What Would Jesus Do About the Budget?

U.S. President Barack Obama, second right, meets with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, left, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, second left, House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, center, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, right, after a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, July 11, 2011. (Alex Wong - VIA BLOOMBERG)

Congressman Charlie Rangel is right to invite religious leaders’ voices into the national debate about how to handle the debt and deficit challenges we face. He could not be more wrong however, when he presumes to know what their contribution ought to be.

When Mr. Rangel asks, “What would Jesus do?” or considers what Moses, Muhammad, or the Buddha would say regarding our fiscal woes, he makes a colossal and all-too-typical mistake by assuming that they would certainly agree with him. I am all for people of faith asking how their faith can guide their thinking about all matters -- that is the role, or at least a role, of deeply held and well-integrated convictions.

The problems occur when the answers we get from exploring our chosen faiths always confirm that which we already believe. When that happens, we should realize that we aren’t looking for guidance from our faith traditions, but simply shopping for divine approval for what we have already decided to do. That, by almost any definition is not a good use of faith.

Rangel is right; how a nation spends its money is a moral issue. But like most moral issues, there is a big difference between easy moralizing which offers one-sided answers to complicated questions, and teaching traditions which always seek to make people more sensitive to others, regardless of where they stand on issues. That sensitivity can translate into any number of policy decisions, and presuming otherwise reduces eternal traditions to momentary slogans. I hope that is not what Rangel intended and I know it is not something we should do.

I welcome Mr. Rangel’s reaching out to religious leaders, asking us to add our voices to the debt and deficit conversations. Religious wisdom has endured for thousands of years precisely because it has real contributions to make, and that is as true today as ever before. The greatest contributions however, will be as they’ve always been − to opening people’s hearts and minds to seeing a larger and more complex picture, one that puts people before any political ideology, not in determining policies.

Much would be gained from including religious teachings in the ongoing debt debate, but only if the inclusion was more than the kind of cherry-picking with which Mr. Rangel seems to want to engage. We would, for example, need to include the wisdom of loving one’s enemy from Christian tradition and the rabbinic approach of always presuming the best about others’ intentions and actions.

Neither of these teachings demands a wishy-washy approach. Their real contribution lies not in “proving” the best way to proceed in terms of budget cuts, but in making the national debate smarter and more civilized. While it is not the simplistic proof-texting Congressman Rangel wants, it offers a real contribution which people of faith could make as the national debt/deficit debate comes down to the wire.

By Brad Hirschfield  |  10:09 AM ET, 07/12/2011 .connect_widget .connect_widget_text .connect_widget_connected_text a {display:block;} #center {overflow:visible;} .share-icons-wrap {float:right;}

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