There is hardly a more controversial political battle in America today than the role of government.
The ideological sides have lined up, and the arguments rage about the size of government: How big, how small should it be?
But I suggest what size the government should be is the wrong question.
A more useful discussion would be about the purpose of government. As a pastor rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, I naturally turn to Scripture for guidance. My tradition teaches that the role of government is to protect people from those who would do them harm and to work for the common good of the community.
The words of the Biblical prophets hold accountable kings, rulers and judges when they act in a manner not in keeping with the common good. The prophet Jeremiah complimented King Josiah when he said, “He defended the cause of the poor and the needy, and so all went well.” Jesus said in Matthew 25, “Whatever you do unto these the least of my sisters and brothers, you do unto me … when you visit a brother in prison, you visit me, when you give a sister food, you feed me.” So complete is his identification with the poor and voiceless that there is no distinction between him and those in need.
Believing this to be true and placing these values into the context of this election season, it is appropriate to ask: What does it mean to advocate for the common good? Given the lingering effects of a historic recession and a growing national debt, how might our moral values guide us? What do we cut and what do we save?
The most recent statistics on poverty in our country highlight the lingering effect of the recession. Forty-six million people, or 15 percent, live in poverty, the highest percentage in nearly 50 years. In 2011 here in Yamhill County, 13 percent of us lived below the poverty line, including 20.8 percent of our children. Almost 16,000 of us rely on food stamps to make ends meet each month. Yet some politicians are proposing that the fragile safety net be cut further, to cut the national debt and build up the military.
But before we do so, let’s look at the good our current safety net provides. Without government providing support, things would be worse. In 2011, Social Security programs kept 21.4 million people out of poverty, including 14.5 million seniors. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/food stamps) aided 3.9 million, the Earned Income Tax Credit helped 5.7 million, and unemployment insurance assisted another 2.3 million people.
Yet, in this political season, there are those who propose gutting many of the proven and effective tax credits and programs for those at or near the poverty level. One proposal would cut food stamp assistance by $134 billion.
At the same time, many who are advocating for the most dramatic cuts to the social safety net are proponents for increasing the defense budget, even beyond what the Pentagon is asking. To put the defense budget in context, 24 percent of the total national budget is defense related. Since 2000, the defense budget has risen 86 percent, not counting the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While a case can be made for a strong military, what does it say about us as a nation when we cut our social safety net and continue to dramatically increase funding for the military? Both locally and nationally, the budget we put in place is a moral document. What we keep in the budget and what we cut has profound implications.
During this season of presidential debates and local elections, I encourage my fellow citizens to look to the specifics of what a candidate will or won’t do. Let’s not accept candidates from either party who speak in vague generalities. Let’s demand specifics and then each follow our conscience, and vote for the candidates who best reflect that which we value most.
*Note: This article appeared as a guest commentary in the News Register, McMinnville October 20, 2012