Stewardship, compassion, and justice have been mentioned frequently in recent Christian commentary on our national fiscal crisis, and rightly so. Budgets are indeed moral documents; for example, it is wrong to pass down $200,000 in public debt to each child born today.

These principles of stewardship, compassion, and justice have been well-established in serious conversation about the budget crisis for some time. That kind of dialogue has been taking place for years through the efforts of The Heritage Foundation and partnerships like the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour. The tour has included more than 40 public forums around the country for about five years, including Heritage experts Stuart Butler and Alison Fraser, along with analysts from the Brookings Institution, through the bipartisan sponsorship of the Concord Coalition.

These expert voices from across the political spectrum have helped explain the reality of unsustainable U.S. deficit levels caused by entitlement spending so that more Americans can discern the values at stake in this massive problem and work together toward tackling it.

Now some on the left are appealing explicitly to biblical argument in the budget debate. Calling on biblical principles is a welcome development, since they can illuminate the values that should inform the conversation. But concluding that Christian concepts like justice, compassion, and stewardship call for preservation of the welfare state status quo is the wrong approach.

Instead, biblical principles should challenge the status quo to see how it measures up on some basic Christian assumptions, including an understanding of:

  • The nature and purpose of human beings;
  • What true human flourishing is, and conversely, the real nature of poverty;
  • How various institutions are ordained by God to play different roles in helping human beings to overcome poverty and to flourish in community.

How should a biblical understanding of these ideas shape an approach to the budget crisis? It means starting the conversation on government spending by focusing first on the character of spending, before the quantity of spending.

This means asking of each taxpayer-funded program: Is it a program or activity that government is designed to provide? What is the objective? Is it effective at accomplishing that objective? If the answers are satisfactory, then let’s decide how much to spend on that priority. If not, then we should be asking how to reform or eliminate it.

This line of reasoning was elaborated by Stuart Butler, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Policy Innovation, in a December lecture on how to protect the poor in the midst of the challenging fiscal decisions before us now. Failing to address the crisis will put the poor at risk first, he explains. We must address the crushing growth of entitlement spending, and that means getting our policy priorities straight.

“We cannot and should not provide defined social insurance benefits [like Medicare and Social Security] to people who don’t need them,” says Dr. Butler. Instead, our approach to entitlement reform should put “greater emphasis on true insurance against hard times and much less emphasis on providing benefits for all.” Americans should be free from the fear of poverty in their old age, which is much different from the stream of defined benefits that people have today.

We also need to look at the character of U.S. anti-poverty programs. The number of food stamp recipients has doubled in the last decade to more than 44 million. When one out of seven people depends on the government for food subsidies, can we be satisfied with the state of human flourishing in America?

Success in anti-poverty programs should be measured not in how much we spend, but in how many Americans escape dependence on government funding to lead more productive and satisfying lives. Protecting the status quo of failed anti-poverty programs neither does justice to the poor nor ennobles those who champion those programs without regard to their results.

Current federal anti-poverty programs diagnose human need primarily as a lack of material resources. As we’ve explained in a small group study guide on the subject, Seek Social Justice, that approach diminishes our understanding of compassion for the poor. Poverty in America is often linked to relational breakdown—the absence of fathers, the fracturing of communities. Relational restoration will require the institutions of civil society—especially families and churches—to bring their unique resources to the challenge of overcoming poverty.

The budget crisis is one of the toughest challenges our nation has ever had to face. Discerning the wise application of biblical and constitutional principles is essential for the road ahead.

Related: Jennifer Marshall discussed how biblical principles of stewardship and concern for the poor should shape efforts to reduce the nation’s debt burden for future generations at an American Enterprise Institute Debate on April 20. Watch online at: