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February 17, 2011

National Debt Becomes Hot Issue for Evangelicals

Many economists warn that the government's huge national debt is a looming threat to long-term prosperity. But is it also immoral?

According to a growing number of conservative Christians, the answer is a resounding "Yes."

As Washington debates President Obama's proposed 2012 budget, the immorality of the deficit has become the hot topic on right-leaning Christian blogs, radio programs and political mailings.

The concern is not only that the estimated $14.13 trillion debt could cripple the economy, some conservative Christian leaders say, but also that borrowing so much money violates important biblical tenets.

And while religious conservatives have long mapped personal piety onto national politics, some of the moral arguments against excessive borrowing are getting a new hearing among Christians already anxious about the economy.

"America's growing debt is a not just a financial issue, it's a spiritual one," said Jerry Newcombe, host of "The Coral Ridge Hour," a television program broadcast by Coral Ridge Ministries. "The Bible is very clear about the moral dangers of debt."

The Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based evangelical ministry dedicated a segment of its television show earlier this month to the "monstrous debt burden," and has been sounding the alarm to its estimated 500,000 devotees through its radio programs, print publications and website.

Likewise, the Washington-based Family Research Council has delivered "action alerts" about the debt to its network of 40,000 pastors and myriad state-based advocacy groups. The Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for America, and the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a new group led by GOP strategist Ralph Reed, are also warning members with increasing intensity that the deficit is reaching immoral proportions.

Reed said concern about the debt is not new, but has risen to the top of some Christians' agenda partly because of the rising tally and partly because the Tea Party and Fox commentator Glenn Beck have focused so much attention on the issue.

"You can't give the Tea Party enough credit in terms of raising the consciousness about this issue," Reed said. For his part, Beck often cites on his television and radio programs "The Five Thousand Year Leap," a book that argues that the national debt imperils America's freedom.

John C. Green, an expert on religion and politics from the University of Akron in Ohio, said several factors, in addition to Beck and the Tea Party, have fueled interest in the deficit.

First, the national debt is a good mobilizing issue for the Republican coalition, able to unite social conservatives and fiscal hawks, whose alliance has sometimes been strained. Secondly, it allows religious leaders to ride the Tea Party wave of anger against government spending. And lastly, it broadens the conservative Christian agenda beyond such culture war battles as abortion and gay marriage.

In its segment on the debt, Coral Ridge, whose late founder, the Rev. D. James Kennedy, was known for blending conservative Christianity and politics, quoted the Bible to denounce the debt.

"Proverbs 13:22 says a `good man leaves an inheritance for his children's children,"' historian and author William Federer said on the program. "Right now, we're not leaving a very good inheritance."

Other budget-conscious Christians have cited passages from Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in which God tells Israel that "you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none."

Ken Blackwell, who is leading a balanced-budget campaign for the Family Research Council, cited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "fierce urgency of now" in a recent column advocating against the debt.

Blackwell acknowledged in an interview that King often spoke in favor of government-funded programs, especially to fight poverty. "But Dr. King did not say we should spend beyond our means, or steal our children's future," Blackwell said.

"It's legitimate to be concerned about leaving our children and grandchildren a mountain of debt," he said. "But it seems that in American politics, every seemingly pure moral claim is mixed with hypocrisy."

Lewis Baldwin, a professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University who is editing a book about the political use -- and misuse -- of King's words and legacy, sharply disagreed with Blackwell.

"Dr. King felt the government should spend billions to deal with poverty and economic injustice in this country," Baldwin said. "So I don't get it when conservatives use him to argue in favor of decreasing government spending."

And while many evangelicals agree that the debt is a huge problem, some see partisan politics behind the recent surge in interest among conservatives.

"I wish the Family Research Council and Coral Ridge Ministries would have recognized the debt as a moral issue before they supported two unnecessary and immoral wars and endless corporate subsidies for years," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, head of the Washington-based group Sojourners.

David Gushee, an evangelical scholar and political centrist, agreed, saying many conservative Christians held their tongues when the debt nearly doubled under President George W. Bush because of tax breaks for wealthy Americans and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Why is it immoral when a Democrat-led government does it, but not a Republican-led government that skyrockets our national debt fighting two wars over the past decade?
More pointedly, why is it SIN for Democrats to take on debt, but it is FAITH when these same megachurches do it for their unending building projects?

It is about time!!! I have been trying to warn and awake Christians to this huge moral problem since the early 1990's.

Private debt is also a huge moral problem that a great many Christians are ignoring.


Pastor Mike,
It's immoral coming from either party, but what you seem to be really saying is that since the Repubs did it, it's no problem for the Dems to double-down and take the dept to an all-time high. Let's stop the madness now and take this thing seriously, hopefully getting both parties on-board. No more gamesmanship.

Tax-exempt religious organizations don't get a say in matters related to the national debt.

This article is void.

HenryH, I am not saying that at all. I am saying that the I find it suspect that these groups are griping now, when they were SILENT from 2001-2008. I believe this is just another partisan attack. Why are they not going after the Republicans now who are fighting the president's spending cuts in defense, such as the F-35 alternative engine program? I have come to believe that many churches and "Christian" groups have no interest in doing anything but propping up conservative political values, many of which stand in direct opposition to the teachings of Jesus Christ. I am sick of Jesus' name being used to advance a Republican agenda, and I hope that I am not alone.

Gosh, I'm pretty familiar with the Constitution and don't remember the clause that states that people lose their free-speech rights based on their employer's tax status. Funny how issues like this brings out the petty totalitarian in some people.

Conservatives and Conservative Evangelicals did not remain silent when Bush and the Republican Congress raised the debt. The spoke in 2006 by replacing Republicans with Conservative Democrats. They spoke again in 2010 in response to government spending under the Democrats in the White House and Congress.

@pastormike, I agree, i love how all of a sudden Republicans, and specifically, Evangelical conservatives, are up in arms about our national debt, while conspicuously silent when the deficit skyrocketed under W Bush. And to John's statement that conservative Evangelicals replaced Republicans with Conservative Democrats in 2006 and did not stay silent on this issue, that is simply not the case. That is a myth that has been debunked. In fact, Evangelical conservatives voted GOP in 2006 by a margin of 70 to 28%, not a huge change from 2004.
Was the Family Research Council issuing "action alerts" when Bush was in office?

The silence from evangelicals was pretty deafening when Republicans launched us into two needless wars years ago, skyrocketing spending, debt and deficits. It seems more than a little disingenuous for them to suddenly awaken to the issue now that there is a democratic administration. Sounds a lot more like a political agenda than a faith agenda to me.

A few honest people have been concerned about the debt and the morality or lack thereof of the government's budget for a long time and regardless of the political party in power, but they are a small minority and have often been drowned out and shouted down by evangelicals married to right wing politics.

I am a conservative evangelical, and I was bothered by the deficits in the Bush years, just as I was bothered by deficits (when they were there) in the Reagan and Clinton years. But there are some problems with these "Where were evangelicals in the Bush years?" arguments.

(1) Many evangelicals *were* vocally uncomfortable with the large-government approaches, and the deficit spending, of the Bush years.

(2) However, there was some degree of confidence that the Bush administration was committed to bringing the deficits back down swiftly, after temporary expenditures related to the war on terrorism and responding to various fiscal crises. The Bush budgets always turned back toward solvency, and indeed the deficits got smaller and smaller until the crash of 2008. By contrast, the Obama budget plans for trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see.

(3) Prior to the crash of 2008, the largest deficit in the Bush years was, compared to the Obama deficits, relatively small (one third the size), and actually more or less sustainable indefinitely given a moderate rate of financial growth. Deficits at 4% of GDP are not that much of a problem if your economy is growing. 12% is an entirely different ballgame.

(4) There's also a simple ideological issue here. Obama is progressive and thus viewed (reasonably) as a supporter of larger government. Thus there's less confidence that he takes reducing the size of government seriously. Democrats tend to fight on behalf of entitlements. Bush tried to address the entitlements issue when he addressed social security - he was blocked by Democrats. Obama shows no inclination to tackle entitlements, so this has many evangelicals justly concerned that Obama is whistling toward our collective financial graveyard.

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Christian conservatives should not be advocating the debt crisis as immoral. While it is immoral, I believe it just waters down our efforts on the social issues. Opponents will simply say "those Christians are saying natl defecit spending is immoral? Should I try to tell the people who receive fed govt entitlements that we're cutting your benefit 10% because it's the moral thing to do" Unfortunately, when it come to the peoples' own pocketbook, more money trumps morality. Conservatives (and Republicans) need to lay out to the people exactly how continued govt defecits will effect Joe Schmoe, not just general stmts like we're mortgaging our kids future.

Grubersauce, the tax exempt status of various churches has never stopped them from turning their pulpits over to Democrat candidates for president

My basic question is why should evangelical Christians care? What specific aspect of the gospel of Christ is aimed at governments, and at government spending in particular? Jesus had a great opportunity to comment about the tax policy of the Roman government, and his attitude was rather apathetic: "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's." He made it sound as if there wasn't any overlap between the two.

A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.