Religious Leaders: End the Shutdown

ImageIs the government shutdown pro-life? Is it even ethical? Many leaders with religious constituencies say no on both scores. One example: More than a hundred Catholic, mainline Protestant, and evangelical leaders signed a statement of protest, which is now filtering its way through the internet. See the full story here. Two especially salient paragraphs:

We especially challenge those Members of Congress who call themselves pro-life to cease their political posturing on Capitol Hill. Shutting down the government in a futile effort to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act will hurt low-income pregnant women and infants who receive vital nutrition support. The Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) will receive no additional funds during the shutdown.

There is nothing “pro-life” or Christian about taking food away from pregnant women and babies. It is hypocritical and shameful for those who tout their commitment to family values to show such callous indifference.

What’s more, a coalition of religious leaders are holding daily “Faithful Filibusters” on Capitol Hill, presenting biblical passages on the poor as they do so. See the fuller story here and here. Note that National Association of Evangelicals Vice President Galen Carey loaned his voice (“We all are here because we agree that protecting the poor has to be one of our highest national priorities”). Note how the closure of national parks has ruined wedding plans. More important, note how the National Transportation Safety Board could not investigate a church bus accident.

Then there are the three predictables and an enigma.

The first predictable: Sojourners President Jim Wallis contends that the shutdown is unbiblical. His main point:

The biblical purpose of government is to protect from evil and to promote the good — protect and promote. Government is meant to protect its people’s safety, security, and peace, and promote the common good of a society — and even collect taxes for those purposes. Read Romans 13 by the apostle Paul and other similar texts. The Scriptures also make it clear that governmental authority is responsible for fairness and justice and particularly responsible to protect the poor and vulnerable. Read Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, the Psalms, and even the book of Kings to see that God will judge kings and rulers (governments) for how they treat the poor. And it wasn’t just the kings of Israel who were held accountable for the poor, but also the kings of neighboring countries — all governments.

Go here for more.

The second predictable: The rebuttal from Rob Schwarzwalder, vice president of the Family Research Council. Find that here. Wallis’s argument may be flawed (we’re all familiar with faulty reasoning for good causes) but Schwarzwalder only critiques his interpretation of one Scriptural text.

The third predictable: Some on the political left lay blame for the shutdown on an “evangelical cabal.” Read all about it in The Nationhere. So much for in-depth understanding and fair-mindedness.

The enigma: The US Catholic bishops voiced concern a day before the shutdown began, writing this on September 30th (see full letter here):

We urge wise bipartisan leadership and moral clarity in crafting a plan to ensure the government continues to operate and meet its responsibility to protect human life and dignity, care for poor and vulnerable people at home and abroad, and advance the universal common good. Additionally, responsibly completing a budget deal according to our principles allows Congress to continue the essential task of immigration reform.

They offered “moral criteria” for budgetary decisions:

1. Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity.
2. A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects “the least of these” (Mt 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.
3. Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times.

Another salient paragraph:

A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons. It requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly. As Cardinal O’Malley and Archbishop Lori explain in their September 26 letter, access to health care may also be compromised by recent threats to conscience rights in health care.

The final sentence alluded to a previous letter, interpreted by some to endorse a shutdown. Are the bishops sending conflicting signals? Perhaps, but the wording of the September 30th letter seems unambiguous: ” … to ensure the government continues to operate …”

Meanwhile, Democrats for Life, a progressive whole-life organization, issued its call:

As individuals who support and endorse a whole life philosophy, we strongly urge the Republicans in the House – particularly those who share our commitment to the unborn – to end the budget showdown over the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and work toward a budget that protects the sanctity of life at all levels.

Democrats for Life of America applauds the implementation of the (ACA).  Under the ACA, people with debilitating diseases—once considered uninsurable due to pre-existing conditions—can now receive life-saving health coverage.  Pregnant women are receiving essential care. And those who could not afford insurance are now eligible for preventive care that once was out of reach.

At the same time, we must point out that the ongoing shutdown of the federal government deprives many pregnant women of the WIC vouchers that ensure they get enough milk, protein, vegetables, and fruit to ensure the health of their unborn children.  And cancer patients—many of whom are children—have been blocked from receiving time-sensitive and potentially life-saving care at National Institutes of Health facilities.

We deplore the ongoing shutdown of the federal government, which is the result of one chamber’s unilateral attempt to accomplish through the budget process a feat for which the Constitution prescribes only legislation passed by both houses and approved by the President: the repeal of a duly passed law.

It is irresponsible for members of Congress to put the health of mothers and children at risk in this way. It is unconscionable for pro-life members of Congress to do so.

Unanswered questions remain: How much longer will the US citizenry see the GOP as the more religion-friendly party? Perhaps it all hinges on the Democratic leadership, which is often tone-deaf to the desires of the most religious of the world’s industrialized nations. The Republicans are stumbling. Will the Democrats wake up to a potential constituency? Only time will tell.

Update from the New York Times (

Senate Democratic and Republican leaders on Wednesday reached final agreement on a deal to reopen the government and extend its borrowing authority into February, with final passage expected late Wednesday or predawn on Thursday.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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