Evangelicals And The Morality Of Debt

by Jonathan Chait | March 1, 2011

Christianity Today analyses the relative propensity of evangelicals to favor spending cuts:

Lisa Miller writes:

As on so many culture war battlefields, the political debate is being waged in theological language. On conservative Christian blogs and on right-wing Christian radio, preachers and pundits reinforce the Biblical sinfulness of debt. A publicist from Coral Ridge Ministries, the conservative megachurch in Coral Gables, Florida, quotes his church's founder, D. James Kennedy, in a recent blog post.  "The bible says that inheritences should go from the fathers unto the sons, but we have reversed that concept. We are taking from our sons and our grandsons and are wasting it on our own immediate wants. We have lost the biblical concept of self-discipline."

I see a several major problems with this analysis. This doesn't measure opposition to debt, it measures opposition to spending. If you looked at taxes, you'd almost certainly find evangelicals favoring higher debt. Second, it's not showing a whole lot of opposition to spending, either. It's showing that white evangelicals, like Americans as a whole, oppose spending cuts on virtually the entire federal budget. Indeed, if you look at programs that make up the bulk of the federal budget -- Medicare, Social Security, defense, and homeland security -- evangelicals support for spending cuts ranges from the low teens to the low twenties. Compared to other Americans, evangelicals are very slightly more likely to favor Medicare cuts (but still far less than 20% do), no more likely to favor Social Security cuts, and less likely to favor cuts to defense and homeland security.

Evangelicals are more likely than others to favor spending cuts on unemployment, the environment, scientific research, and college aid. But the only programs where even evangelical support for spending cuts tops 40% is aid to the world's poor (a belief that consistently seems to reflect massive over-rating of the actual amount spent.) If you pro-rate every program for its its size to the federal budget, there's no evidence that evangelicals are anti-debt, and there isn't even any reason to think they're more anti-debt than other groups. If you include taxes, they're almost certainly more pro-debt than other Americans.

Anyway, Andrew Sullivan runs with the shaky premise of the article and applauds, "I'm impressed with their grasp that, in many ways, debt is profoundly immoral when it is taken to the extremes of Americans these days, both publicly and privately." Putting aside the premise about evangelicals, it's worth considering how that belief undergirds actual debt-reduction policy. We don't know what any deficit deal is going to look like, assuming there is one. But my guess is that, in keeping with the promises of both parties, current beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare will go unscathed. (Paul Ryan's ballyhooed budget plan relies on cutting Medicare far in the future and exempting everybody currently over 55.) Instead what we have is "fiscal responsibility" largely at the expense of the vulnerable and, well, young. From today's New York Times story about how school budget cuts are forcing boys out of athletics and into boxing:

He used to play football and run track at Robinson Middle School here until both teams were disbanded for austerity reasons. On a recent snowy Monday, he flings a wild right hook at the punching bag, steps back and takes a self-conscious look around Bang ’Em or Hang ’Em, a gym that is suddenly overflowing with young, sweaty boxers.
“Every time my nose gets hit, it starts bleeding,” the fighter, Antonio Ellison, says quietly, rubbing his face gently with his boxing glove’s padded red knuckle. “I’m really scared for my first fight.”
Antonio, 14, is among the hundreds of Toledo youths who have discovered boxing this year after the public school system, facing a $39 million deficit, cut its athletics budget. It is a scenario that is being played out across the country, as high unemployment, falling home values and declining tax revenues continue to batter school finances. ...
The cuts to the athletic programs in Toledo were among the most severe in the nation. At the beginning of the school year, the district disbanded all sports teams for middle school students and high school freshmen. It also cut high school cross-country, wrestling, golf and boys’ tennis teams, along with all intramural activities, including cheerleading and dance teams.
“It wounded us pretty good,” said Ed Scrutchins, the Toledo district’s athletics director. His budget lost $850,000, leaving Mr. Scrutchins with $1 million to finance what remained.
Some parents said they did not have many alternatives when the sports teams were eliminated. They could send their children to boxing clubs and live with the inevitable bruised foreheads and bloodied lips. Or they could leave them alone after school in neighborhoods that are often troubled by gangs and crime.
“I don’t like to watch them fight — I cover my eyes and ask someone else to see if they’re O.K.,” said Tambria Dixson, 35, a nurse’s assistant who pays $90 a month to send her three sons to Bang ’Em or Hang ’Em. “Paying for it is a struggle. But the kids in our neighborhood who aren’t involved in athletics are getting involved in gangs. So yes, it’s worth it.”

 

This is austerity, all right, but it doesn't have much to do with leaving a better world for the next generation. Restraining future debt is a component of creating a better world for the young. But it isn't synonymous with it, and in many cases the two things are very much the opposite.

 

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