"What would Jesus do?" That question has for years been a powerful slogan for conservative Christians who want to challenge Americans to conform to Gospel teachings. But now that some are applying the rallying cry to the nation's divisive budget battles, it is also exposing divisions among Christians as much as it is offering a united witness of faith -- or public policy.
Earlier this week a coalition of dozens of progressive Christian leaders led by Jim Wallis of Sojourners launched a campaign, "What would Jesus cut?" with a full-page ad
in Monday's edition of Politico, and the group is following it up by sending e-mails and orange wristlets
with the slogan to all members of Congress in an effort to prevent cuts for the poor and reduce defense spending.
Then on Thursday, a group of prominent evangelicals with a more conservative cast (though some signed onto both initiatives) launched a "A Christian Proposal for American Debt Crisis"
that focuses on the deficit as a moral issue -- much as House Speaker John Boehner
did this week -- but which also opposes the Republican-led effort to address the debt by slashing discretionary spending.
"Effective programs that prevent hunger and suffering and empower poorer members of society must continue and be adequately funded," the latest petition says.
Yet even as these Christian leaders, many of them card-carrying conservatives, push to spare the poor while reducing the deficit, they face serious internal tensions and fractures on two fronts: among themselves, on the one hand, and between these leaders and the folks in the pews, on the other.
Among the leadership, one clear difference of opinion is over what ought to be cut. Some would spare foreign aid to the poor and sacrifice more on the domestic side, while others disagree about whether defense spending should be significantly reduced. And the minefield of entitlement reform is treaded on ever so lightly, much as it is on both sides of the aisle in Washington.
At the same time, these faith-based campaigns focus almost exclusively on the issue of cutting spending and largely avoid the dreaded "t-word" -- taxes -- which has the potential to splinter any coalition.
For example, the "Christian Proposal for American Debt Crisis" launched on Thursday has only a broadly worded phrase near the end that says Congress "should remove many special exemptions, end many special subsidies, and keep the tax code progressive."
"Our general statement says we keep the tax code progressive. It doesn't say exactly how we do that," Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, a chief organizer of the petition, said on a Thursday conference call with other signatories that was organized by the liberal-leaning group, Faith in Public Life
Sider said he would personally support a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans but acknowledged that not all of his colleagues agree with him.
Indeed, only one of the other five evangelicals on the call, Michael Gerson, former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush, who is now a fellow at the ONE Campaign
and a columnist for the Washington Post, responded to a question about tax hikes, and he cautioned against the idea because he said it would undermine economic growth.
Yet even modest language on protecting anti-poverty programs, for example, which are a relatively miniscule part of the federal budget, were seen as tantamount to "heresy" by Peter Wehner, writing at Commentary
, about the "What Would Jesus Cut?" campaign.
Wehner's critique points directly to the other fault line facing Christian leaders advocating for the poor, namely the veritable gulf between even the more conservative activists like Michael Gerson and the believers in the pews.
As a recent Pew survey
showed, evangelical Christians in particular are significantly more likely than other Americans to favor spending cuts on aid to poor people in the United States and overseas, and cuts on spending on behalf of the unemployed, environmental protection, scientific research, health care and education.
"I would say that we need an ongoing biblical dialogue with my brother and sister evangelicals," is how Ron Sider diplomatically phrased his reaction to the survey.
Shane Claiborne of The Simple Way, another speaker at Thursday's press conference, was more direct:
"I think that much of evangelical Christianity has lost the centeredness of Jesus and Jesus' heart for the poor and Jesus' Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount," he said. "We're starting with Christians because in some ways we've forgotten the 2,000 [Bible] verses that dare us and challenge us to remember the poor."
Claiborne called defense spending the "elephant in the room" that no one wanted to talk about, a reflection of the fact that the Pew survey showed that the only sectors of the federal budget on which evangelicals wanted to increase spending more than the rest of the public was defense and fighting crime.
Likewise, Gideon Strauss, president of Center for Public Justice
, seemed to reject the philosophy of the tea party movement -- which surveys show
is disproportionately composed of conservative white evangelicals -- when he declared Thursday that "those who disdain government and the political process dishonor God and their own humanity."
That's a powerful bit of preaching, but it's hard to see how it can affect a conversion on a flock that is in no mood to hear about shared sacrifices. Even more daunting is the task of translating such lofty principles into policy proposals that could unite Christian leaders themselves while having any chance of achieving their shared goals of protecting social programs while reducing the deficit and not raising taxes.
In the end, the Devil is always in the details, whether it's a question of the federal budget or what Jesus really meant.