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Religion and debt crisis: American Christians divided on crisis and spending cuts

As the world watched the U.S. government deadlocked over raising the debt ceiling in early August, America' s Christians had their own standoff on the issue and the impending spending cuts that resulted in the creation of two opposing declarations and pressure groups.

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As the debt ceiling agreement was finally reached, the battle was just starting for Americans over how to deal with the debt crisis. Liberals insisted that raising taxes was the best solution while conservatives supported slashing entitlements. The concern about possible cuts in social services rallied together a group of Christian leaders who called themselves the Circle of Protection. Headed by Jim Wallis, editor of the left-leaning Christian magazine Sojourners, the group met with President Barak Obama and then issued a full-page advertisement in the newspaper Politico under the headline “God is Watching.”

The ad called for the exemption of government poverty programs from proposed spending cuts, stating that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats had clearly committed to protecting the poor, according to an article in the Washington Post (August 4). The statement was signed by a fairly wide range of church leaders, including the heads of the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches and representatives of Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant and some evangelical denominations, such as the Vineyard Fellowship and the Salvation Army, and megachurches.

The day after the ad appeared, a group of conservative Christians issued their own declaration to the President and founded the group Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE). Signed by conservative Christian leaders such as Charles Colson and Eric Metaxas, the statement argued that the Circle of Protection did not speak for all Christians. It added that while all Christians should care for the poor, government poverty programs are often counterproductive and “undermine [the poor's] family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations.” Obama has not responded to the statement. CASE also took a full page ad in Politico to challenge the statement of the Circle of Protection.

The split between Christians on the role of government is nothing new in American religion, but the debt and spending issue has revealed new fissions and coalitions on the church and society front. Eric Teetsel, founder of CASE, said that so far there has been more constructive dialogue between the Circle of Protection and his group rather than animosity that often marks liberal and conservative interactions.

Those signing the Circle of Protection declaration also represented a greater diversity of theological and social positions than usually found in liberal church social statements. Along with the usual mainline Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches, the inclusion of several evangelical denominational and parachurch leaders, suggests that the association between evangelicalism and political conservatism is far more complex than usually reported.

Finally, the role of think tanks in the formulation and promotion of conservative Christian political thought and action is noteworthy. Many of the signers of the CASE statement were identified more with religious and secular think tanks than with church bodies. Teetsel heads the capitalism and ethics project at the American Enterprise Institute, while other signers came from such organizations as the Institute for Religion and Democracy, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Orthodox Institute, a Florida-based think tank applying Orthodox Christian teachings to cultural issues.

Richard Cimino

Richard Cimino is the founder and editor of Religion Watch, a newsletter monitoring trends in contemporary religion. Since January 2008, Religion Watch is published by Religioscope Institute. Website: www.religionwatch.com.

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