America’s Faithful Are Better Prepared for the Coming Anti-Government Rage
Future historians looking back on the COVID-19 epidemic will likely record two U.S. domestic crises, one physical and the other psychological. The first we already know: the spread of a potentially lethal virus forcing a countrywide shutdown in order to slow the rate of infection.
The second, soon to be painfully obvious, will stem from the sharp rise in government debt needed to support struggling businesses and unemployed workers during the shutdown. $3.8 trillion in 2020 alone, and more than $2.1 trillion in 2021.
Had Washington politicians listened to the advice of knowledgeable commentators and used the economic recovery of the earlier decade to prudently build a financial cushion, this dramatic increase would not by itself create a financial emergency. But from 2010 to 2020, the federal government averaged deficits of more than $1 trillion per year, more than doubling its liabilities to $22 trillion. So when the new borrowing is added on, the resulting deficit will be equal to the entire national economy (GDP), the level where any country’s creditworthiness is called into question.
Like all sovereign debt crises, the coming one will require the government to take drastic steps to balance its budget -- steps which in turn will compel every citizen to make major financial sacrifices even beyond what they did to fight the coronavirus. For some it will mean paying much higher taxes; for others it will mean settling for a reduced a pension, losing previously promised Medicare and Medicaid benefits, accepting higher mortgage interest rates, or just contending with highly inflated prices for everyday goods.
At first, political partisans on both the left and the right will try to hang a disproportionate share of the looming economic burden on their respective ideological enemies -- corporations, bondholders, wealthy taxpayers, certain beneficiaries of government programs, public employees, and so on. But the historical evidence is pretty clear: the only way any heavily indebted country ever pulls back from the edge of a catastrophic default is by spreading the financial pain as broadly as possible. Not because this is the fairest solution, but because shared sacrifice is the only way verbal civil wars over national bankruptcy are kept from becoming real ones.
In the end, the U.S. will likely avoid insolvency. But the ensuing economic stability will do little to assuage the increasing anger all Americans feel as they come to terms with their own share of the required sacrifice. Especially as it becomes clear how the need to bail out Washington’s money troubles was caused, not by the financial demands of the coronavirus epidemic, but by the long-term failure of U.S. politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, to tame irresponsibly high deficits -- thereby leaving the country and its citizens vulnerable to any fiscal emergency.
But while nearly every citizen will feel an initial anger toward those leaders, past and present, who left the country in such a difficult spot, not everyone will be equally crippled by lingering resentment. Religious Americans are far better prepared to deal with their coming sense of betrayal because their Bible has always taught them to expect something like it.
“Put not your trust in princes,” warns verse 3 of Psalm 146. As does Job 12:24-25, where it cautions that “the chief of the people of the earth… grope in the dark without light, and… stagger like a drunken man.” And in Matthew 20:25-26 where Jesus says, “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you…”
America’s believers have never opposed the idea of government itself. They know the many places in Scripture where earthly authority is deemed essential to the peaceful resolution of domestic disputes, to an adequate defense against foreign enemies, and to the building of public works. Matthew 22:21 even supports a sovereign’s right to subsidize its activity with taxes: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s…”
Nor do religious citizens have any problem with constitutional governance. Scripture may not explicitly praise democracy, but it does say that all people should be able to live in freedom (1 Peter 2:16) and with the flexibility to do what is morally right (Romans 13:3).
What the faithful do believe is that they must always be realistic about how much to expect from any human institution, no matter how glorious its past or benevolent its declared mission. In other words, citizens must steel themselves to the fact that even well-intended politicians will eventually let them down, sometimes terribly. Even Solomon, who was considered the wisest of Israel’s leaders, yielded to temptations that eventually tore apart his kingdom.
In our own time, the big political letdown has turned out to be an unwillingness to spend responsibly. As ever higher annual deficits led to increasingly unstable debt, few leaders mustered the courage to hold out for the kind of budget discipline that, deep down, they all knew was necessary to prevent a far more painful fiscal reckoning.
Having been forewarned of their political leaders’ all-too human weaknesses, tomorrow’s faithful will at least in a better position than others to handle the economic pain and disappointment their leaders irresponsibly inflicted. Emotionally with a sense of worth less tethered to material possessions -- and perhaps even financially with a prudently accumulated savings cushion and a modest lifestyle.
Beyond knowing that all human institutions -- even in the U.S. -- are never to be fully trusted, religious Americans will also have the comforts of knowing that adversity can serve a constructive purpose, that it is blessed to be cheerful when times are difficult, and that no one escapes an earthly trial. None of this will absolve them from having to do their own part in bailing out government profligacy, but it will give them a disproportionate strength to rebuild their lives and to thoughtfully shape the country’s post-crisis future.
Dr. Andrews was executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy from 1999 to 2009. He is author of the new book Living Spiritually in the Material World (Fidelis Books).