When it came to poverty and the federal budget, 2011 was the Year of Simplistic Sentiments.
Many religious leaders sought to influence the national discussion about budget cuts and how they would affect poor Americans. Some made a helpful contribution, but the overall debate left much to be desired. Instead of discerning dialogue, we often got moralistic maxims promoting a failed welfare state.
Two of the most popular adages were "budgets are moral documents" and "don't balance the budget on the backs of the poor." In February, along with the slogan "What would Jesus cut?," the liberal group Sojourners used these maxims in a full-page ad in Politico.
It's true that budgets are moral documents, and that Americans should make policy decisions with the well-being of the poor in mind. But it is too simplistic to presume a direct, necessary connection between general moral principles and detailed public policies.
Yet this is precisely how groups such as the one urging a "Circle of Protection" proceeded. This ecumenical coalition of religious leaders issued a signed statement in April decrying budget cuts to government anti-poverty programs.
In May, a group of Catholic academics advocated the Circle of Protection in a letter of protest to House Speaker John Boehner shortly before the Ohio Republican made a commencement address at Catholic University. And in July, Circle representatives met with President Obama in the White House just prior to his budget meetings with members of Congress.
On each occasion, the message was the same. The premise that God cares for the poor leads directly and necessarily to this blunt conclusion: "Funding focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. It should be made as effective as possible, but not cut."
Reducing poverty is a noble goal, but the move from moral principle to policy proposal simply isn't that simple. Affirming that budgets are moral documents doesn't mean government welfare programs are sacrosanct. And the fact that the federal budget shouldn't be balanced on the backs of the poor doesn't require making entire sections of it untouchable.
Sadly, neither the ad in Politico nor the letter to Speaker Boehner nor the Circle of Protection document itself called for sensible reforms such as capping spending or slowing the growth of ineffective welfare programs, especially those that trap recipients in cycles of dependence.
Instead, faith leaders behind these efforts seemed to lump together all government programs. They failed to call upon public officials to exercise good stewardship of taxpayers' dollars resources by determining which programs are more and less effective.
Fortunately, other voices injected more nuance and discernment into the debate. In August, a new coalition of religious leaders called Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) affirmed in a letter to President Obama that the Bible "is unequivocal about compassion for 'the least of these,'" adding: "The government plays an important role in providing a social safety net."
But the letter from CASE also noted that some programs not only are ineffective but counterproductive, keeping Americans in poverty longer rather than helping them climb out.
Also in August, the Values and Capitalism project, run by the American Enterprise Institute, placed its own full-page ad in Politico. It affirmed that serving the poor is a primary task for Christians, but also focused on the need for entitlement reform. Stating that automatic spending increases will hinder economic growth and bankrupt key entitlement programs, Values and Capitalism pointed out that "those most harmed" in such a scenario "will inevitably be the poor."
A more thorough ethical evaluation of the federal budget took place in an exchange of letters between Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In his April letter to Dolan, Ryan described how his proposed 2012 budget -- called "The Path to Prosperity" -- accounted for various concerns of the Catholic Church's social teaching regarding the poor.
In his response, Dolan neither endorsed nor critiqued the policy details. But the archbishop thanked Ryan for attending to important values and acknowledged that "one must always exercise prudential judgment in applying these principles."
For 2012, let's resolve to move the debate about poverty and the federal budget beyond moralistic maxims and simplistic sound bytes. Good intentions and resolutions aren't enough.
May the New Year witness many more religious leaders who provide principled wisdom and discernment, shining examples of how all Americans should engage thoughtfully in the public square.
First appeared in RealClearReligion