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Bad Economics, Bad Public Policy and Bad Theology

Raymond J. Keating

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Raymond J. KeatingI am a sinner. We all are. Christians find comfort, for example, in what John the Baptist proclaimed as Jesus Christ approached: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)

But does my work over the years on a wide range of public policy issues as a free market economist serve as a particular source of sin? It's pretty clear that's what some leaders from various mainline Christian denominations have declared in recent proclamations. To be a good Christian, according to this group, depends upon embracing assorted left-wing political positions.

In February, for example, came "God's Earth is Sacred: An Open Letter to Church and Society in the United States" from the National Council of Churches. This letter was signed by 17 religious folk, including Father John Chryssavgis, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Dr. Barbara Rossing, a New Testament professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and Neddy Astudillo, who was identified as a Latina eco-theologian in the Presbyterian Church USA. What exactly a "Latina eco-theologian" is I'm not sure, but I am pretty sure it has little to do with traditional Christianity.

In March came a joint statement from leaders of the Episcopal Church, USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church. It declared opposition to President George W. Bush's proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2006.

These are the most glaring, recent examples of those in the religious realm who long to be political activists. It seems that the salvation proclaimed in Holy Scriptures is too mundane, or perhaps even narrow-minded, for their tastes. So, they preach politics rather than the Good News.

Let's take the "God's Earth is Sacred" letter first, which accepts the doom-and-gloom predictions espoused by the most extreme in the environmental crowd. It is asserted: "To continue to walk the current path of ecological destruct ion is not only folly; it is sin." Now that's notable because left-wing activists dressed up in Christian garb rarely, if ever, talk about "sin." After all, sin can be so black and white, when they prefer to embrace shades of gray. But of course, this is not sin in any traditional Christian sense of the word, but instead a redefining of sin as going against the political wisdom espoused by Left.

So, it is further asserted: "We firmly believe that addressing the degradation of God's sacred Earth is the moral assignment of our time." How bad are things, according to this group? They proclaim mankind's guilt in "jeopardizing Earth's capacity to sustain life as we know and love it." The atrocities facing us now range from "species extinction and mass poverty to climate change and health-crippling pollution." So, the argument is summed up: "In this most critical moment in Earth's history, we are convinced that the central moral imperative of our time is the care for Earth as God's creation."

Wow, the "central moral imperative of our time"? Do such declarations have any basis in the real world? The simple answer is no.

Move beyond radical environmentalists, and it becomes clear that the state of the environment has been improving in recent years, particularly here in the United States. Consider just a few items reported in the "Index of Leading Environmental Indicators 2005," recently published jointly by the Pacific Research Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.

Based on the EPA's Air Quality Index, air quality in the 10 worst cities in 1990 has improved by 53 percent on average. Regarding emissions since the mid-1970s, ozone has declined by 31 percent, nitrogen dioxide by 42 percent, sulfur dioxides by 72 percent, carbon monoxide by 76 percent, particulates by 31 percent and lead by 98 percent.

For good measure, wetlands on private land expanded by about 26,000 acres per year from 1997 to 2002, and forest area has been stable for nearly a century and expanded slightly in Europe and the U.S. over the past decade. "The Wall Street Journal" noted in a May 5, 2005, story that forest acreage in the Northeastern U.S. expanded from 59.6 million acres in 1907 to 85.5 million in 1997.

In addition, disagreement persists in the scientific community over the existence of global warming, and/or its possible causes. The Index points out that temperatures today at the arctic, while warmer than in 1970, are colder than in 1930, while temperatures in Greenland have fallen over the past decade and a half.

But what about that Bush budget? The March statement noted above on the proposed budget began with the story Jesus tells in Luke 16 about the rich man and Lazarus. The Episcopalian, ELCA, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ and United Methodist leaders declared: "The 2006 Federal Budget that President Bush has sent to Capitol Hill is unjust. It has much for the rich man and little for Lazarus."

The letter goes on to assert that a variety of social programs are being cut, proclaiming: "For even as it reduces aid to those in poverty, this budget showers presents on the rich." In a separate statement, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson said that "the Administration's proposed federal budget priorities stand in contradiction to Biblical tradition. If enacted, it will be truly devastating for people living in poverty in this country and around the world."

A list of "spending reductions" is highlighted in grave fashion. These chu rch leaders also make clear their distaste for tax relief, particularly for higher income earners.

None of this, though, has any relationship with economic reality and what's actually going on with the federal budget. Contrary to these declarations, President George W. Bush and his fellow Republicans who lead Congress have turned out to rank among the biggest spenders of recent times with expenditure increases running far ahead of inflation. And it's not just about defense spending.

Federal Total Outlays During the Bush Years (outlays in millions of dollars)

Fiscal Year Total Outlays Percent Change
2002 $2,010,972 7.9%
2003 $2,159,917 7.4%
2004 $2,292,215 6.1%
2005 (est) $2,479,404 8.2%
2006-Bush proposal $2,567,617 3.6%

Federal Total Outlays Less National Defense and Net Interest on the Debt
During the Bush Years (outlays in millions of dollars)

Fiscal Year Total Outlays Percent Change
2002 $1,491,468 10.3%
2003 $1,601,924 7.4%
2004 $1,676,062 4.6%
2005 (est) $1,835,585  9.5%
2006-Bush proposal $1,909,143 4.0%

The second table above gets us to spending on non-defense government programs (that is, total outlays minus net interest and minus national defense). Again, Bush and the Republicans in Congress have spent lavishly when it comes to non-defense outlays. The President's proposed budget would lower the spending increase for 2006 compared to previous years, but still leave it outpacing inflation. Plus, one should not be surprised if Republicans in Congress further jack up those 2006 spending levels.

So, rather than being open to criticisms of not spending enough on non-defense government programs from the religious Left, the Bush White House more legitimately is exposed to criticisms from conservatives and other free market advocates who argue that bigger government does far more harm than good.

Contrary to the claims being made by these churchmen, no one is cutting federal spending.

Meanwhile, liberal church leaders miss the economics and positive effects of tax relief. For example, the 2003 reductions in personal income, capital gains and dividend tax rates boosted incentives for working, investing and entrepreneurship, which are the sources of economic growth and job creation. In fact, private sector investment and economic growth accelerated dramatically after these tax cuts were passed, with job creation picking up as well. This is not unusual, as history has shown that each time income tax rates have been substantively reduced during the past eight-plus decades, the economy has reacted in positive fashion.

So, in both of these cases, on the environment and the federal budget, church liberals have been out of touch with environmental, economic and policy realities. This leads one to wonder about the theology behind such political escapades.

Why the heck is the National Council of Churches making declarations about environmental policies? And should various denominations be weighing in broadly on the federal budget? From the positions taken, a lack of expertise obviously exists, along with a strong political bias to the liberal side of the aisle. But most important, what's the theological basis for such ventures? Where are the imperatives and clear direction, for example, from Holy Scripture?

These political activists point to assorted biblical passages that speak of aiding the poor, the necessity for charity and justice, or other vague generalities, and then simply assert that these quotations support the particulars of their big government philosophy. Of course, this ranks as either ignorant or disingenuous from a theological standpoint.

The ELCA's website, for example, provides a list of "biblical references on justice and advocacy." These 35 passages, however, provide absolutely no basis for churches to be making grand declarations on issues like federal tax cuts, Medicaid spending, the minimum wage, global warming, and assorted other public policy matters. I'm sorry, but the Bible does not offer guidance as to the efficacy of raising the minimum wage, the impact of changes in income tax rates, or the fallout from restraining the growth in Medicaid spending. Meanwhile, the substantive economic arguments over such issues are ignored by these church leaders who have placed an unshakable faith in government action.

Obviously, there are issues where Holy Scripture and traditional Christianity dictate that churches take unequivocal positions. Opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research, and the defense of marriage are obvious examples. Interestingly, denominations like the Episcopal Church, the ELCA, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church have sent confusing, to be generous, signals on such fundamental matters.

Unfortunately, this shift in emphasis from the true Gospel to the "social gospel" is not new. According to "God and the Oval Office" by John C. McCollister, for example, President Calvin Coolidge once said: "I wouldn't for a minute be critical of the church and its work, but I think most of the clergy today are preaching socialism."

In the early twenty-first century, too many left-wing Christians appear on the verge of idolatry. They seem far more taken with advancing public policies that they believe will protect Mother Earth, aid the Nanny State or advance some other secular cause, than with the need for all of us as sinners to have faith in the forgiveness, redemption, love, sacrifice and salvation offered through Jesus Christ.

Church proponents of "social justice" or the "social gospel" blatantly manipulate Holy Scripture. The message of faith and salvation has given way to a left-wing political agenda. That's the real sin being committed here.

Raymond J. Keating is a columnist with Newsday, and a regular columnist for OrthodoxyToday.org. He can be reached at rjknewsday@aol.com.

Posted: 11-May-05



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