Attacks on big government have become so common that one hardly needs the qualifier “big” these days. But these anti-government sentiments are not new. They come from deep in the political psyche and have proven attractive to many Americans, not least evangelical Christians.
They come from deep down, but from far back, too. From the Republic’s beginnings, substantial sections of the American populous have harboured deep suspicions about government in general, and the federal government in particular. They may not go as far as the Tea Party,but they share a conviction that the founding of America revealed eternal principles subsuming government authority to the rights associated with self-government. Thomas Jefferson’s insistence that less government is better government has been taken to heart. What claims to be a mistrust of “big” government turns out to be a skepticism about government as such.
In the face of such (libertarian) suspicions, my goal is simple: to argue that government is an institution we should believe in.
“Big” government: a libertarian tour
To get inside the feel of such deep-seated suspicions, consider Charles Murray as a sort of libertarian docent guiding us through what he wants to topple: “big” government.
An unapologetic evangelist for “American exceptionalism,” Murray emphasizes four vital social qualities that historically have nourished the experiment that is the United States of America: marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity. None of these, you’ll note, are features of government. They are aspects of civil society quite apart from government. In fact, government needs these social qualities more than communities need government.
But Murray is not just writing about a past; he’s diagnosing our present. As we look around, he’ll argue, the vibrancy of these social qualities has been gobbled up by government initiatives and oversight, ever since the New Deal ushered in what we often call “the welfare state.” What that means, of course, is that the non-government, civic life that made America exceptional is precisely what has been eroded by the growth of “big” government.
In one rather lyrical passage, drawn from political scientist Edward Banfield’s 1950s comparison of American and Italian small towns, Murray records the level of civic engagement in the little town of St. George, Utah. In a single week, the local newspaper recorded a profusion of community activity such as Future Farmers, the PTA, fund drives for the children’s hospital and the local community college, and much more—and all this in a town of less than 5,000 souls. Neighbourliness, civic engagement, and cross-class fraternal association, qualities not unique in themselves but uniquely American in their combination, Murray claims, fuelled the vibrant life of countless American communities, urban no less than rural. But these qualities have diminished drastically, especially in the old working class communities. As they recede, society comes apart.
Only a civic Great Awakening led by the wealthier classes, Murray believes, can bring back the four social qualities and their associated institutions, making the welfare state obsolete and staying the hand of government. What lends Coming Apart a poignant, not to say tragic quality is the sense of the United States losing what only religion, tradition, and common sense could tell us were essential institutions.
As can be seen in the account of 1950s St. George, Utah, Americans once celebrated a strong tradition of self-government. Here was governing so local, so citizen-directed, that “government” never stood apart from the activism of the civically minded. And that’s a certain kind of libertarian vision: a healthy St. George slays the Dragon; a robust civil society dismisses government as redundant.
Self-government has now come to mean something much more individualistic than that 1950s snapshot, however. In place of the vision of robust small-town civil society, contemporary American conservatism peddles a surrogate St. George. Civil society is reprised as the free market or market forces. Such a view is inherently reductionist. The contributions made by the Future Farmers, the PTA, the children’s hospital, and the local community college cannot be authentically expressed in the language of marketplace competition. The more individualistic libertarianism of today devalues civil society as well as government; St. George as well as the dragon.
In response to anxieties about the reach of government power in social service delivery or national security, American progressives have preferred to argue that democracy tames the dragon. To cure the malady of corruption, progressives have a simple prescription: more democracy. In the Progressive Era at the beginning of the twentieth century, popular elections for U.S. Senator replaced election by state legislatures. Popular elections (called primaries) began to replace Party conventions to select Presidential nominees and nominees for other offices. Initiative, Referendum, and Recall were deployed to pre-empt or second-guess policy decisions by elected officials. With extraordinary confidence, or naiveté, the Populist Party—best known for its Evangelical standard-bearer, three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan—expressed its conviction that once the people had seized the reins of government from the vested interests, government would be harnessed to public interest alone.
This progressive vision turns out to be even less friendly to civil society than contemporary individualist libertarianism. If government actions are legitimate public actions, progressives argue, government may in principle do anything the majority empowers it to do. Individual civil liberties alone check government’s reach or enlist its power to give them effect.
This view of government belittles civil society because it discourages differentiation between government’s roles and those of non-governmental institutions. The blanket majoritarian justification for government initiatives substitutes for reflection along those lines. At the risk of over-simplifying a complex set of developments, the progressive view of government made the emergence of a welfare state that much easier. Under it, government easily assumed the role of principal instrument for social change.
Representative of the confidence of progressives, political scientist John Schwarz, in his book America’s Hidden Success, offered a simple comparison. In 1986, an estimated seven million people joined hands from New York to California, each donating $10 to fight hunger and poverty. It was called Hands Across America. Schwarz applauded the extraordinary efforts coordinated to pull this off, and then observed what a tiny fraction of federal government expenditures in a single week this initiative represented. The message was unmistakable: thanks, private charity, volunteerism, civil society—St. George. We’ve got it from here. Enjoy your retirement.
The state in its place
The progressive logic may not be enough to drive you into the arms of the libertarians, but it should at least evoke a certain sympathy for the careful work of those, like Murray, who have chronicled the socially destructive results of following that logic.
But now I want to refute the dragon image of government and the view that St. George—healthy civil society—can flourish without government playing its proper, and active, role.
We’ve let our libertarian guide set the terms of debate so far.. Now it is time we parted company. In seeking the recovery of the American tradition of the engaged, local community as the acme of self-government, Murray leaves himself vulnerable to the contemporary American version of that tradition, civil society reduced to market forces, and absolutized individual rights backed by the raw power of government. In place of both the minimalist and the statist views of government, Christian teaching in the Catholic and neo-Calvinist traditions offers a distinctive understanding of the role of the state.
A new guide is needed. My choice falls, unsurprisingly, on the larger-than-life Victorian figure of Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper. Christian pluralism in Kuyper’s neo-Calvinist tradition is no less concerned with the boundaries of government authority than is the American political tradition, but it is much more concerned with government’s substantive tasks.
The American tradition lodges government’s origins formally in the social contract forged by “We the People” and sustains its authority in the people’s interests and protection of their rights. Kuyper begins instead with the sovereign God.
God’s ordinances organize social life, Kuyper tells us. He argues that these laws reveal themselves spontaneously. However, sin distorts that revelation and the Christian statesman must turn to scripture. “The revelation of Holy Scripture is like a pair of glasses that enables him to read once again with his weakened eyes the partially obscured revelation of nature.” Study the Bible. Study the governing arrangements of nation-states. Allow the former to illumine the latter.
Here is an understanding of government that lodges its origins not in some democratic act of the sovereign people, but in divine “ordination.” As a Christian seeking to be obedient to his King, Kuyper looks for an authoritative description of the tasks of government. He finds it in a distinctively biblical anthropology. Humans are made in the image of God; their responsibility is to bear that image to the created order, and to take up (again) its care and nurture, abandoned in the Garden.
Human responsibilities extend well beyond government, of course. In Kuyper’s famous notion of “sphere sovereignty,” non-governmental institutions play unique and irreplaceable roles in the stewardship of the created order. These include the sovereign responsibility of parents for their children’s nurture, that of firms for creating wealth, or charities for serving a range of social needs, or of individual citizens for assuming their sovereign responsibilities.
In distinct ways, then, Kuyper presents an alternative to the limited government forged from American social contract. Civil society, largely subsumed under individual liberty in the U.S. tradition, mediates the relationship between government and citizen. Government’s task is not only to defend the nation and preserve the rights and dignity of citizens, but also to create conditions for the flourishing of civil society’s many vital institutions. Individual rights give personal responsibilities their means of implementation.
Kuyper’s tenure both as the founder of the Anti-Revolutionary Party and later as Prime Minister overlapped the emergence of the modern welfare state. He resisted the latter’s development, insisting that direct aid be temporary. Civil society’s, not government’s, resources were to play the larger role in lifting people from poverty. Families, religious bodies, schools, and charitable organizations brought important relationships to the prevention of or the escape from poverty that government aid could not hope to emulate.
Space does not permit anything like a full account of the development of the Kuyper tradition or the parallel development of Roman Catholic social teaching into the Christian Democracy that shaped Western European democracies in the years after World War II. Hopefully, it will suffice to hint at the promise of this pluralist, prudential, and pietistic approach to government. By pluralist, I refer both to the liberty extended to citizens to exercise their non-governmental responsibilities in accordance with their basic convictions, and to the differentiated pursuit of justice, not by government alone but by citizens and civil society institutions, too. Kuyper’s approach is prudential in taking full measure of human brokenness. It is pietistic in pursuing cooperation with the divine mandate to responsible stewardship. Since it is associated with the coming again of Christ as King, as well as with the Genesis mandate to care for creation, Kuyper’s political perspective is not tied to a single historical period or political struggle, but speaks to a wide range of circumstances, in societies primitive and sophisticated.
This species of Christian political reflection is unfamiliar outside certain immigrant enclaves in North America, however. The United States’ political tradition provides little fertile soil for its biblical anthropology or its view of state-civil society relations. Any epiphany it may have will probably accompany a major clash between church and state whereby the churches find that they need to reach for more than individual religious freedom—for a three-dimensional grasp of what it means to be a person and a citizen. Then, perhaps, the pluralist, prudential, and pietistic vision of Kuyper may be heard in American accents.
The Fall and civil society
I parted ways with Murray over the question of government’s basic responsibilities and their relationship to a healthy civil society. There were good reasons for choosing him as a guide in the first place, however. Murray gets a lot right. Let’s begin with St. George himself. The image of healthy civil society includes creativity, sacrifice, an implicit boundedness to human enthusiasms, and ample opportunities to interact with one another. All this occurs in the midst of profound differences of worldview and basic belief as citizens raise families, make their livings, develop professional competencies, and care for fellow members of society.
Murray gets right, too, the fragility of civil society, and he maps out with care the destruction wrought by progressive political ideas from the mid-twentieth century. We might invite Murray and those who share his views to go further. Among those drawn to the ideas of contemporary libertarianism, Christians are especially well-placed to do this. I’m talking about the Fall.
For all the signs of his good health, St. George also reflected human brokenness and the unresolved tensions of this world. The institutions Murray properly celebrates, both natural and artificial, enjoyed only relative health, as do their counterparts today. Intact two-parent families are normatively best for raising children, but as anyone engaged in that enterprise can tell you, the inroads made by human frailty are legion. None of the institutions of civil society can lay claim to purity. In that respect they should be identified with, rather than distinguished from, government. Governing, like parenting, involves care, including the sort of care that requires reflection on its purposes.
The temptation to purify, to throw up some boundary to the wicked world, to stockpile goodness or to make government emblematic of wickedness, must be resisted. It is a temptation. But it will not “save America.” It will not bring about some final resolution of events and phenomena that stubbornly refuse to be finally resolved this side of Christ’s coming again. One of government’s proper tasks is to remind us of contingency. Governing is not an activity for the purifiers, however well-intentioned, whether they wear Tea Party or progressive garb.
Abraham Kuyper seems to have understood better than many in the Christian community that to hold office in civil society is to hold divinely ordained office—as parent, politician, or professional. These offices are in the King’s gift, as it were. They serve God’s purposes, which is to say, the common good. So in our proper pursuit of St. George, few tasks rank with the care and attention Christians should want to give to encouraging a proper view of the scope and limits of government. Not for nothing did English versions of Book of Common Prayer invite the following supplication:
We beseech thee also to lead all nations in the way of righteousness and peace; and so to direct all kings and rulers, that under them thy people may be godly and quietly governed.