Debt talks, the budget and the problem of ‘What would Jesus do?’

Alex Wong VIA BLOOMBERG U.S. President Barack Obama, second right, meets with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican from … Continued

Alex Wong


U.S. President Barack Obama, second right, meets with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, left, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, second left, House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, center, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, right, after a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, July 11, 2011.

Congressman Charlie Rangel is right to invite religious leaders’ voices into the national debate about how to handle the debt and deficit challenges we face. He could not be more wrong however, when he presumes to know what their contribution ought to be.

When Mr. Rangel asks, “What would Jesus do?” or considers what Moses, Muhammad, or the Buddha would say regarding our fiscal woes, he makes a colossal and all-too-typical mistake by assuming that they would certainly agree with him. I am all for people of faith asking how their faith can guide their thinking about all matters — that is the role, or at least a role, of deeply held and well-integrated convictions.

The problems occur when the answers we get from exploring our chosen faiths always confirm that which we already believe. When that happens, we should realize that we aren’t looking for guidance from our faith traditions, but simply shopping for divine approval for what we have already decided to do. That, by almost any definition is not a good use of faith.

Rangel is right; how a nation spends its money is a moral issue. But like most moral issues, there is a big difference between easy moralizing which offers one-sided answers to complicated questions, and teaching traditions which always seek to make people more sensitive to others, regardless of where they stand on issues. That sensitivity can translate into any number of policy decisions, and presuming otherwise reduces eternal traditions to momentary slogans. I hope that is not what Rangel intended and I know it is not something we should do.

I welcome Mr. Rangel’s reaching out to religious leaders, asking us to add our voices to the debt and deficit conversations. Religious wisdom has endured for thousands of years precisely because it has real contributions to make, and that is as true today as ever before. The greatest contributions however, will be as they’ve always been − to opening people’s hearts and minds to seeing a larger and more complex picture, one that puts people before any political ideology, not in determining policies.

Much would be gained from including religious teachings in the ongoing debt debate, but only if the inclusion was more than the kind of cherry-picking with which Mr. Rangel seems to want to engage. We would, for example, need to include the wisdom of loving one’s enemy from Christian tradition and the rabbinic approach of always presuming the best about others’ intentions and actions.

Neither of these teachings demands a wishy-washy approach. Their real contribution lies not in “proving” the best way to proceed in terms of budget cuts, but in making the national debate smarter and more civilized. While it is not the simplistic proof-texting Congressman Rangel wants, it offers a real contribution which people of faith could make as the national debt/deficit debate comes down to the wire.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • aaronweiner

    This would make me feel better if I didn’t think that someone paid the Republicans 30 pieces of silver to crash the nation.

  • cprferry

    He’d say it’s of little consequence to the Kingdom. Practically He’d warn against burdening the youth with the present’s overspending. However, He would focus on the point of that people should treat people with respect and dignity. Mindful that Democrats aren’t entirely power-hungry or Republicans uncaring, they have real reasons behind their philosophies that deserve to be considered. And that citizens are not captured constituencies that support politicians who bring pork or support programs. Also He’d remind us about that whole render unto Caesar, render onto God: meaning there’s an authority the state is endowed that must be respected, but that the state can not become god or override its limited authority to demand more than due or eliminate the parallel influence of conscience.

  • longjohns

    What is this nonsensical piece about? You said nothing other than claiming that Mr. Rangel is insincere. Seems to go against that rabbinical teaching of always presuming the best about others’ intentions and actions.

  • YEAL9

    Jesus was a bit “touched”. After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today’s world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J’s gospels being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today’s followers of Paul et al’s “magic-man” are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and “magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European, white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, insane, long-dead, preacher man would do ?

  • YEAL9

    And now that we have put Jesus in his proper place:

    Time for some ways to pay OUR bills and balance OUR federal budget:

    from :
    CNN- 2007

    ” The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and anti- terrorist efforts abroad could cost the country $2.4 trillion over the next ten years, according to a report Wednesday.
    The money, over 70 percent of which would go to support operations in Iraq, includes the estimated $600 billion spent since 2001, Congressional Budget Office Director Peter Orszag said in testimony before the House Budget Co-mmittee. That estimate includes projected interest, since the government is borrowing most of the funds required.

    The $2.4 trillion would pay to keep 75,000 troops dep-loyed overseas from 2013 to 2017. About 210,000 troops are currently deployed. It does not include the Pentagon’s normal spending, which in 2007 is estimated to be about $450 billion.”

    Obviously, we can no longer afford to fight Muslim terrorism abroad. So bring the troops home making it clear to countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that W-MD already in our ar-senal and paid for will be delivered upon their capitals and mosques if our country is ever attacked again by Muslims from anywhere.

    And the promulgation of the flaws and f-al-acies of Islam should be made the number one priority of Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security. With no Islam, there will no longer be any koranic/mosque-driven acts of terror.
    And do we still need troops in Germany? Ditto for Ja-pan? WWII was over 66 years ago.

    And then there are these other suggestions:
    Some incentives to live a healthy life style and also ways to pay for universal health care.

    1. An added two dollar health insurance tax (or higher) on a pack of cigarettes. Ditto taxes on alcoholic beverages, the higher the alcohol content, the higher the tax. Ditto for any product shown to be unhealthy (e.g. guns, high caloric/fatty foods??)

    2. Physicals akin to those required for life insurance- the overly ob-ese will pay signficantly more Med

  • brent1

    wwjd about the debt problem. first, he would have never gotten into debt to begin with. the bible says, you shall loan and shall not borrow. Jesus would not borrow millions of dollars for social programs administered by the government, rather He would have his church actually meet social needs through their giving, service and generosity. Jesus would not allow the government to tax their people more than 10% of their income (we are currently taxed around 30% income tax plus sales tax and other taxes). Jesus would probably break out the whip and clear the senate and the congress out because like the religious leaders of old our politicians have turned these places into a places of corruption and greed. what else would Jesus do? He would out the hypocrites and their hypocrisy, cut through red tape, put people on the spot, rebuke holier than thou attitudes, etc… In short, he would do all the right things and yet probably be hated by many on capital hill and around our country. That’s what Jesus would do according to what we know about him from the Bibles.

  • cduwel

    I dunno about Jesus – what would Elmer Fudd do?

  • cprferry

    The data is available at and other campaign data sites. You might not like what you find. Democrats are the ones taking in most of the big business donations. Last year while Obama was demonizing health care he was actually giving them special perks in the legislation and Democrats received more than Republicans from every health sector but doctors. And historically Wall Street and the banks have supported the Democrats too. They’re the party of crony capitalism. Protect a few big businesses, reward/punish industries and impose strict burdens upon small businesses.

  • hradvocate

    I’d suggest that the Book of Matthew, Chapters 6 and 7 would give some really good insights into what Jesus might have said or done. That section is sometimes called the “sermon on the mount” by people who call themselves Christians. The thing is, most of those people out thumping bibles and crying Jesus all the time seem to have never read the words of Jesus from that sermon. My biggest takeaway is that Jesus instructs us that our prayers must be secret, that we should not ask God for things — because he already knows what we need, and that we should take care of those in need.

    I would venture that 99% of those people who are out claiming to be the “Christian right” would absolutely hate the man Jesus Christ if Jesus were alive today. These people seem to be anti-Christians in some bizarro parallel world, worshiping some Jesus Christ-clone, but doing everything pretty much the opposite of how Jesus said they should behave.

  • nanonano1

    He would smite a whole lot of folks.

  • vinlander

    Jesus would raise taxes and keep social programs untouched. Render unto Caesar what is due Caesar, and as you did it for the least of them, you did it for me. After all, it is easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

  • cprferry

    The Christians you just slammed are the ones who do as Jesus instructed and actually donate their time and money to serving the poor and do not rely on some distant, uncaring government bureaucracy to do so.

  • JuliaMasi

    Faith has its place in the discussion on national debt if Congress is advising us to pray. We a miracle to turn this money mess around. But what Mr. Rangel is doing is much less effective than preaching to the choir. Unless he is attempting to sway the votes of specific right winged Christian Congressmen. When it comes to politics, bring your ethics to the table but leave keep your faith in your heart.

  • hradvocate

    There may be some help to the poor out of the acts I’ve seen by these pseudo-Christians, but much more of it seems to be about recognition and their own ability to “feel good” from those acts. It’s a lot like feeding the horse to feed the flies. Yep, the flies get a meal, but it’s not the main “show” …

    I just think everyone should acknowledge those of their acts that are the most out of alignment with their presumed prophet’s teachings and call them on it. Just saying “very Christian of you” would help, I think. It might help some of those “part-time” Christians put in more of their time on being Christ-like.

  • Gerry6

    Jesus would not have had anything to say about the budget crisis. He had a specific mission to carry out, and he did not let other matters distract him from it. His message was: “Repent and believe to Gospel; the kingdom of God is at hand!” That did not mean that the world was about to end. It meant that people everywhere have had a new possibility for hope that the death and conflict we must face in the present age is hardly worth comparing to the life available to us in the coming age.

  • natbrsta

    I know how tough it already is for rich Republicans to get through the eye of the needle, but I’m surprised they’re working gangbusters to make it impossible.

  • Secular1

    “you shall loan and shall not borrow.” don’t confuse that dumb book of delusions and tall tales, for Hamlet. BTW where do you get all that economic policy decisions that Jesus might undertake? How can you speculate about a moron’s economic policies who castigated foreign exchange traders for providing a valuable service to the delusional pilgrims. I beg to differ with you.

  • bruce18

    Great column. Thanks

  • cprferry

    brent1, brilliant!

  • persiflage

    Jesus would probably say, ‘ I voted for Obama and Eric Cantor and John Boehner are mealy mouthed little squirrels that are putting personal
    ambition and political ideology before the sanctity of the nation’s AAA credit rating’. Everyone needs to pay their bills on time.

    Their penance for this egregious behavior shall be saying a full rosary while kneeling on a broomstick. They will then make the stations of the cross while chanting, ‘Forgive me Father for I have sinned’ 1000 times.

    They will refrain from seeking re-election. They will do all of these things just as I’ve stipulated, or else……….there’s still plenty of room down below.

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