02.26.11

Evangelicals Preach the Gospel of Getting Out of Debt

"Thou shalt not overspend" is rapidly becoming a tenet of the evangelical belief system, rivaling social issues like gay marriage. Can the gospel of thrift save our economy?

The priorities of white evangelical Christians, about 60 million strong, have driven the culture wars for decades. It was they who formed the Moral Majority in the 1970s, which helped elect Ronald Reagan in a landslide in 1980. And it was their children—some of them, anyway—who strayed from their parents' interpretations of faith and helped elect Barack Obama in 2008. Politically active, evangelicals have fought with varying degrees of success against abortion, same-sex marriage, and the teaching of evolution in public schools.

But a recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that white evangelicals may, in fact, have more pragmatic concerns than their reputation indicates. "They, like everyone else, are concerned about the $14 trillion national debt. And true to evangelical principles, it's an issue they have started to talk about in moral terms.

According to the Pew report, released earlier this month, most Americans are pessimistic about the economy and believe the government should cut spending, but at the same time want it to spend more on education, health care, and veterans' benefits. White evangelicals are concerned about the deficit, too, but the way they want to deal with it is with spending cuts that are somewhat less merciful.

A break-out of their priorities provided to the magazine Christianity Today by Pew shows that, more than other Americans, evangelicals are prepared to cut deeply and forcefully when chopping the deficit. They want the government to slash aid to the world's poor and benefits to the unemployed. They'd cut spending on environmental issues and health care, as well as on science, college financial aid, and support for the domestic poor. They are less likely than other Americans to want the government to increase spending on public education, or—surprisingly, given their support for the nation's wars—aid to veterans. And evangelicals' social justice priorities, on display during the last election season, have faded in an era of hard times.

But the tenets of Christianity pull some of these same evangelicals in the other direction. Earlier this month, when Republicans announced their domestic budget cuts, which focused on things like education and the environment, the left-leaning evangelical Jim Wallis fought back in a blog post using Biblical arguments. "I believe," he wrote, "that the moral test of any society is how it treats its poorest and most vulnerable citizens. And that is exactly what the Bible says, over and over again."

"We are taking from our sons and our grandsons and are wasting it on our own immediate wants. We have lost the biblical concept of self-discipline."

As on so many culture war battlefields, the political debate is being waged in theological language. On conservative Christian blogs and on right-wing Christian radio, preachers and pundits reinforce the Biblical sinfulness of debt. A publicist from Coral Ridge Ministries, the conservative megachurch in Coral Gables, Florida, quotes his church's founder, D. James Kennedy, in a recent blog post.  "The bible says that inheritences should go from the fathers unto the sons, but we have reversed that concept. We are taking from our sons and our grandsons and are wasting it on our own immediate wants. We have lost the biblical concept of self-discipline."

There is no Biblical reason that a government shouldn't run a deficit from time to time, counters P.J. Hill, an economist at Wheaton College, a Christian school. Governments run deficits and surpluses and God has nothing to say about it, he adds. But how much one generation shifts its financial obligations to another is a moral issue–and about that he is very concerned. "As the debt becomes bigger and bigger, it becomes of more pressing concern, and that I can see becoming a social issue." Hill doesn't believe evangelicals' priorities have changed–they're still concerned about abortion and the breakdown of the American family, and they still give more to the poor through private charity than most other groups. He thinks the shift relates, appropriately, to a shift in the national conversation. "Evangelicals, like all Americans, are very concered about the debt."

This fusing of economics with Christian morality may help answer another question now preoccupying pollsters in advance of the 2012 elections: What is the relationship between the old-guard Religious Right and the Tea Party? Until now, social conservatives (the Religious Right) have been regarded as a voting bloc separate from fiscal conservatives (establishment Republicans.) But as debt becomes a question for moralists and philosophers, these two groups increasingly converge. The Tea Party sits squarely in the intersection, articulating its disapproval of debt and it support for business in moral, if not expliclty theological terms.

According to anther recent poll by Pew, this one conducted by the Forum on Religion and Public Life,  members of the Tea Party believe more than other Republicans that government is almost always wasteful (87 percent, compared to 79 percent), and they believe that corporations "make a fair and reasonable profit." Pew also polled on the traditional socal issues, finding that Tea Partiers are slightly more conservative on abortion than other Republicans, and slightly more generous on same-sex marriage. But these last two measures are red herrings. The Tea Party is a pro-business, small-government movement, and its framers have successfully articulated these priorities in moral terms. What God wants America to do about the debt will be the great social issue of the next election.

Lisa Miller is a writer at Newsweek and winner of many journalism prizes including the 2010 Wilbur Award for Outstanding Magazine Column. She is the author of Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife , to be published in paperback this spring. Find Lisa Miller on Facebook.