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Things or People?

Yesterday I had a short conversation with an apparently conservative guy who claimed he wanted “smaller government” because big government is taking away his stuff. It has occurred to me that one of the enduring divides in American politics is this issue of the size of government. Many of the founders and many who followed them felt that the smaller the government the better. Madison famously wrote that if men were angels no government would be necessary. But since there must be government, one strain of American political thought has been that that government should be small, limited, and close to the governed.

By contrast, Hamilton hoped to have a government that would be big enough to control the national economy. This feeds into the basic definitional conflict between he and Jefferson: is the United States to be a landscape of personal liberty, or is it to be a great commercial and industrial empire? Thus it would seem that the small government people would be those in favor of maximum liberty, and the big government people would be in favor of economic growth.

But since the time of the founding the small government crowd has come to focus its ideas on the purpose of government on individual ownership. The basic argument of a small government Republican is that the government shouldn’t take his hard-earned money and give it to some deadbeat who refuses to work. It’s an understandable sentiment, but rooted in the false narrative that those who are unable to achieve health and prosperity are prevented only by their own lack of initiative. On the other side, those favoring big government hope to harness the power of the national government to provide opportunities for health and prosperity for those who are hampered by circumstances beyond their control.

The basic divide is between those who see the country as a nation of sometimes like-minded autonomous individuals, and those who see the nation as a community. Individuals can choose whether to care for their neighbors, communities by nature cannot.

Compounding the dilemma is the co-opting of the moral narrative by the small government crowd. People calling themselves Christians have invented a narrative connecting the Constitution of the United States to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This even though the Constitution’s only mention of religion has to do with the definition of a strict secular state: no religious test for office, no established religion, and no prevention of the free exercise (or not) of religion. And leaving aside Paul’s admonition to the Christians of his age that “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Phil. 3:20)

But I will argue it is the big government crowd that controls the narrative in the United States most closely adhering to the moral teachings of Christ. I draw your attention to what is known as the parable of the Widow’s Mite. Here is the story:

He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury.q Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” (Mark 12:41-44)

The connection with our national plight is here: what Jesus values most is not reluctant or even generous giving, but sacrifice. The widow, in the material sense, gave almost nothing, while the rest gave much. But the widow gave everything she had, casting her hopes for the future on Providence. The rest gave what they had left over, placing their faith only in themselves. Little reflection is necessary to connect the sacrifice of the widow with that of Jesus on the cross. And what was this money to be used for? The Jewish tradition is filled with God’s admonition to care for the stranger, the orphan, the widow and the poor. Christianity inherits this call to mercy. Christians have a responsibility to care for those who are unable to care for themselves. It follows that if the United States is a Christian nation, its society would be a community devoted to the welfare of all rather than a group of individuals interested primarily in the preservation of private property. See Acts 2:44-47.

In his famous anti-Vietnam War speech Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that to avoid moral death the United States must undergo a “revolution of values” from a “thing oriented society” to a “person oriented society.” This is the heart of it, is it not? Do we care more about our neighbor, or our stuff?

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