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Religious voices have a place in the state’s budget cut discussions

Do we really want the church to get between the president and the Pentagon?

How about between the governor and the cash-starved cities?

The first instinct may be, let’s not. But then, prophets rarely make people comfortable.

For some Christian leaders, now is the time to get prophetic about the effects of budget cuts on those Jesus called us to protect: the poor, marginalized and hungry.

“A budget is a moral document,” read a recent ad in Politico. “Our budget should not be balanced on the backs of poor and vulnerable people. We ask our legislators to consider ‘What would Jesus cut?’”

At this point, Jesus might cut off his name from all future slogans. Be that as it may, the point was made by 28 religious leaders who signed the ad: child health and nutrition, education and humanitarian aid are gospel issues, not budget-trimming options.

It’s worth highlighting their concerns as Congress and President Obama tangle over how to reduce the budget deficit from dinosaur dimensions to mere elephant-size (that would be the Republican plan).

There are far too many zeroes in this year’s projected $1.6 trillion deficit — let alone Obama’s proposed $3.7 trillion budget — for me to comprehend. But cuts to education, home-heating aid and child nutrition programs — those pretty much anyone can understand.

That’s where faith leaders are stepping in to stand up for the “least of these” Jesus instructed his followers to care for, urging Obama and Congress not to start balancing their checkbook at the expense of the poor.

“It’s important for Christians and religious leaders to say in all these decisions, there also are moral and ethical and spiritual dimensions,” says the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America.

He was one of 28 leaders who signed the Politico ad launched by the Sojourners social-justice community. Others included evangelical activist Tony Campolo, National Baptist Convention of America President the Rev. Stephen J. Thurston, and the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches.

They say the deficit is a moral issue but so is the way it’s balanced. That comes straight from the Bible, which has about 2,000 references to issues of poverty, Granberg-Michaelson says.

Widely cited is Matthew 25:31, where Jesus judges people based on whether they helped the poor and hungry. The passage “should be troubling to all of us,” says Granberg-Michaelson, who retires in June from his West Michigan-based office.

So should talk of cutting preventive programs, such as Head Start, while not touching, for instance, aid to Israel or Social Security, he argues.

“We shouldn’t be forced into eliminating a lot of programs that are really proven to help social welfare, and cost relatively little compared to big-ticket items like military spending and entitlement programs,” he adds.

Other equally concerned Christians cite different expenditures, such as funding for Planned Parenthood and curbing greenhouse gases. If we admit one set of religious voices into budget discussions, all must be heard, right?

And do we want to let the religious right and left get into this fray? Shouldn’t they all just tend to their flocks and let the politicians handle the dirty work?

A lot of people say churches’ only proper purview is voluntary, charitable work. Of course, countless congregations do this marvelously well. For instance, United Methodist Church of the Dunes in Grand Haven recently received a President’s Volunteer Service Award for feeding and sheltering homeless families, among other good works.

But why should social activism stop at the church door and the volunteers’ hands? If Christ claims every square inch of life, as the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper asserted, why shouldn’t Jesus’ followers be as concerned with how the government spends money as with their neighbors who don’t have enough?

Yes, keep the line bright between church and state. But the religious voice has a place in the public conversation about societal priorities. When the prophet Amos called for justice to roll like a river, he probably wasn’t talking about food pantries.

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