In the nascent moments of Wednesday morning, just shortly after the clock struck midnight, the House of Representatives voted 221 to 209 to raise the national debt ceiling by another $2.5 trillion. The resolution providing the increase in our federal borrowing limit had passed the Senate on Tuesday afternoon, by a vote of 50-49. It will now sail on to President Biden’s desk as swiftly as the best built and flung paper airplane, where it will promptly be signed into law.
And just like that, the U.S. government grants itself a credit line increase of staggering proportions. One unavoidable yet long-term effect of this choice will be to drive the worth of our currency closer and closer to the value of the piece of paper that the bill was printed on and President Biden signed.
As it stands, the national debt is over $29 trillion. After the full extent of this increase is spent — and it will be — the national debt will exceed $30 trillion, a truly astronomical number. I used to work in Congress, and I can remember when it was a big deal that the debt passed $15 trillion.
That was ten years ago. Since then, the national debt has doubled. This is an incredibly serious economic and financial issue facing our nation. It is also a moral issue. So, here are three things that Christians should keep in mind when considering the issue of the United States’ national debt.
While often lauded as avoiding a “disastrous default” on our nation’s debt, the reality is that Congress and the President have failed, yet again, to deal with a problem that demands their attention. God instituted human government to serve as earthly representatives of His ultimate authority. Romans 13:4 teaches us that “the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.” Now, the “good” is a fairly general term, but it, of course, entails that the government take responsibility for the welfare of the people it is responsible for, doing justice and governing in wisdom and righteousness.
Kicking the can down the road on dealing with our runaway debt is none of those things.
Bear in mind, the U.S. federal government doesn’t “make” money. It takes it, from us, via taxes. I’m not opposed to taxes, per se, because there are legitimate purposes for which the government should collect revenue, like the national defense. But implied in being a good steward of the God-given authority held by our government is being fiscally responsible. The most basic measure of fiscal responsibility is not spending more than you have to spend, unless in dire circumstances. Expenses should match income. This is budgeting 101. Apparently, our government needs to take a remedial course.
For those unfamiliar with how we rack up debt, increases in our national debt occur when annual federal deficits are incurred. That is, when Congress authorizes annual spending that exceeds what they collect in revenue for said year. For example, due to the wild spending spree related to COVID mitigation measures (which arguably did more harm than good to our national economy), the federal deficit in 2020 was over $3 trillion. Thus, because nothing else was done to offset the spending, that result was $3 trillion more added to the debt.
This is, fundamentally, an irresponsible way to govern a free-market economy. Piling up trillions and trillions in debt is not taking responsibility for solving the fiscal problems at hand — such as our out-of-control entitlement spending — or using authority for the good of us, the citizens.
What can be done about this? In general, Christians should demand that their congressional representatives support structural reforms that will decrease federal spending over the short and long term. If there is another need to raise the debt ceiling, which there will be again in 2023 unless real changes are made, Congress and the President should couple any increase with real spending cuts that allow the federal government to begin repaying its almost unimaginable debt. Taking responsibility for problems that need to be solved is a key feature of godly and good government. Sadly, that was not the outcome of this week’s legislation.
There is no way around it: Holding massive debt is a form of financial slavery. Consider the parable of the unforgiving debtor in Matthew. Jesus begins the parable (which is about forgiveness) by reminding His listeners of the reality of debt entrapment. He says, “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made” (Matthew 18:23-25).
If you are incurring debts that you cannot repay, you are living life under the Damocles Sword of your creditors calling for you to settle accounts at a moment’s notice. If you can’t, it won’t go well for you. Now, that’s a simplified form of what is happening with our national debt, but the principle still applies: Indebted nations are not truly free nations.
The first turn of the parable in Matthew has a happy ending: “So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:26-27).
But the reality we face is that no one is going to forgive America’s debt. And we absolutely cannot count on pleading our way out of a $30 trillion tab. This debt, and its obligations, hamstrings our economy, contributes to the devaluing of the dollar, and accelerates inflation. Even worse, servicing the debt — making interest payments — becomes a larger and larger portion of our federal spending in and of itself. According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2020, “the government’s net outlays for interest totaled $345 billion…accounting for 5.3 percent of total spending.”
If America wants to remain a free and prosperous nation, avoiding the slavery that accompanies massive unpaid debts, we must get our fiscal house in order. This begins by freeing ourselves through budget reductions and implementing an aggressive strategy to pay down the debt.
This is arguably the most important consideration for Christians. The reality is that this level of debt is immoral because it comes at the expense of our children and their future. In 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul writes that “anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Or, in Romans 13:7, “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue.”
But perhaps most poignantly, in Proverbs 13:2, we learn, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children.” The opposite of that is that wicked men rob their children by saddling them with unpayable debt.
While I was no big fan of his overall tenure as Speaker of the House, John Boehner had strong words about the immorality of our national debt when he assumed the Speakership, riding the Tea Party wave, in 2011. He said:
“Here we must speak the truth. Yes, this level of debt is unsustainable. It is also immoral. Yes, this debt is a mortal threat to our country. It is also a moral threat. It is immoral to bind our children to as leeching and destructive a force as debt. It is immoral to rob our children’s future and make them beholden to China.
No society is worthy that treats its children so shabbily. ‘A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children,’ Proverbs reminds us. For too long, Washington has been ignoring this time-honored principle.
As part of the designs of unrestrained government, Washington uses our people, our most plentiful resource, as its prime revenue source. Through more taxes and more regulations, money and freedom are drained from the people and transferred to Washington, which then redistributes these resources.”
Former Speaker Boehner was right on the money here. (Pun intended? You decide). This approach to spending and debt is immoral because it is a burden placed on the back of future generations. It is an intergenerational injustice, a crime committed by the living against the yet-to-be-born.
For the sake of our children and the sake of our country, we must begin to balance the checkbook. Our future — their future — depends on it.