“You put your hands on the Bible to swear yourselves into office,” Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II reminded members of the House Budget Committee at a hearing in June 2019 on “Poverty in America: Economic Realities of Struggling Families.” “You should hear what Jesus said.” He held notes in his hand, which he glanced down at occasionally while he spoke, but when quoting from scripture he looked straight into the faces of the committee members. “When I was hungry, did you feed me?” he riffed on Matthew 25. “When I was a stranger, an immigrant, did you receive me? When I was sick, did you care for me? Because every nation will be judged by God for how it treats the least of these.”

Since attracting national attention in 2013 as the leader of “Moral Monday” protests at the North Carolina General Assembly, Barber has become one of the most recognizable faces of the “religious left” in America today, although he avoids using this label. “Our campaign agenda is neither left nor right,” he told the Budget Committee in June. “It aims to challenge both sides of the aisle. It aims to reach toward the moral high ground.” Barber, in a clerical collar and a white stole bearing the words “JESUS WAS A POOR MAN,” was seated at the center of a long table facing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the members of the Budget Committee. His testimony was given top billing that morning. He was no economist or policy expert, but he was intimately acquainted with the “economic realities of struggling families,” having spent the past two years traveling the country as co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, which he and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis had relaunched fifty years after it was begun by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Their journey organizing the poor had led them to Washington, DC, and they had brought a plan: the Poor People’s Moral Budget.

With their Moral Budget, the Poor People’s Campaign highlights the intrinsically moral nature of the process through which a nation decides how to spend its money; and demonstrates what it would look like for the federal budget to express the movement’s moral values. It is often said that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose, just as many religious activists speak prophetically but act pragmatically. The Moral Budget represents a bold act of translation between the two registers: a distillation of the prophetic and poetic into the pragmatic and prosaic; an insistence that politics is not a choice between math and morality, but rather that “mathematical facts are moral choices.”

The release of the Poor People’s Moral Budget calls forth decades of efforts to reframe the budget as a moral concern. This history sheds light on an active, if fragmented, network of faith leaders who reject the religious right’s decades-long monopoly on public morality. Their rising visibility during the Trump era has been interpreted by some as evidence of the emergence of a new religious left that could serve as a counterweight to the religious right. Others have dismissed this as wishful thinking, citing religious liberals’ small numbers among the electorate. But it is a mistake to reduce the religious left to a voting bloc alone. Historically, the influence of the religious left has not derived from its numbers, but from its ability to infuse issues with moral meaning and urgency, from slavery to war to racial and economic inequality. When effective, these moral frames help a broad array of citizens—religious and secular—to understand why progressive policies are necessary to solve social problems and consistent with American values.

“Budgets are moral documents”

By approaching the budget as a moral concern, today’s Poor People’s Campaign follows directly in the footsteps of Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders. In 1966, the civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, along with other key participants in the 1963 March on Washington, released “A Freedom Budget for All Americans.” In the text of the Freedom Budget, Randolph is quoted describing the moral nature of the project. “Here in these United States, where there can be no economic or technical excuse for it, poverty is not only a private tragedy but, in a sense, a public crime. It is above all a challenge to our morality.” King concurred in his foreword to the document. Pledging his own and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s full support for the plan, he explained that the Freedom Budget “is a moral commitment to the fundamental principles on which this nation was founded.” But the Freedom Budget did not merely reference abstract moral principles. “It is not visionary or utopian,” Randolph explained in his introduction. “It is specific. It is quantitative. It talks dollars and cents. It sets goals and priorities. It tells how these can be achieved.” According to a 2011 Working Paper on “The Freedom Budget at 45,” these ideas “provided the cornerstones for King’s ‘Poor Peoples’ Campaign’ and ‘economic bill of rights.’”

The idea that budgets are moral documents became a cornerstone of economic justice organizing in the early 2000s as well. In 2005, as President George W. Bush entered his second term in office, thanks (allegedly) to strong support from “values voters,” more than sixty faith leaders from around the United States signed onto “The Federal Budget as a Moral Document: A Letter from Religious Leaders.” “Despite its complexity,” they wrote, “the budget is essentially a moral document—the specific expression of the values of the nation.” Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical leader, prolific author, and founder of the Christian social justice organization Sojourners, was among the signers of this letter. Today, he is the person most commonly associated with the idea that “budgets are moral documents.” For Wallis, this not only means that, practically speaking, “examining budget priorities is a moral and religious concern.” It is also an opportunity to broaden what counts as a “values issue” and who counts as a “values voter.” In a 2005 interview, Wallis took aim at conservatives’ tendency to “define ‘moral values’ narrowly, almost exclusively in terms of wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage.” As Wallis explained, this narrow framing allowed conservatives like Bush to say, “I’m a Christian and it applies to this, this and this, but it doesn’t apply to my budget.” Wallis called upon Christians to speak up and say, “Yeah, faith does scrutinize budgets, so let’s have a moral values audit of the budget.”

In late 2010, Wallis joined a group of sixty-five Christian leaders around the country as part of a new coalition, the Circle of Protection, which dedicated itself to conducting this moral values audit. As the newly Republican-controlled House of Representatives embraced the Tea Party movement’s calls to reduce the federal deficit, this coalition of Christian leaders released a statement of principles that declared, “We look at every budget proposal from the bottom up, how it treats those Jesus called ‘the least of these’ (Matthew 25:45).” In the almost-decade since its founding, the group has held prayer vigils on Capitol Hill, led fasts, and met with President Barack Obama and leaders in Congress. “What would Jesus cut?” they ask lawmakers to consider.

Around this same time, an interfaith coalition of thirty-six organizations—including Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and other faith communities—went beyond a “moral values audit” of the official budget and released a “Faithful Budget” of their own, which they have continued to release annually. As an “interfaith document,” the Faithful Budget references Jewish, Christian, and Muslim texts to justify its call for the country to “act with mercy and justice as one nation under God.”

“What would Jesus cut?”

While people of faith disagree on the finer points of lots of political issues, caring for the poor and marginalized tends to be a place where a wide range of faith communities can find common ground. The Circle of Protection, the Faithful Budget Campaign, and the Poor People’s Campaign represent different models of faith-based coalition building to this end: the former is explicitly Christian but relatively diverse politically; the latter two are religiously diverse yet lean politically liberal. Despite their differences, these groups tend to agree on the broad strokes of what would make the federal budget “moral.” All would bolster government support for the poor, and pay for it with some combination of higher (“fairer”) taxes on the wealthy and corporations, and cuts to military spending (which some among them view as a moral good in its own right).

Of course, some religious groups have a starkly different vision of what “moral” budget and tax policies look like. In 2017, Donald Trump’s first budget called for severe cuts to domestic programs and an increase in military spending. These priorities, paired with the promise of lower taxes following the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, did not concern Trump’s Christian supporters. To the contrary, white evangelical Christian voters have remained steadfastly by Trump’s side, and prominent conservative Christian spokespeople have publicly defended the budget and tax cuts. Directly following the passage of the tax cut plan, Erick Erickson took to Twitter to insist, as the journalist Jack Jenkins summarized, that “the bill’s critics were trying to ‘pass off’ their ‘individual’ Christian responsibility to the poor to the ‘government.’” An article in the Christian Post describing the ensuing Twitter debate was titled, “Is Jesus Opposed to Tax Cuts?” Jerry Falwell, Jr. reprised the debate in an early-2018 tweet, “It never ceases to amaze me how leftist Christians twist the words of Jesus—who never told Caesar how to run Rome and never said to care for the least of these by voting to tax your neighbor to help the poor🙄.”

Among the “leftist Christians” they were responding to was Wallis, who upon the release of Trump’s budget had called upon Christians to revisit the question, “What Would Jesus Cut?” Wallis’s answer to this question was unambiguous: “The priorities of this budget are not consistent with Christian, Jewish, or Muslim values. They are not only bad economics, they are also bad religion; as we say in the evangelical community they are unbiblical.” Sojourners underscored his point with a list of “Some of the More Than #2000Verses in Scripture on Poverty and Justice,” which formed the basis of a hashtag campaign on social media, and a protest in which “12 Christians were arrested reading #2000verses and praying in the senate office building calling on senators to oppose the GOP tax bill.” The praying protesters served as a vivid juxtaposition to the widely-circulated images of evangelical leaders encircling Donald Trump in the Oval Office earlier that year, their hands laid on his back as they prayed.

With their Poor People’s Moral Budget, Barber and Theoharis continue this prayerful protest. By the end of the three-and-a-half-hour Budget Committee hearing this June, Barber showed signs of frustration. “We came here to have a real conversation,” he said, dismissing Republican committee members’ denial of the government’s responsibility for alleviating poverty as “mythology and foolishness.” “We have a budget. You got your budget. Hold it up, Liz.” He and Theoharis lifted spiral-bound photocopies of the Moral Budget, turning them so the covers faced the cameras. “I’m going to speak to America now.” His voice slowed and he spoke as if he wanted each word to land. “Where your treasure is, that’s where your heart is,” he said, referencing Matthew 6:21. “Justice requires not just praying and going to church… Jesus said that people who engage in religiosity but do not care for justice, he called that hypocrisy. So let’s talk about investment.”