While elected officials in Washington have been debating over the debt ceiling, another robust conversation has been materializing at the intersection of faith, poverty and economic policy.

In July, an ecumenical coalition of Christian leaders met with President Obama to present a statement—the “Circle of Protection“—casting welfare programs as a moral imperative. Claiming a commitment to the values outlined in Matthew 25 (“…whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”), groups like Sojourners, led by God’s Politics author Jim Wallis, insist that “funding focused on reducing poverty should not be cut.” This initiative reflects a larger movement among young Christians toward a view of wealth redistribution as “social justice.”

While the moral appeal for welfare is nothing new, the boldness of couching it as an explicit commandment of Christ adds a new log to the fire. After a bloody culture war in which the church fought at the front lines, many young evangelicals resented the pigeonholing of Christians as a right-wing voting block. Those sentiments were intensified as Republicans in the Bush era were characterized as ignorant and bigoted. The current fiscal debate has provided an opportunity to set up camp alongside the progressive wing in a way that emphasizes compassion. Unfortunately, while they are right in suggesting that “budgets are moral documents,” they confuse individual responsibility with collective coercion.

In response to this shift, and recognizing the lack of sound economic principle in the church, a countermovement has emerged declaring the virtue of free enterprise and the danger of bloated government. Throughout the Twittosphere, Christian capitalists have been critiquing the agenda of the Circle of Protection, making the case that government programs frequently exacerbate and prolong poverty, and that Christ calls us to serve one another as voluntary individuals, not through a bureaucratically adulterated political game. Furthermore, they argue, a burdensome regulatory and tax system slows economic growth and makes it more difficult for individuals at every income level to pursue a fruitful life.

“Christ calls us to serve one another as voluntary individuals, not through a bureaucratically adulterated political game.”

A full-page ad by the American Enterprise Institute’s Values & Capitalism project appeared in Politico, in opposition to a previous ad by Wallis. In turn, Sojourners’ communications director Tim King attempted to clarify the Circle’s position, albeit ineffectively. King writes that the Circle does not seek a “blanket exception for all poverty programs under any and all cuts,” yet everything in the statement communicates otherwise—including the aforementioned quote that such programs “should not be cut.” If what King says is true, the authors of the Circle’s statement were merely sloppy and irresponsible in their prose.

Adding depth to the conversation, the Values & Capitalism project, represented by Eric Teetsel, is helping to build a new coalition—Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE)—to provide a counterweight to the Circle. Teetsel co-authored CASE’s Letter to the President, requesting their own meeting with Obama. The letter dismisses the idea that the Circle of Protection represents a majority view among Christians, and provides a freedom-oriented, values-based approach to fiscal responsibility. The letter, like the Circle, is signed by a wide array of respected Christian leaders. The letter was made available for the public to sign, and continues to add names. (You will find my moniker at #33. sign here)

This discussion is a very important one for the Church body, though there is a tendency to shy from such complex and controversial topics. Religion and politics are ostensibly forbidden from friendly discourse—especially in the same sentence. But there are some issues that cannot be passed over. Public policy must be rooted in ethical purpose, and if the church is silent, others will fill the gap. We must engage fully in a search for understanding about humanity and social institutions, and we must do so with grace and cordiality. We are first and foremost brothers and sisters in Christ, and secondly agents of His justice on Earth.

For those interested in exploring this debate, Remnant Culture has posted a convenient round-up of responses from various Christian writers on the “What Would Jesus Cut?” question.

It will take you 10 minutes, but watching these two videos just might change the way you look at poverty and prosperity among the nations of the world. No previous economic education is required—they’re both clear, simple, and well produced, but what they’re saying is massive.

During most of our history, America led the way in showing the world the value of political and economic freedom, combined with a strong work ethic. The end of the Cold War allowed more nations to begin catching up, but the U.S. began experiencing a leadership guilt complex. We’ve been trying to spend and regulate our way into a greener and more “equal” society, while sending billions of dollars in aid to third-world nations. Our diplomatic leadership has been helpful in bringing political stability to many nations, but as this next video will show, we’ve got to change the way we think about economic aid.

I’m very excited about the PovertyCure initiative. It’s refreshing to see a video about poverty that doesn’t treat the poor as though they are helpless creatures with no capacity for self-fulfillment. They recognize that economic development has to begin at a deeper, personal and grassroots level. People cannot be made prosperous. 

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that God wants “a child’s heart but a grown-up’s head.” Followers of Christ are charged, by the ethos of our calling, with a high standard of practical reason, fused with compassion. When we carry our faith to the political sphere, we must do so with grounded understanding, not idealistic, emotive or superficial thinking. This means that the abdication of our duty to educate ourselves in the unsightly “secular” forces of politics and economics is morally unacceptable.

To the detriment of our own effectiveness, the Church has largely overlooked the relevance of these studies to the Christian mission. Through political philosophy, we examine the relationship of power and protection, and the proper extent of the state. There are important implications here for those who believe the individual has a right to free will. But it is the economic sphere that seems to have caused a phobia in religious discourse, even though the central concern of economics is, in fact, human needs and how they are met through voluntary service—an arrangement far preferable to political coercion.

While many people—including religious leaders—have spoken against capitalism for its ability to amplify greed and materialism, a number of Christian scholars and organizations are helping to reverse that view and to make the case that economic liberty is not only efficient, but morally superior to any other known system. Tragically, the intellectual overlap of theology, economics and politics is near absent in Christian higher education, leaving society in the dark as it seeks ethical answers to practical problems.

“…the intellectual overlap of theology, economics and politics is near absent in Christian higher education, leaving society in the dark as it seeks ethical answers to practical problems.”

I visited two organizations over the last two weeks that are trying to fill this gap and alter the national dialogue. The Acton Institute has been building a case for the “moral foundations of a free society” for twenty years. Their “Acton University” conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan has become an ecumenical Mecca for Judeo-Christian thinkers who affirm the value of ordered liberty. The American Enterprise Institute is also beginning a new initiative on values and capitalism. Their “Purpose & Prosperity” conference brings evangelical undergraduate students to this established DC think tank to engage with scholars on the critical issues of our day, and learn how to evaluate them through sound principles.

Both groups are proclaiming the same, as I call it, freedom gospel: our Creator values the person and his/her talents, and desires hearts of humility, responsibility, service and stewardship. From this basic premise, the individual is the central decision-maker, not the state, and the dignity of responsible human creativity and work ethic replaces government mechanisms for the distribution of wealth and opportunity. The latter method is spiritually void, and robs the soul of social value. Our faith also has meaningful implications on the roles of the family, Rule of Law and personal accountability in a healthy economic society.

“Our Creator values the person and his/her talents, and desires hearts of humility, responsibility, service and stewardship. From this basic premise, the individual is the central decision-maker…”

Christians should resist state-run solutions characterized by imposed charity and resentful class warfare, where the vulnerable are cast as victims, incapable of achievement and disconnected from their own choices. We should instead advocate a system that rewards service and selflessness, minimizes political controls and increases well-being at all levels of society.

To apply the old adage, the Church has largely embraced the idea that if a man is hungry, a bureaucrat ought to transfer to him a fish from someone else’s catch. It seems more consistent with Christian virtue, however, to teach him how to catch fish himself, then ensure that he can keep the rewards of his labor, not only so that he can eat, but so that he can feed his family and perhaps open his own fish market, providing employment to his neighbors and prospering his community.

I encourage those interested in public policy issues to familiarize themselves with the Acton Institute (www.acton.org) and the American Enterprise Institute (www.aei.org). Surely other groups are doing similar things, but my personal experience working with these great organizations allows me to lend personal endorsement, which I am very eager to do.