that is being raised. Why is this president being treated so disrespectfully? Why has the debt limit been raised 60 times? Why did the leader of the Senate continually talk about his job is to bring the president down to make sure he is unelected?”
If the reader comments on the post are any indication, the congresswoman may have a point.
What do you think? Is the federal budget a moral document? If so, is it immoral to keep borrowing against the future? Or does the current controversy amount to just another racially motivated political attack against President Obama?