WASHINGTON (ABP) – About 100 conservative Christians signed a letter sent to President Obama Aug. 3 contesting a coalition led by Jim Wallis of Sojourners urging government leaders not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.
Obama met 40 minutes on July 20 with representatives of the Circle of Protection, a national coalition urging that efforts to reduce the government’s $14.3 trillion national debt include concern for the “least of these,” a phrase used by Jesus in Matthew 25 to describe the poor and vulnerable.
A new counter-coalition calling itself Christians for a Sustainable Economy claims Wallis’ group does not speak for all Christians. In their letter they urged Obama to “consider the whole counsel of Scripture, which urges not only compassion and provision for the poor but also the perils of debt and the importance of wise stewardship.”
“To the question, ‘What would Jesus cut?’ we add the question, ‘Whom would Jesus indebt?’” the letter said. “The Good Samaritan did not use a government credit card.”
Early signers of the letter — co-written by a panel including Timothy Dalrymple of the evangelical web portal Patheos and Mark Tooley of the Institute for Religion and Democracy -– included high-profile evangelical leaders like Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.
Lesser-known but influential signatories included Marvin Olasky of World Magazine, Baylor professor Francis Beckwith and Cal Beisner of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.
Southern Baptist names on the letter included Johnny Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga., and past president of the Southern Baptist Convention; Union University President David Dockery and Nathan Finn, associate professor of historical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The letter, part of which ran as a full-page newspaper ad paid for by the American Enterprise Institute, faulted the Circle of Protection for claiming “that biblical mandates preclude limits to federal programs for low-income people.”
Tim King, communication director at Sojourners responded with a statement clarifying that the Circle of Protection “has not and will not advocate a blanket exception for all poverty programs under any and all cuts.”
“Resources are limited, and those who are a part of the Circle of Protection are very concerned that resources are used wisely,” King said. “The Circle has brought together a very broad spectrum of perspectives on how to do this best, and we welcome more.”
Christians for a Sustainable Economy said in their letter that whatever their intention, the consequence of the Circle of Protection argument is to “provide a religious imprimatur for big government and sanctify federal welfare programs that are often ineffective — even counterproductive.”
Rather than protecting “programs” for the poor, the letter said “We need to protect the poor themselves.” Sometimes programs that ostensibly serve the poor “actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations,” the letter continued. “Such programs are unwise, uncompassionate and unjust.”
Signers said a recent act to raise the debt ceiling may have solved an immediate problem of cash flow but does not touch on the larger issue of reducing the national debt.
“We believe the poor of this generation and generations to come are best served by policies that promote economic freedom and growth, that encourage productivity and creativity in every able person, and that wisely steward our common resources for generations to come,” the letter said. “All Americans — especially the poor — are best served by sustainable economic policies for a free and flourishing society. When creativity and entrepreneurship are rewarded, the yield is an increase of productivity and generosity.”
The letter said that Matthew 25 and other commands to Christian charity cannot be met through “wealth redistribution.” While communities need the support of a social safety net, it said, what is really needed is job growth, an improved economy and debt reduction.
“Just as we should not balance the budget ‘on the backs of the poor,’” the letter said, quoting from the Circle of Protection statement, “so we should not balance the budget on the backs of our children and grandchildren.”
The letter writers asked the president to meet with them because the Circle of Protection did not “fully represent the large and diverse community of Christian faith.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.