On Monday, March 28, we began a public fast, hoping and praying that lawmakers might change the way they think about the budget. Over just a few weeks over 36,000 people (both religious and secular) joined what began as a water-only fast by just a few leaders. 28 legislators also joined. Members of Congress formed a relay with one member fasting every day until Easter. And as fasts are apt to do, it changed the hearts and focus of the people who undertake it.
As we fasted, one of the things that has become clear is that the framework of the budget debate has been all wrong. The Republicans say we are broke and have to cut everything. The Democrats say “Wait, not so much!” The attacks go back and forth. Government shut-downs are threatened if one side or another doesn’t get their way. Many predict that this dramatic political play is set to continue for years to come.
But many are now saying that a budget is a moral document. We believe that any budget--for a family, church, city, state, or nation--reveals our values in our choices. What’s important and what’s not; who is important and who is not? In the end, a budget discussion at the kitchen table or in the halls of Congress is all about choices. And these are choices that expose our deepest held values. In the end, the debate isn’t about how much is cut from which line items, it is about what we value as a country and what we believe we can accomplish together.
We have been asking our lawmakers to remember that. We tried phone calls, emails and meetings. None of that message got through. That’s when we decided to plead--with a fast. Usually fasts are private, for the sake of spiritual cleansing and personal devotion. But some fasts in the Bible were very public. The Jewish heroine Esther fasted and called the whole people to fast, in order to get the king to change his mind.
America faces tough choices about our long term fiscal health, and the crushing burden our national debt places on future generation are moral issues. But how you cut a budget or reduce a deficit is also a moral question. In the end, it’s all a matter of moral choices and priorities.
David Cameron, the conservative prime minister of the U.K., has implemented a broad “austerity” program, but has decided to protect all of Britain’s international development funding and says he won’t make cuts that kill. Instead, he has postponed a Trident submarine program.
In the budget battle in our country, we are coming together to form a “circle of protection” around the relatively low-cost but high impact programs that protect the lives of God’s poorest children. And we believe the American people do not favor further hurting the people who are already hurting, while protecting the interests of corporations and the wealthy.
The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Fiscal Commission set forth an important principle for deficit reduction. We can and should reduce future deficits, but not at the expense of the poor. The FY 2012 budget plan that just passed the House of Representatives turns that principle on its head. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis shows that two thirds of the projected cuts over the next ten years will come from programs that help lower-income Americans. At the same time, tax rates for corporations would be lowered and those making over $1 million in annual income would benefit from tax breaks of nearly $125,000 a year.
It’s time for our political leaders to draw a line in the sand, and establish a fundamental principle in this budget debate—that essential and proven programs to save the lives and ensure the future of the poorest and most vulnerable at home and abroad should be protected in our budget and deficit choices.
Growing numbers of people, of faith and conscience, have drawn our line in the sand. A fast that a few started is becoming spiritually viral. Lawmakers need to understand what a circle of protection means—that if you come after the poor, you will have to go through us first.