Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


Thinking Christianly about Debt, Spending and Taxes


Eric Teetel

05-27-2011


May 27, 2011
by Eric Teetsel

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a Faith & Law gathering alongside my friend Tim King. This post is an abridged version of those remarks.

The question this morning is “How should Christians think about debt, taxes, and spending?” It’s a timely question and one that is likely to remain relevant throughout the duration of President Obama’s term.

Those involved in these policy debates would do well to remember that fiscal issues involve important moral questions. And so, it is quite appropriate to ask “How should Christians think about debt, taxes, and spending?”

Before asking, “How should Christians think?” we must ask, “Why?” The answer is found in what Jesus deemed the most important commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

This commandment tells us to worship God through stewardship of our brains. What does it mean to steward one’s mind? Four basic principles provide some guidance:

Principle One: Consider the Full Counsel of Scripture
Loving God with our minds requires us to go about the business of rigorous Biblical study with the Holy Spirit as our guide.

Principle Two: The Gift of Reason
Scripture is limited in the specific answers it provides. The Lord gave us the ability to reason to fill in the gaps. Reason is imperfect, and believers will often disagree in the application of reason. In such events, reason provides the most fertile soil for constructive Christian conversation. This leads to the third point:

Principle Three: All Truth is God’s
We need not fear in our search for truth. Whether in conversation with others personally or conversation with a book, we can rely on the truth that whatever is good comes from God and whatever isn’t good, doesn’t.  The search for truth requires perspicacity, patience, and faith—but shouldn’t involve shying away from hard questions.

Principle Four: Process Matters More Than Ends
Over and over, Jesus focuses on the motivations of those He encounters. He confronts a rich young ruler whose motivation is the preservation of self-reliance. When the woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume and the disciples complain that the perfume could have been sold instead and the proceeds given to the poor, he scolds them. Her motivation was worship, and that’s what mattered most.

Much of the substantive work of Christian thinking will be done discussing the motivations underlying approaches to public policy. This is where reason comes to bear. In conversation with those motivated by a search for truth whose reasoning has led them to a different conclusion, we will find that the difference is in prioritization, and not fundamental misunderstandings of Truth.

Having established these guiding principles, here are some questions to guide our thinking about debt, taxes, and spending.

First, have we identified the problem? It seems to me that most acknowledge that the problem is our revenues are insufficient to pay for our spending.

Second, what’s the proper role of government? We can’t begin to make determinations about spending priorities without an understanding of what government is good for and what other social institutions are good for. If concern for the poor is to be a priority, what helps the poor most?

Third, what resources will be required for each aspect of society to fulfill its role? Prudence demands a thorough cost-benefit analysis to enable us to allocate our scarce resources appropriately.

Fourth, having established an understanding of the role of government and the role of other social institutions, we will hold institutions accountable? If we are going to grant responsibilities to government, how are we to ensure that government is acting most efficaciously and efficiently?

Unsurprisingly, our elected officials seem intent on using the crisis of our finances for gamesmanship rather than as a catalyst for reform. Christians must not fall victim to the same. We have a biblical mandate to take seriously the task of answering hard questions about debt, spending, and taxes, and, in so doing, to be agents of salt and light.

—Eric Teetsel is Program Manager of the Project on Values and Capitalism at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.

 

 



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