This is a developing thought process for me, so please hear me out for a moment. In the heat of the current battle over health-care reform in America, it does seem inevitable to many of us that the federal government will continue to grow.
I don’t think there is an example of a democracy that has “un-done” growth. After all, it is the nature of a living thing to want to grow. This, of course, is at the heart of our nation’s present debate. How much of a role should government play in our lives? The conservatives classify big government as “doomsday coming” and proof of societal decline. The liberals, on the other hand, see the expansion of federal programs as a fulfillment of the government’s obligation to its people. But here is another take …
The unabated growth of the United States government has corresponded directly to the disengagement from society of the American church. The removal of the active role of the church among the poor, the broken, the illiterate, and the oppressed has also paralleled the astronomical increase of wealth among middle-class Christians in America. This increase in accumulated personal and institutional wealth, along with the absence of engagement with the poor in our country, has been a critical factor in the growth of the government.
And the only way back, that I can see, from immense and inevitably larger government is for the church in America to change.
The Fastest Way Out of Poverty
The average middle-class Christian tithes about 3 percent and has no sense of a “cap” on one’s personal wealth or lifestyle. I have only met one Christian who has made it clear that they tithe on all income: capital gains, salaries, even student loans and grants.
Before you assume I am a communist, let me be clear. I believe that limited regulation within free-market economies is the best way for individuals created in the image of God to appropriately live out what they were designed to be. Regulation is always necessary in some forms because of the fallenness of man. Yet all regulation has unintended consequences, and usually impinges on human freedoms.
But markets allow people to work, and working is clearly the fastest way out of poverty. A massive number of people in so-called Third World countries have risen out of the depths of poverty, largely due to a growth in the economies of India and China. People have been put to work productively and poverty has decreased.
Entrepreneurialism allows individuals to work freely and creatively. These are each key parts of the Imago Dei.
I also assume that there are, as the Dutch theologians would say, appropriate “spheres of sovereignty” — family, church, community organizations, markets, governments. Each has unique roles to play. When one abdicates its unique role, we typically see the others (a) pick it up and (b) not do as good of a job as the designated entity would have done.
When the Church Disengaged
In the early 1900s the conservative, largely white church in America stopped doing what Christians should do. She removed herself from engaging with society and being an active part of addressing issues such as caring for the sick, the illiterate, the destitute, and those experiencing injustice.
During a period known as the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, virtually all of the fundamentalist churches and leaders — the heritage to what is now called the evangelical church — engaged in a theological battle over the meaning of the gospel. Out of a fear of what had become known as the Social Gospel, the church removed herself from actively engaging with society and took on a separatist, individualistic, and culture-war posture.
The church created her own schools, magazines, radio stations, art (sort of), literature (sort of), and more. She continued to proclaim a gospel of Jesus and Him crucified (saying the things she should say), but she became virtually irrelevant to the larger society in terms of practicing mercy, justice, and cultural engagement. Thus, she failed to do the things she is called to do.
This withdrawal from society and the active disengagement with those on the margins of society coincided with the years leading up to the Great Depression, during which the government grew by leaps and bounds. Who would feed the hungry, retrain workers, fill them with dignity and purpose, educate them, speak up for those unjustly kept out of the economy? The answer became the government.
We have continued on this path for a century. The government continues to fill in roles that ought to be cared for, in my estimation, by local organizations that are able to work with much greater accountability, efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability.
But I hear the objections now:
“The government is taxing us to death!”
“We can’t afford to do this until the government stops competing with the church.”
“We can’t stand it when the government wades too far into issues like unemployment, education, health care and more.”
“Stop the socialism!”
I am increasingly convinced this is backwards.
Doing What We Should Do
During a 2007 conference on theology and ministry at Trinity International University, the New York pastor Tim Keller remarked, “If you talk and act as a Christian should, the world will love you for what you do, and hate you for what you say.”
The church has the moral responsibility, through its manifold small organizational representations, to be the hands and feet of Jesus. To love the unlovable, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, speak up against injustice, and, of course, preach the gospel.
Yet the church has ceded this responsibility … and the federal government has moved in to pick up the slack. And our government will inevitably continue to grow until we “do the things we should do.”
“But we can’t; we don’t have the resources!”
Well, consider this: What if every Christian in America gave 20 percent of his income? What if Christians who are well off capped their net worth at, say, $2,000,000? What sort of revolution would unfold? We would not only have enough money to pay for our (ridiculously) large church buildings, we could fund (Christian) schools that would revolutionize our inner cities.
We could transform our health-care system. We could easily address our homelessness and housing issues. It would allow us to oversee the development of economic systems in urban communities through micro-enterprise, entrepreneurialism, job training, and more. All of this would allow us to do it with the kind of close-to-home accountability, efficiency, and effectiveness that cannot be accomplished through large bureaucracies.
I am not suggesting that this would replace the federal government completely. But I propose that this is what it will take to undo the growth of the federal government in America. If we did this — that is, if we live sacrificially and love our neighbor as ourselves, along with proclaiming an unapologetic gospel — we would have immense credibility. We could more effectively “say what we should say while we do what we should do.”
It is our materialism and individualism that has caused our government to grow into a giant. Should we wait for the government that most of us don’t trust to somehow do the right thing? No, we should force it back into its proper role by doing what we ought to have been doing all along.
Rather than rail against our government, which will inevitably continue to expand unless something radical is done, we should do something radical.