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Plumbline Author: Michelle Kirtley
Date: August 8, 2011
Topic: Faith, Drama, & the Debt Ceiling

In the final days of the negotiations to raise our nation’s debt ceiling, the political drama was intense.  Politics is, after all, theater, and the political brinksmanship on display in Washington last week had many Americans on the edge of their seats.  Faith did not play a lead role in this fight over spending cuts and deficits, but religion did make an appearance. 

On Tuesday, July 26, The Washington Post headline “What Would Jesus Cut?” was prominently displayed underneath the lead articles describing the ongoing debt ceiling negotiations.  This article described the efforts of the Circle of Protection, a broad coalition of churches and faith-based non-profit organizations who are lobbying to prevent spending cuts from disproportionately affecting the poor and vulnerable.  On Sunday, July 31, The Post featured Senate chaplain Barry Black and his fervent, public prayers on the Senate floor throughout the negotiations, asking the Lord to impart wisdom and a sense of the serious nature of their calling to the politicians involved in the negotiations.  Both of these articles presented the role of Christian faith in this very public financial crisis in a relatively positive light. 

Contrast this with the theatrics of the members of the South Carolina delegation to the House of Representatives.  As House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) attempted to cobble together enough Republican votes to pass his plan, three members of the South Carolina delegation headed to the chapel to pray—by some accounts “for their leaders” and by other accounts for wisdom in their decision.  When asked by a reporter—before entering the chapel to pray—if he was seeking divine inspiration, Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC), the liaison between the Republican freshman class and leadership quipped, “divine inspiration already happened. I was a ‘lean no.’ Now I’m a ‘no'.”

Although Congressman Scott may not have intended to claim that God was against the Speaker’s bill, some will undoubtedly interpret his comments that way.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with politicians praying in times of political crisis (I pray that they do!).  Nor is anything wrong with leaders acknowledging their dependence on the Lord for wisdom and guidance (if only more would do so!).  But politicians and citizens err when they claim such confidence in knowing the will of God in the many issues of public life which Scripture does not directly address. Godly men and women of all political leanings can and do disagree.  President Abraham Lincoln wrestled with this issue throughout the civil war, noting in his Second Inaugural Address:

Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained….Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

At the same time, humility in discerning the will of God should not lead us to disengage from political life or seek to separate our faith from our political decisions.  Those men and women of faith who are called to lead our country in elected office must allow the whole counsel of God to speak to every area of their lives and every vote they cast. 

As Christians, we must also pay careful attention to the manner and tone of our political engagement.  In some of the same articles that describe the retreat of the South Carolina Republicans to the chapel for prayer, several Republicans—many of whom voted against Boehner’s bill in the end—praised his soft-handed tactics.  The Associated Press reported:

Most on the hot seat said the final hours before the vote were less than comfortable. None interviewed, however, said GOP leaders were anything but polite. None reported being threatened or strong-armed. Some reported receiving extraordinarily kind treatment.

House Speaker John Boehner did not reference his faith in his public comments about the debt ceiling negotiations or in his speech on the House floor.  But God’s grace is on display every time civility is chosen over belligerence.   

The political wrangling over our national debt has only begun.  Significant progress will require painful negotiations over tax reform and the future of Medicare and Medicaid—the major drivers of our national debt.  In the midst of such heated political debate, may we be marked not by our theatrics but by conviction and humility in word and deed.

—Michelle Crotwell Kirtley is the Editor of Capital Commentary, a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice, and a former health and science policy advisor on Capitol Hill.

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