Mainline Church Officials Vilify Bush Budget

Officials of mainline Protestant denominations resorted to extraordinarily harsh language in condemning President Bush’s budget proposals for 2006. “The 2006 federal budget that President Bush has sent to Capitol Hill is unjust,” the officials asserted in a joint statement. “It has much for the rich man and little for Lazarus [the poor man].”

The church officials, in their joint statement recalled Jesus’ parable of the rich man who suffers in Hell as they denounced President Bush, whose tax cuts are “stocking the rich man’s larder [as] a strategy for getting Lazarus [the poor man] more food.”

Speaking at a March 11 press conference in Washington, DC, were officials from the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ, as well as the National Council of Churches (NCC). Together, they claimed to speak for 20 million American Christians.

Repeatedly, the church officials recalled Jesus’ parable (in Luke 16) of the rich man who burns in hell because he showed no mercy to the poor man Lazarus lying at his gate. Reading the joint statement, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold commented: “In telling this story, Jesus makes clear that perpetrating economic injustice is among the gravest of sins.”

Griswold and the others made it clear that they judged Bush to be guilty of that grave sin. “Even as it reduces aid to those in poverty,” the joint statement charged, “this budget showers presents on the rich. If passed in its current form, it would take Jesus’ teaching on economic justice and stand it on its head.”

“This budget neglects and exacerbates our nation’s healthcare crisis, especially for children and seniors, and fails to honor the commitments our nation has made to combating poverty and disease overseas,” declared Bishop Griswold. “Such a budget is not a reflection of the compassionate values of our nation, nor of the Gospels’ command to care for the least among us.”

An NCC official was even harsher in denouncing the Bush budget. “For the most part this is a budget that ignores the needs of the poor, children and the elderly,” said Brenda Girton-Mitchell, who runs the NCC’s Washington lobby office. “Our faith compels us to stand boldly and firmly against a budget that cuts programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, veterans’ health services and other human services in order to support military might, war spending and tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.”

The president of the United Church of Christ was equally emphatic. “If enacted as it is, it [the budget] will dig an even deeper hole of despair for those currently caught in the day to day struggle to make ends meet,” said the Rev. John Thomas in a written statement read by his denomination’s Washington lobbyist. Thomas expressed concern over the state of Bush’s soul. “We pray that our President considers what he means when he uses the words ‘values,’ and that he finds room in his heart for the millions of our nation’s poor who will be hurt by this budget.”

The liberal church officials seemed determined to dispel any notions that they ignored the Scriptures or were unable to see black-and-white moral issues. On the contrary, they were relentless in using Bible verses to portray Bush fiscal policies as evil. Such cutting rhetoric is ironic in the mouths of religious leaders who often deplore the alleged “intolerance,” “judgmentalism,” and “divisiveness” of the “religious right.”

“Jesus asks, ‘Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?'” noted Jim Winkler, head of the United Methodist Church’s lobby office. “The President’s budget offers stones to the children of the United States.”

None of the officials at the press conference seemed to leave any room for disagreement over Bush’s policies. Christian conscience demands complete opposition, they insisted. “We believe that the Administration’s proposed federal budget priorities stand in contradiction to biblical tradition,” said Evangelical Lutheran Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson. “If enacted, it will be truly devastating for people living in poverty — in this country and around the world.”

Bishop Hanson insisted he and his fellow prelates were in the nation’s capital to “seek justice-and to name injustice and immorality when it threatens God’s mission in the world.”

The church officials cited statistics on poverty, hunger, and lack of health insurance in America. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, in a written statement read by his denomination’s Washington lobbyist, called these “human-needs deficits” a “moral outrage in a nation, like ours, of abundance.” Citing the wealth disparity in America, the Presbyterian official urged more federal spending on the poor, quoting Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The Bush tax cuts of 2001-2003 were a cause for continued bitterness among the mainline officials. Winkler asked sharply, “What does it say about our nation that we would ask our children to sacrifice so that our wealthiest citizens can be guaranteed additional tax cuts?”

Defenders of Bush’s proposed budget point out that it increases spending on anti-poverty programs by two percent, after a total 42 percent increase over the last five years, averaging a 9.2 percent increase per year. By comparison, these programs grew an average of 5.5 percent under President Clinton, when the economy was expanding more rapidly.

President Bush’s $2.6-trillion budget for 2006 includes a reduction of $3 billion (one percent) from 2005 in the government’s discretionary spending for purposes other than national defense and homeland security. Many of the largest cuts in discretionary spending affect departments — such as Agriculture, Justice, Transportation, and the Corps of Engineers — that do not principally serve poor people. Meanwhile, spending on mandated entitlement programs — such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — would rise by $80 billion (eight percent) from 2005 to 2006. A significant number of the beneficiaries of such programs are poor — or would be poor without the government assistance.

If the Bush proposals were adopted, the portion of the federal budget devoted to “human resources” would increase from 64.0 to 65.3 percent. Many of the “cuts” to which the mainline church officials referred are actually only reductions in the rate of increased spending.

Noam Neusner, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, was contacted by Religion News Service to respond to the charge that the budget “ignores the poor” and “has little for Lazarus.” Neusner pointed to $1 billion in new spending on low-income housing, $4 billion in fresh funds for homeless programs, and $2 billion for community health clinics. Other poverty-related programs slated for spending increases were Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (commonly known as “welfare”); the president’s initiatives for healthy marriages and fatherhood; the school lunch program; Head Start; the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); Pell Grants for needy college students; refugee resettlement programs; the Peace Corps; Americorps; international AIDS prevention and treatment programs; and the Millennium Challenge Account and other economic assistance to developing nations.

It is curious that church leaders feel compelled to use such alarmist language about Bush wreaking “devastation” on poor people and endangering his own soul. The complicated realities of the slowly evolving federal budget do not seem to warrant such sudden stridency. It may be that the church leaders are less disturbed by the specific line items in the budget than by the ideology that they perceive behind it. When they hear the president speak of an “ownership society” — a society in which the poor cease to be wards of the government and instead become protagonists of their own lives — they react against the implicit threat to the centralized welfare state in which they have placed their faith.

Mainline officials seem unable to separate a proper biblical concern for the poor from the drive for an ever-expanding welfare state. They appear unwilling to accept that other Christians, including the president, share that concern for the poor but have a different vision of how to help them most effectively. Therefore, they cast doubt upon the Christian faith and the salvation of those fellow believers.

At one point in the press conference, Bishop Griswold professed to be speaking on “behalf of the 20 million Christians we represent.” Yet polls last fall showed that a majority of church-going mainline Protestants voted to re-elect George W. Bush.

When questioned whether they actually speak politically for their own claimed constituency, the church officials quickly shifted ground, explaining dismissively that their role is not to follow majority opinion in the churches but to show “leadership.” Elenora Giddings Ivory of the Presbyterian lobbying office maintained, “Leadership is not doing what the majority thinks.” Griswold said that he did not know what percentage of his own Episcopalians voted for Bush, but that his role is similarly to show “leadership” and not follow polls.

None of the church officials attempted to address their ongoing inability to persuade most of their own claimed 20 million members to follow their political leadership. Also unmentioned was the fact that those 20 million used to be more than 25 million, a generation ago. Shrill imprecations against President Bush will do little to solve their denominations’ internal problems — much less the nation’s problems.