The biblical prophets frequently spoke to rulers and kings. They spoke to "the nations," and it is the powerful that are most often the target audience. Those in charge of things are the ones called to greatest accountability. And the prophets usually spoke for the dispossessed, widows, and orphans, the hungry, the homeless, the helpless, the least, last, and lost. They spoke to a nation's priorities.
Budgets are moral documents that reflect the values and priorities of a family, church, organization, city, state, or nation. They tell us what is most important and valued to those making the budget. President Bush says that his 2006 budget "is a budget that sets priorities."
Examining those priorities -- who will benefit and who will suffer in Bush's budget -- is a moral and religious concern. Just as we have "environmental impact studies" for public policies, it is time for a "poverty impact statement," which would ask the fundamental question of how policy proposals affect low-income people. We could start with this budget and do a "values audit" to determine how its values square with those of the American people. I believe this would reveal unacceptable priorities.
The cost of the deficit is increasingly borne by the poor. The budget projects a record $427 billion deficit and promises to make tax cuts benefiting the wealthiest permanent. Religious communities have spoken clearly in the past about the perils of a domestic policy based primarily on tax cuts for the rich, program cuts for low-income people, and an expectation of faith-based charity. We must speak clearly now about a budget lacking moral vision. A budget that scapegoats the poor and fattens the rich, that asks for sacrifice from those who can least afford it, is a moral outrage.
Low-income people should not be punished for the government decisions that placed us in financial straits. Rather than moving toward a "living family income," the budget stifles opportunities for low-income families, which are vital for national economic security.
Our future is in serious jeopardy if one in three proposed program cuts are to education initiatives (after a highly touted "No Child Left Behind" effort), if there will be less flexibility to include working-poor families with children on Medicaid, and if reductions in community and rural development, job training, food stamps, and housing are accepted as solutions for reducing the deficit.
Cutting pro-work and pro-family supports for the less fortunate jeopardizes the common good. (And this is being done while defense spending rises again to $419 billion -- not including any additional spending for war in Iraq.)
These budget priorities would cause the prophets to rise up in righteous indignation, as should we. Our nation deserves better vision. Morally inspired voices must provide vision for the people when none comes from its leaders. We must believe that such vision can change the hearts of those needing new grounding and direction.
The Bible talks often of the need to repent -- to turn and go in another direction. If we do not now "Write the vision; make it plain upon tablets" (Habakkuk 2:2), others cannot follow. If we do, we act to secure the future of the common good.
The Rev. Jim Wallis, who visited Memphis this week and was a speaker in the Lenten Series of Calvary Episcopal Church, is author of the bestseller God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. His essays appear regularly on the Sojourners Web site, Sojo.net.