Our nation is facing a moral crisis according to J. Herbert Nelson, Director of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Office of Public Witness. Addressing the Loaves and Fishes gathering last month, Nelson stated that our moral crisis, our “moment of intense pause,” has been caused by “moral ineptness in high places [of government].” Referring to the sequester Nelson stated, “We are now in the midst of…indiscriminate spending cuts…that result from a weakness in moral character.” There is some truth to Nelson’s claim, but the devil—as always—is in the details.
At first glance it seems that Nelson chides both the President and the Congress for their failure of leadership, which has led to the current stalemate. When read more closely, it’s clear where he believes the lion share of the responsibility lies: “This crisis, caused by our leadership in Congress, is at the core of our spiritual consciousness.” In reality, it takes two to tango.
Surely the President deserves a rebuke for instituting the sequester provision in the first place—a political game of Russian roulette designed to give him leverage over Republicans. It appears that there may, after all, be a real bullet in the chamber. Yet surely there is some hubris among Republicans who appear willing to give little by way of compromise. In the end, there’s no telling whether the pistol is pointing at the President, the congress, or—more likely—the American people.
Nelson’s address is a political one with a veneer of religion. It’s also internally inconsistent. He asserts, “This stalemate [over the sequester] is the struggle over our vision of our government’s responsibility to support the most vulnerable over and against funding wealthy people and multinational corporations through tax breaks. Central to this stalemate is the question of the government’s responsibility to support ‘the least of these’.”
Here Nelson is guilty of a sin of omission. There can be little doubt that real differences exist in the ways Americans envision their government functioning. These are legitimate philosophical disagreements, some more reasonable than others. However, Nelson omits any mention of the duty of the government to steward the nation’s resources. If it is right to consider the “least of these,” we ought also consider among that number successive generations of Americans whose future has been mortgaged to secure excesses in the present.
Nelson is also guilty of the same interpretive misstep so many progressive Christians claim to see in traditional Christians: sloppily moving from the text’s supposed, “plain meaning” to an application in the current moment.
Nelson tells us that his “faith book”—I prefer to call it the Bible—informs him that Jesus declared, “Just as you have done it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me” (Mt 25:40). It’s all so simple. Jesus said it. I believe it. The government should do it.
No reference consideration is given to who the audience was, what the context of the statement was, and how the church has interpreted it over history and how our current political system is differentiated from that of the New Testament.
Moreover, Nelson is internally inconsistent. At the outset of his remarks, he argues that this moment in political time is the fulcrum between two opposing choices. On the one hand, we can fund “wealthy people and multinationals” and on the other we can care for the “least of these.” The choice is only so stark when such a contrast is necessary for rhetorical purposes, clearly the case here.
According to Nelson, reality is that the United States has few financial woes. “We are acting out of a posture of scarcity rather than abundance. Our resources are not scarce; they are abundant!” In relation to many other nations this may be true. However when considering obligations and income through taxation, the United States is in trouble.
Which is it? One moment every inducement to a corporation to relocate is tantamount to wrenching food from the mouth of an impoverished child: “How can we declare that the ‘haves’ ought to have more while the ‘have-not’s’ [sic] get less? This is a reverse Robin Hood plan, where the poor get poorer and the rich get richer.”
In the next the United States government is awash in cash with more than enough to create a centrally planned nirvana: “We are not bankrupt! There is enough!” While it certainly true that we are not yet bankrupt, now is not the time to haphazardly loosen the purse strings.
Ours is a time for reflection and for restraint. Many individuals find themselves forced into this position—prudence would suggest that our government should join them.
In his final rhetorical flourish, Nelson claims to prophetically speak on behalf of the American people: “The nation spoke at the voting booth in overwhelming numbers to decide that the candidate who vowed to tax corporations and high-income individuals at a higher rate would serve as the President of this country.”
Did I miss something here? Is the President suggesting the repeal of taxes for high-income individuals? Is he suggesting that corporations be tax exempt? Far from it. Instead, the President has done something that all politicians do when they transition from candidate to incumbent—face reality.
Nelson might wish that President Obama revert to the candidate Obama that he describes in contrast with Mitt Romney as “[ending] tax breaks for the wealthy” and “[ending] corporate welfare,” but in the end—as all ideologues are—Nelson will be disappointed because reality is a tough bullet to bite. Perhaps as a consolation prize, he might consider that had he been elected, Mitt Romney would likely not have been anywhere as fiscally conservative as during the run up to the election. Reality cuts both ways after all.
There is more than a little irony in the way Nelson chooses to conclude his address: “We must build bridges of hope for the future generations by the way we act now.” Those who wish to restrain government spending on social programs almost certainly point to this as their rationale. The brutal truth is: we spending tomorrow’s money. By failing to admit this, Nelson undermines his own argument and reveals that his address is simply a rearrangement of liberal talking points overlaid with some allusions to Jesus. Nelson claims that we Americans are better people than would fall for the reverse Robin Hood scheme he claims the government is perpetrating. He should also know that Americans are, as George Will has noted, “a center-right people.” As a result, he should know that his proposal will be received skeptically at best.