National Debt as a Biblical Issue: Did Selfishness Lead to Giant Deficit?

PHOTO Tony Campolo, professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University and founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, said he agrees with teachings from scripture that warn against indebtedness.PlayABCnews
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When President Obama announced that our national debt could reach $15 trillion in 2011, economists and politicians were not the only ones alarmed. Evangelicals across the country raised their voices, too, saying a staggering national debt violates the teachings of the Bible.

Billy McCormack, founding member of the Christian Coalition of America, said the most relevant biblical passage against debt is Nehemiah 5:3-5. Quoting partially from the passage, he said, Americans are "mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.

"We are subjecting our sons and daughters to slavery, because are fields and our vineyards belong to others," said McCormack, who helped Pat Robertson establish the Christian Coalition, one of the largest grass-roots conservative groups in the U.S., in 1989.

"China has a mortgage on the future of our children," said McCormack, who at 82 is still a pastor in Louisiana. "It's not right for a foreign land to own so much of what is ours. Because we were irresponsible, we have to pay the price."

The Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group started by the founder of Focus on the Family, has purportedly sent its member-base "action alerts" related to the debt.

McCormack does not blame either Republicans or Democrats for our growing national debt, but he points to an overall culture of selfishness and recklessness. He also said this culture is what led to the public pension crisis in states such as Wisconsin.

"It all ties together," said McCormack. "The lack of resources for pensions ties into the national debt itself. It is all a matter of irresponsibility. People have been kicking the can down the road to this moment. Now the can is gone. We can't kick it anymore."

Who Is Influencing Whom?

Tony Campolo, professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, said he agreed with teachings from Scriptures that warn against indebtedness, and that both unions, states and municipalities need to reanalyze their economic positions relative to other labor models.

"They should have the right for collective bargaining," said Campolo of unions and public servants. "But they should bargain in clear conscience. Are unions able to blackmail or pressure others for wages because they are providing necessary social services? I think that's a fair question to ask."

Campolo also said evangelicals should ask if conservative media personalities are exerting excessive influence over the national debt debate.

"The evangelical community is probably more influenced by the message of Glenn Beck than the teachings of Scriptures," said Campolo, also a founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education. "He's the one who raised the issue. It's amazing to me as I travel around the country how much they listen to him and the degree to which he has framed the issue."

Beck, a converted Mormon, has been a popular conservative political commentator on Fox News since January 2009. The New York Times magazine compared Beck's growing media brand with Oprah's.

"As Winfrey does, Beck talks a great deal about himself and subscribes to the pop-recovery ethic," wrote Mark Leibovich in the Times article.

Beck often cites American history when discussing current political issues, as he did in a website post this week called "The Revolutionary Debt Bomb -- And How the Founders Fixed It!"

"We're already hearing, as we did during the State of the Union address, that the worst of this is over," Beck shared in February 2010. "They'll start pointing to the GDP growth in the fourth quarter of around 5.7 percent as proof that they have fixed the problem. But they haven't. They haven't spent two-thirds of the stimulus money yet because they're saving it for election season this fall. The Democrats need it to look like our economic problems have been solved."

Beck could not be reached for comment.

"They weren't asking these questions while George Bush had been in office," said Campolo, who pointed out that Bill Clinton left a surplus of billions of dollars. "It's almost as if this is brand new."

Campolo agreed with McCormack that the national debt is not only an issue for Democrats, Republicans or evangelicals. But if evangelicals cite Scripture as a basis for cutting spending to decrease the debt, Campolo said, they should also examine what other parts of Hebrew Scripture they should obey, including forgiving the debts of others.

The Year of Jubilee

"In the 25th chapter of Leviticus, Scripture demands that every 50 years all debts are canceled," said Campolo, describing what is known as the Year of Jubilee. "If you want to use Old Testament to make your case and apply Scriptures, you have to apply them down the line."

Jim Wallis, founder and editor of the progressive evangelical magazine Sojourners, said he hopes Christians take an active stance politically on behalf of the poor. He said thousands of supporters have sent e-mails to Congress asking, "What Would Jesus Cut?" a reference to the popular question, "What Would Jesus do?"

"Excessive deficits are indeed a moral issue, but how we got into this deficit and how we now address it are also moral concerns," said Wallis. "Budgets are moral documents. They reveal where our priorities lie as a nation. To protect the rich instead of the poor in the name of deficit reduction is immoral."