Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine and the Washington, D.C.-based Christian community of the same name.
Editor's Note: The following remarks were given on Capitol Hill on Aug. 1 as part of a call from faith leaders across the religious spectrum urging Congress to extend the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit for low- and moderate-income Americans.
A budget is a moral document. That phrase was coined by the faith community and has become a refrain in the ongoing debates over deficits and budgets. But in this week’s House vote on extending the Bush-era tax cuts, we see one more example of the priorities and principles of the broader GOP budget and how they apply to the rich and to the poor. Because of this, we must conclude that the Republican budget is an immoral document — in the way it treats the poor. I certainly don’t believe that all our Republican lawmakers came to Washington to hurt poor people, but it’s time for some of them to challenge the dominant forces in their party and face the consequences of such indefensible choices.
We have a genuine hope for a long term bipartisan solution and, in particular, a moral non-partisan commitment to protect the poor and vulnerable from being expendable in these fiscal debates. We should also say that Democratic budgets have not been models of fiscal responsibility and social justice either. But what the House budget is calling for is morally objectionable on religious and biblical grounds — and people of faith from all political stripes should say so. In particular, to roll back tax credits for the poor to help fund tax breaks for the rich is morally reprehensible, and the faith community has to speak out.
Here is what the debate reveals from the highest moral lens: the House GOP budget wants to extend tax cuts and credits for the wealthiest people of our society while cutting tax benefits for the poorest — including millions of low-income working families with children at risk. Proven and effective tax credits, which can lift families out of poverty, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), which have historically had bipartisan support, are now being dramatically reduced. All the while, tax cuts for the wealthy are further expanded and the amount of money the richest can keep from their estate taxes continues to grow. This is an egregious contrast and a starkly immoral budget choice.
To reward the rich even more while actually punishing the poor is a direct offense to all of our religious traditions. For Catholic lawmakers, it is a fundamental violation of Catholic social teaching, and the Catholic bishops have said so. They called this budget choice “unwise” and “unjust.” Every Catholic lawmaker who votes for those misplaced priorities should be held accountable by their church. But that accountability can’t stop with Catholics.
The Bible confronts every Evangelical lawmaker with more than 2,000 verses that call us to defend the poor and vulnerable. If we say we believe the Bible, we simply can’t support policies that directly reward the rich and punish the poor: Christian lawmakers can’t keep going into their prayer breakfasts and leaving their Bibles at the door.
The Senate Democrats should be thanked for blocking these cuts and protecting tax credits for low-income families last week. But, to be honest, neither party has clearly and publically stated a fundamental principle that the poor and vulnerable should be protected. In these critically important deficit debates, that principle is crucial and must be central to policy decisions.
Reducing excessive deficits is a moral act, but also how we reduce them is a moral issue. It’s time for both parties to commit themselves to this principle: We will not reduce the deficit in ways that increase poverty and economic inequality. This is the fundamental principle of the Circle of Protection, a broad table of more than 60 church leaders and organizations across the theological and political spectrum committed to protecting the poor and vulnerable in these crucial fiscal decisions. We will continue to press and pressure the leadership of both parties to uphold that principle. Our nation has achieved bipartisan agreement to that principle in past deficit reduction, and we must do it again. This is a moral and religious imperative that we should hold all lawmakers to. And the Circle of Protection will do that on both sides of the aisle.
In all of our decisions, the poor and vulnerable — the ones Jesus called “the least of these” — should be protected, especially by people of faith, regardless of their party affiliations and political philosophies. It’s time to cut through all the political clutter, ideology, and self-interest. The Christian leaders of the Circle of Protection feel called by God in saying this to our political leaders: It’s time to do the right thing and protect the poor.