“A budget is a moral document.” That was my opening statement at a news conference and prayer vigil of church leaders Wednesday across from the steps of the U.S. Capitol. We represented a wide spectrum of the Christian families of America — Protestant, Catholic, evangelical, African-American, Hispanic, Pentecostal, Orthodox. We were there to commit ourselves to form a “circle of protection” (also the name of our broad coalition) around the poor and vulnerable who are at great risk in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget. “Let me say it again: A budget is a moral document,” I repeated with energy and passion.
This was originally a statement of principle from the religious community — said to politicians a decade ago. Some politicians now quote it, and even some media pundits point to it; but it was a religious statement from the beginning. I know that because I was in the room when it was first discussed.
Any budget is a moral statement of priorities, whether it’s a budget created by an individual, a family, a school, a city, or a nation. It tells us, mathematically, what areas, issues, things, or people are most important to the creators of that budget, and which are least important.
In concrete moral and mathematical terms, the proposed Republican health care bill would have cut care for 24 million people — including 14 million people next year alone — most of whom would have been poor and vulnerable Medicaid recipients. That was a moral choice: Cutting health funding for the poor in order to slash taxes for the rich is a moral decision and declaration of moral priorities.
Proposing cuts of $880 billion from Medicaid over 10 years was a deliberate moral choice that would have decimated those living in or close to poverty — causing death and disability for many. Some cuts kill.
To help the bill pass with the most conservative legislators it was made even more cruel by scrapping the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that all insurers cover certain “essential health benefits” like preventative care, maternity care, and treatment for addiction and mental illness. Again, those were not just political choices — they were moral choices.
Ultimately, the American Health Care Act was pulled because it lacked the support to pass, despite the full-throated backing of the House Republican leadership and the political bullying of Donald Trump.
For that, we church leaders exclaimed at our gathering on Capitol Hill: “Thanks be to God!” We celebrated the failure of a cruel bill. We also celebrated our powerful unity across other theological and political differences and our clear opposition to cutting the poor out of the critical budget decisions which now lie ahead.
Yes, we celebrated. But we remain vigilant.
A budget briefing I received just before the press conference said it all: “This week, the Trump administration proposed paying for their military and border wall supplemental request with 18 billion dollars in cuts to non-defense discretionary programs for the remainder of fiscal year (FY17). Many of these cuts would impact domestic anti-poverty programs as well as international foreign assistance programs.” Mathematical facts are moral choices.
The new budget blueprints from the Trump administration ultimately propose $54 billion in increased military spending (for FY18) along with massive tax cuts for the richest Americans. Trump’s team plans to pay for those choices by cutting a wide array of anti-poverty programs— including nutrition programs for low-income families with children along with their housing, heating, and after-school programs, and a whole range of community development and educational programs — and by attacking Medicaid again, saving money by endangering the health of the poorest among us.
A budget is a moral document, these choices are moral choices, and voting on them is a matter of moral priorities.
This comes as data from the Center on Budget and Policy priorities show us the vital role of these programs: In 2015, domestic “safety net” programs aimed at the poor cut the poverty rate nearly in half, from 26.3 percent if you took away all government assistance to 14.3 percent with the safety net in place. The budget also aims to slash foreign aid, at a time when 20 million people in Africa are at risk for starvation amid a worsening famine — even though poverty-focused development assistance accounts for less than 0.5 percent of the federal budget.
Of course, faith leaders are always open to improving programs and willing to help. But, as Galen Carey, the Vice President for Government Relations at the National Association of Evangelicals, correctly pointed out yesterday, while no federal program is perfect and in many cases reforms are possible, “there’s a difference between reforming and dismantling” these programs.
Let me say it again: A budget is a moral document, these choices are moral choices, and voting on them is a matter of moral priorities. And all of you should tell all your political representatives on Congress that very thing.
The Circle of Protection is also united by a biblical text. Of course, it is from the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus says, “As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” We have brought that text to both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate; we did so again yesterday. We have brought that text to the White House before under President Barack Obama, and we will have asked to do so again under Donald Trump. So far, we have no response to our request for a meeting with this administration.
Here is the application of of that text I offered outside the Capitol:
Jesus said: “I was hungry and you gave me food.” Cutting Meals on Wheels, SNAP, and WIC to pay for more tanks is a moral choice. Cutting essential humanitarian foreign aid to a famine-and conflict-riven world to build more weapons … is also a moral choice.
“Jesus said I was sick, and you visited me.” Cutting, rationing, and ultimately ending Medicaid as a health guarantee for our poorest and sickest people is a moral choice.
“Jesus said, I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” Demonizing our immigrants and refugees and planning to build a wall against them — that more cuts to the poor will be used to pay for — is a moral choice.
“Jesus said, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.” Cutting environmental protections, which leads to massive droughts all over the world, is a moral choice.
“Jesus said, I was in prison, and you visited me.” Mass incarceration based on race that disenfranchises men and women of color is a moral choice.
“Jesus said, I was naked, and you clothed me.” Cutting programs for the poor, while making tax cuts for the rich literally strips the most vulnerable of what little they have and is fundamentally a moral choice.
We will take the Gospel text of Matthew 25 to those in power now, as we have done before, and remind this Congress and this White House, as we have done before, that a budget is a moral document.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, is available now.