04/20/2011 10:16 am ET | Updated Jun 20, 2011

Religious Themes in the Budget Debate

As federal budget proposals are released, the proponent's news releases contain predictable rhetoric. Examples include "putting Americans back to work," "compassionate and optimistic," "a country that values fairness," and the "basic social fabric of America." While these statements are easily glanced over, underneath they reflect religious questions that are as old as Western Civilization. Just as these religious questions have not been conclusively resolved, so the enduring questions surrounding the expenditures of social resources are not likely to be definitively resolved.

A fundamental religious question appears in Genesis 4:9: "Am I my brother's keeper?" Like it or not, we exist in social relation to others. The broad contours of that interaction are defined in the Judeo-Christian tradition by the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. The classical tension frequently is drawing the line between government prohibiting active harm (theft) and government mandating charity (sharing of resources with the poor). Just as God does not expressly answer the question in Genesis, so this political question continues.

Deuteronomy 22:19-22 involves the gleaners, those allowed to enter privately owned fields and take produce for their subsistence. The individuals allowed to enter are described as "the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow." Arguably these are the deserving poor. Noteworthy is that private property owners are required to share resources with these individuals. The enduring political question is how large the social "safety net" should be and what individuals should benefit from it. What is not in doubt in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the requirement to have such a sharing of resources.

Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 in response to the question "who is my neighbor?" The admonition to "go and do likewise" expands compassion beyond one's immediate group to anyone we encounter "half dead" at the side of the road. The enduring political question is setting priorities among all the needy that we encounter in our modern interconnected global community. Debates about foreign aid and domestic spending programs for education and health touch this religious issue.

Finally, in this brief overview, consider the language of 2 Thessalonians 3:10: "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat." This instruction occurs in the context of a discussion concerning individuals who are "idle and disruptive" in the early Christian community. The admonition to work suggests that individuals use their best efforts to be self-supporting and self-reliant. The continuing political and economic debate concerns how to structure tax and public assistance policies to both encourage and facilitate individual effort. For example, should our society subsidize public transportation and child care for the working poor?

My conclusion from this overview is that our modern questions about the role of government and the allocation of social resources are truly ancient questions that are not resolved by sound bites on television. These are deep issues that require our consideration of the very best knowledge available from the Judeo Christian tradition and historical examples. Thoughtful debate, not election-oriented rhetoric, is the best solution although this may only occur in an ideal world.