April 22, 2011
by Michael J. Gerson
This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.
Former congressman and ambassador Tony Hall is one of the most principled men in American public life. As a Democratic member of congress, he focused public attention on food insecurity, helping found the Select Committee on Hunger. As an ambassador appointed by President George W. Bush, he carried this anti-hunger message to the United Nations. As the current head of the National Alliance to End Hunger, he is a voice for the world’s most vulnerable. As an evangelical Christian leader, Hall has been a model of conscience and integrity, consistently calling our nation to acts of mercy.
Nearly a month ago, Hall began a fast to protest proposed cuts in domestic and international programs that confront hunger and preventable disease. Fasting is a long Christian tradition, practiced at decisive moments throughout the Bible. It is also an American tradition. Abraham Lincoln called for days of national fasting during the Civil War, intended to turn the nation toward humility and prayer. We need both of those today.
Hall is fasting because, in his words, America faces a “monumental crisis of conscience.” He is deeply concerned that his fellow evangelicals, according to recent polls, are among the most supportive of cuts in foreign assistance. “We do need to balance the budget,” Hall says, “but not on the backs of the poor and hungry.” He calls his fast an act of voluntary hunger that calls attention to involuntary hunger.
Hall has embraced an important moral cause, but he also makes an important political point. Given America’s debt crisis, cuts in the budget are necessary and unavoidable. But they should not be indiscriminate. Not all spending reductions are created equal. Freezing the pay of Federal workers is unpleasant. Cutting support for the provision of AIDS and malaria drugs has a predictable cost in human lives. Politicians often talk of the need for shared sacrifice. But some sacrifices are more extreme and disturbing than others.
Across-the-board cuts in government spending seem fair—but they are anything but. Not every category of public spending is equally wasteful. It is true that programs with good intentions can be ineffective, and they should be targeted for cuts. But legislators must make that determination with care, based on evidence, while taking seriously the possible human cost.
Indiscriminate cuts are an abdication of governing. Serving the public interest requires a determination of what works and what doesn’t. This is one of the primary duties of those in government. That responsibility should not be ignored in favor of broad percentage reductions that bears no relation to reality or morality.
Through his fast, Tony Hall is bringing this message to the
public—and to the evangelical community in particular. We live in a time of fiscal
austerity. But that does not end
or suspend our public responsibility to the hungry and suffering. And
Christians should carry this message with particular urgency.
—Michael J. Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).