The death of compassionate conservatism
by Jim Wallis
Last week, I spoke with other religious leaders at a press conference in the U.S. Capitol, urging the House of Representatives to oppose cuts in social services in their budget bill. When it was over, we walked to the rotunda to offer a prayer for our nation and its leaders, that they would do the right thing for people in poverty. Suddenly, we were face to face with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and took the opportunity to deliver our message directly to him. He listened politely, but offered little response.
The House is scheduled to begin debate tomorrow on its budget bill, which includes $54 billion in cuts. On the table are cuts of $9.5 billion in Medicaid - by requiring co-pays for pregnant women and children for the first time; $8 billion in foster care, child support enforcement, and aid to the disabled; and $844 million in the Food Stamps Program, which would prevent 300,000 people from receiving food stamps. Forty thousand children would be cut from reduced-price school lunches. Lawmakers intend to follow these with a further cut of $70 billion in taxes that will primarily benefit the top 3% of taxpayers. The message from Congress is that in
response to Hurricane Katrina, we're going to cut services for the poor, cut taxes for the rich, and increase deficits for our children and grandchildren. These plans for deep cuts to social supports, paid for by tax cuts for the wealthiest, are contrary to the national priorities we need to protect our most vulnerable citizens. We need strong moral leadership in Congress, especially during this time of war, record deficits, rising poverty and hunger, and natural disasters. Cutting food stamps and health care that meet the basic needs of poor families is an outrage. Cutting social services to pay for further tax cuts for the rich is a moral travesty that violates biblical priorities. The House leadership seems to be saying they literally want to take food from the mouths of children to make rich people richer. If this ideology and politics of rich over poor prevails and our leaders fail to govern from a set of moral values, then the religious community must conclude that compassionate conservatism is dead.
As this battle for the budget unfolds, I am calling on members of Congress, some of whom make much out of their faith, to start Bible studies before they cast votes to cut services that will further harm the weakest in our nation. They should focus on the gospel imperative - what Jesus tells us about our obligations to the "least of these." Some of them have heard the slogan "What would Jesus do?" Now they should ask, "What would Jesus cut?" Budgets are moral documents, and they reflect our national priorities and values. In the name of social conscience, fiscal esponsibility, equal opportunity, protecting our communities, and the very idea of a common good, the upcoming budget votes will be closely watched by people of faith. Call your member of Congress. Tell him or her to show political will in standing up for the least of these, as Jesus reminds us.
Two kingdom theology (a popular Lutheran theme) or not, this is a serious -- and sad -- time for Christian USAmericans. Trying to pay for (at least) two wars plus humanitarian relief for victims in this country (and in some cases that relief goes for beachhomes for very rich people, let's not forget) and in other lands plus significant tax cuts for the very few very rich people in this country -- regardless of the rightness or wrongheadedness of those programs -- ought not to be done at the expense of those members of our society most in need of support and services and least able to secure them. One can hear Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophets -- not to mention Our Lord Himself -- virtually bleating their dismay and condemnation on a society that "sell[s] the rightous for silver, and the needy for a pair of [Guccie] sandals -- [that] trample[s] the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push[es] the afflicted out of the way." (Amos 2:6f.)
I have been rebuked in the past for suggesting that the prophets' calling on the nation to reform can be translated to calls for our nation to reform. (We are not, after, the "chosen nation" -- regardless of our claims to the contrary.) And I have been told that Jesus' call to care for those in need is a call to individual charity, not government programs.
I consider such notions hooey: Christians are called, as a facet of our discipleship, to work for the reform of government programs along the lines of the eschaton. It is precisely greed, dishonesty, trickery, and all the other political virtues that are called vices by Our Lord. And unless we are part of the process of correcting them, then we share the blame and threat for supporting them. (I always enjoyed the line of -- was it Huey Newton? -- "If you ain't part of the solution, you're part of the problem." I think there is some Christian truth there.)
In any event, I hope you will give Jim Wallis' letter some thought and be moved to contact your US Congress person and US Senator.
And while you're at it, check out this (rather bland) letter from the ELCA bishops (all of them) here.