“America faces a historic choice,” writes Ronald J. Sider in the Introduction to Fixing the Moral Deficit. “We have a deficit crisis, a poverty crisis and a justice crisis.” The deficit crisis arises from spending more than we earn. The poverty crisis results from increasing numbers of Americans falling into the ranks of the poor even as wealth increasingly concentrates at the top. And the justice crisis occurs when we ignore either the deficit or the poor. “These three crises add up to a huge moral deficit,” Sider argues. “But there is a balanced way to fix it.”
That balanced way begins with understanding the facts on the ground: the deficit crisis is real, and both poverty and economic inequality are on the rise. It continues with mapping out biblical principles on the nature of persons as individuals in community, the social responsibility to care for one’s neighbors—especially the poor, the nature of distributive justice, the limited acceptability of some economic inequality, and the role government plays in alleviating poverty. It then sifts through current proposals, in light of biblical principles, and finally offers a reasoned alternative. Sider’s “balanced way to balance the budget” steers a centrist course between the Scylla of tax cuts and the Charybdis of increased spending. He argues that “we should adopt a roughly equal (50-50) mix between increased revenue and cuts in spending.”
There is much to admire in Sider’s book. Chapter 3, “The Big Questions in the Debate,” outlines biblical principles that should garner agreement from Christians of all stripes. Their disagreements will center on Chapter 5, “A Better Way,” where Sider applies those principles to policy. The interesting question for Christians across the political spectrum will be whether they recognize that disagreements about policy revolve around differing prudential judgments and do not necessarily implicate biblical principles. In other words, can one agree with Sider’s principles but disagree with his policies?
By the same token, the book has several weaknesses. It discusses the moral deficit almost solely in terms of the federal government’s revenue and expenditures, ignoring broad cultural trends that impact both poverty and income inequality but are not easily ameliorated by government policy. One thinks here of the breakdown of marriage among America’s lowest economic classes as an example of the former, and globalization and the information technology revolution as examples of the latter.
Furthermore, this almost exclusive focus on federal government obscures local and state solutions. Granted, government plays a role in fighting government, but government at what level? Might national, one-size-fits-all anti-poverty programs crowd out locally tailored ones?
Finally, the concluding chapter offers 18 “Action Steps” to “help solve our moral deficit.” Tellingly, none of them involves starting a business or creating jobs. Instead, they involve informing oneself about the issue, advocating for effective political action, supporting charitable organizations, and living simply. These are worthy actions, of course, but the solution to poverty must include both public-sector distribution of goods and services and private-sector creation of wealth.
Despite these weaknesses, I highly recommend Fixing the Moral Deficit. It is a morally serious attempt by a respected Christian scholar and activist to apply biblical principles to our nation’s multiple economic crises. Whether or not one agrees with Sider’s every proposal, he is a model of how Christians should eschew bumper-sticker slogans, engage in rigorous analysis of issues, and work for the common good.
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