Debt, deficits, and American morals

Behind the impasse in Washington over debt and deficits lies a moral, even religious, problem. How should a Christian respond to the economic debate?

Adams National Historic Park/AP/File
This is an Adams National Historic Park handout photo of a painting showing President John Adams. He once wrote that the Constitution was 'made for a moral and religious people.' The current impasse in Washington over debt and deficits stems from flawed moral thinking.

John Adams once wrote: "Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that if one is to be dogmatic, he should be so in religion rather than politics, because compromise is essential in a democracy. And the great theologian C.S. Lewis said sick society would focus on politics as a sick man focuses on his digestion.

After a momentous two weeks in which the United States has tottered near default, brokered a weak compromise, seen the stock market seesaw wildly, and had a credit rating agency downgrade US debt for the first time in seven decades, things certainly look unhealthy. It's easy to point fingers: Take your pick. Most Americans trust Washington as much as Wall Street, which ranks just above used car dealers. But before we blame others, consider what those three great moral thinkers are saying.

Would they suggest in today's turmoil that we look to our own moral character – take the log from our own eyes, as Christ Jesus put it – before demonizing others?

I have a degree in political science, have spent three decades on Wall Street, and have written five books on the morality of political economy. So I am fascinated by the connections among the private, public, and independent sectors of our economy. Despite the cynicism toward Washington, I believe our true problem reflects the flawed thinking that has created the impasse between those who believe that government is the answer and those who have faith that "capitalism will save us," as Steve Forbes has written. Strange as it may seem, the heart of this economics debate is moral, even religious, particularly among cultural elites.

Each year, UCLA conducts a study of incoming freshmen to our universities. Before the late 1960s, when the influence of religion was stronger, most said they were attending college to master a meaningful way of life. Relatively few, the business students perhaps, said they were coming primarily to learn how to make money. The lines representing those percentages crossed during the early 1970s.

Today's baby boomer elites, regardless of profession, seem preoccupied with obtaining wealth. They read magazines like Money and Self, something inconceivable to their grandparents, who read newspapers with religion sections larger than today's business sections. This cultural shift in values is part of what sociologists term post-modernism. Broadly, the term means we no longer believe in a single Truth.

The Judeo-Christian ethic that virtue and altruism are to be valued more highly than material accumulation has largely been replaced by the post-modern belief that there are many truths. A Christian's idea of moderation in all things coexists with the $10-million-a-year athlete and the CEO's mantra that he should be paid what the market will bear.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, "there is only one ethics, one set of rules of morality, one code, that of individual behavior in which the same rules apply to everyone alike," writes management consultant Peter Drucker, who once taught theology. "And this fundamental axiom business denies.... Business ethics assumes that for some reason the ordinary rules of ethics do not apply to business."

Similarly, the Judeo-Christian ethic mandates the personal care of neighbors, which is in tension with the view of those elites who believe it's government's responsibility.

These multiple truths complicate politics. When held dogmatically, they make it nearly impossible to find common ground, which Tocqueville said is crucial to civility and prosperity in a democracy. As a result, politicians in a post-modern world spend a lot of time talking past each other.

What’s different today is the rise of the tea party on the far right end of the spectrum. Libertarians want radically limited government. One extreme strand of this ideology, in particular, has been gaining influence: the notion that no one needs to care for the poor – and that government definitely shouldn't. This reflects the moral philosophy of Ayn Rand, a dogmatic atheist who thought CEO-types would save us.

As a conservative at heart, I've supported Republican causes much of my life. But Ms. Rand was no conservative. In her words, she was a “radical for capitalism.” After three decades on Wall Street, where this pernicious brand of corporate elitism ran amok before the Great Recession, I've grown increasingly worried for the health of our republic. I now believe her philosophy has been a major factor in America's tax policies, excessive CEO compensation, and increasing concentration of wealth among the affluent.

Very few Americans today know who Rand was, much less the sway her ideas now hold over today's tea party, and by extension the Republican Party, and by further extension, our economy. Rand's tome "Atlas Shrugged" has been cited by the Library of Congress as the second most influential book in America, just after the Bible. The Economist magazine has said her individualism and antigovernment philosophy shaped Reaganomics, primarily through former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, who literally sat at Rand's feet for years.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, who has headed the GOP effort to cut entitlement spending, requires his staff to read "Atlas Shrugged." Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is a fan of Rand's thinking. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have preached her gospel on right-wing radio and television. Even many leaders of the religious right (Chuck Colson excepted) have tried to integrate her thought with that of Christ, as diametrically opposed as they are.

The irony is that Rand wanted to be remembered as "the greatest enemy of religion ever," which may be why local tea party groups have disbanded rather than support the goals of socially conservative Christians. Her ideas may have shaped Reaganomics, but she fought the Reagan candidacy because she rejected his Calvinistic vision of America being a "city on a hill." She also rejected Nobel laureate economist F.A. Hayek, a champion of libertarians, because he argued that government might help stimulate an economy during a depression.

So today's impasse between the welfare-statists (who think our government should maintain full care for the boomers, even if it bankrupts the nation) and the tea party activists (who apparently think our needy and elderly should just get jobs) deepens as America sinks into European-style secularism.

In more religious times, the teachings of Christ Jesus helped unite most of us by providing a third way: each of us caring for our neighbors, particularly those in need, in a loving, voluntary manner. Yet should some decline that moral responsibility, as Rand did, Christ suggested the law of Moses would remain a moral necessity, since the poor will be always with us. That law required the affluent to round the corners of square fields and leave the second picking of grapes for the poor.

With the secularization of America, that moderate way -- rendering "to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" -- has nearly disappeared. True, Americans practice more charity than other nationalities. But studies by Empty Tomb, a Christian service and research group, and others indicate that most religious giving is simply tax-deductible contributions for the upkeep of our churches and other institutions. America's official foreign aid is among the very lowest as a percentage of income among the developed nations. So while the needy have a voice in the Democrats and the affluent have a voice in the Republicans, Christ’s middle way has disappeared as the middle class has shrunk.

My hope is that public frustration with both parties during the debt-limit debate will galvanize citizens to consider a third way movement based on a spirituality that transcends political labels and speaks truth to all power, not simply to the other side of the aisle. That's what Tocqueville observed when Americans were happier and had more confidence, even faith, in the future.

I don’t pretend to know what God wants for America, and I don’t advocate a theocracy. But it might be time for us Christians to think about a return to an ethic where loving one's neighbors, even one's enemies, is the norm.

Gary Moore is the author of five books on the morality of political-economy and the founder of The Financial Seminary, a Sarasota, Fla., ministry aiming to reintegrate moral thought into economics and finance.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.