By Dr. Chuck Gutenson
It’s easy, isn’t it? It’s easy to become cynical about how our government functions. Ronald Reagan famously once said, “Government is the problem.” Yep, I get the cynicism and the tendency to just turn a blind eye to all that’s going on in Washington.
What I find even more annoying is how easily misinformation becomes “fact.” Then the entirely justifiable reasons we have for being cynical can become augmented by common perceptions that are….to use a common phrase, no more than “fake news.”
Consider, for example, the money the U.S. spends on foreign assistance. Polls have shown again and again that, when asked, Americans think that over a quarter of the U.S. budget goes to foreign aid. Over 25 percent! Well, turns out that’s off by a factor of 25.
I like to put it in terms familiar to Christians: a tithe of a tithe. That’s the actual size of the foreign assistance budget. Ten percent of ten percent — or just about 1 percent — of the total national budget is spent on foreign assistance.
And what do we get for that? Quite a lot, actually. We have seen the number of people living in extreme poverty cut in half with the help of development activities that have been paid for through U.S. foreign assistance. The access to life-saving medications made possible by this funding has helped save millions of lives. And the deployment of soft power through diplomacy and assistance serves to undermine the causes of terrorism.
Think that last one’s a stretch? Consider the words of Secretary of Defense General James Mattis who said that failure to fund this portion of the U.S. budget would make it necessary for him “to buy more ammunition.” You see, the cost of shutting down an enemy is much greater than the cost of making a friend, and the foreign assistance budget empowers the latter.
Of course, as a follower of Jesus, it does not surprise me that following his instructions to care for the “least of these” around the globe is also pragmatically the best thing to do. How can you go wrong when what is morally right has so many concrete benefits as well?
You see, my Christian faith drives me to follow Jesus, and to borrow from Mother Teresa, following Jesus often leads us to those most in need. My faith constrains me to speak up on behalf of those so desperately in need and to advocate for robust funding to our country’s foreign aid.
This is why I was excited to accept ONE’s invitation to help lobby on behalf of those in need and to ask members of Congress to hold the line against the current Administration’s proposed cuts to this critically important fund. And, while I was excited to participate, you know that cynicism I wrote of at the outset? Well, I am sorry to say I, too, travelled to D.C. cynical about what we could accomplish.
Imagine, then, my delight in finding the members of Congress we visited so open and affirming of the need to push back against the proposed cuts. When asked for their support in maintaining funding at or near existing levels, the answer was, over and over again, “yes.” In fact, not only did they offer their support, but many of them readily identified the proposed cuts as “unwise” and “short sighted.” Some even went so far as to say the budget with such cuts was “dead on arrival.”
Of course, the biggest and most meaningful takeaway from the meetings — from this lobbying effort forged from the union of musicians, entertainers, pastors, and theologians — was those positive responses. But, on a personal level, another important outcome was a small but meaningful retraction of the cynicism with which I had come to view so many in Congress.
I walked away more optimistic, more encouraged, and more cognizant of the need to pray for our leaders. To pray that God might help them to sort through the piles of data and opinions to find that path that empowers what we all should seek as one of our highest priorities—how to ease the suffering of those Scripture calls “the least of these.”
Dr. Charles (Chuck) Gutenson is an author, speaker, and free-lance professor. He has also served as Chief Operating Officer for Sojourners. Before that, he served 10 years at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, most recently as the professor of Theology and Philosophy. He received an M.Div. from Asbury in 1995 and a PhD in Philosophical Theology from Southern Methodist University in 2000.