If you hold your ear close to the ground in Washington, D.C., the rumble you will hear is not the Metro but a populist rage hurtling like a railroad train toward the Capitol.
Americans have by and large lost faith in their institutions, and the evidence is everywhere. According to a CBS News poll, at the beginning of the new millennium, 45 percent of Americans trusted government to do the right thing most of the time. Now less than a quarter do so. A January 2010 joint poll by NBC and The Wall Street Journal found that the percentage of people who view the President negatively has nearly doubled in a year's time. Approval ratings for Congress were even lower: 21 percent.
In some respects, the distrust is justified. Hurricane Katrina was a blow that the Bush Administration never fully recovered from. A cumbersome government bureaucracy too slow in providing help shattered citizens' faith in government's effectiveness.
But the ineffectiveness of government was magnified in the case of the Nigerian terrorist who almost brought down a Northwest airliner headed for Detroit in December.Brave passengers, not a massive government apparatus,thwarted him. In the postmortem, we discovered that despite a multitrillion-dollar campaign to protect citizens against terrorism, and the fact that the visa office in Lagos, Nigeria, had been warned that Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab was dangerous, it issued him a visa anyway. Appalling.
The bigger that government gets, the further it grows away from the people. From the massive expansion of health care to increased environmental controls, higher taxes, and mind-numbing budget deficits, people feel overwhelmed and powerless. It doesn't help when Congress closes its doors to draw up the health-care bill in conference committee—signaling a request to the public not to butt into its affairs.
Where will all of this lead? There are a few likely scenarios. Government could get a dose of reality and put the brakes on. But its leaders give us no indication of restraining themselves. A second scenario could drive us off a cliff into national bankruptcy, which has happened in many countries whose governments spend irresponsibly. The third possibility, and the one I think we are on the verge of witnessing, is a populist revolt.
Populist movements in the U.S. can be healthy, as when Andrew Jackson broke the grip of the eastern elite on the presidency, or when William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic candidate for President, led a movement to give greater voice to the disillusioned masses. But this time, a massive wave of anti-government sentiment could shatter the political consensus, which may well leave the country virtually unmanageable.
The inevitable consequence of all of this should deeply trouble Christians, who, of any segment of our society, understand the necessity of a strong government.
The Bible teaches that God ordains government, appoints leaders, and requires obedience so that we might live peaceable lives.
Why is this? God recognizes that even abad government is better than no government. No government leads to chaos and mob rule. When order breaks down, justice is inevitably undermined. As Augustine of Hippo argued, peace flows from order, and both are necessary preconditions to the preservation of liberty and some measure of human dignity and flourishing.
This is why great leaders of the faith throughout history have held government in such high esteem. Some, such as John Calvin, considered the magistrate the highest of vocations.
Of course, while we have a high view of government, it isn't a blank check. Christian doctrines such as sphere sovereignty, subsidiarity (nothing should be done by a larger, complex organization when a smaller organization can accomplish it), the balance of power, and God's transcendent law must hold government in check. So if Washington has lost touch with the people, as Christians we should work fervently to reform these systems. Real reform may even have to come through an independent commission like Securing America's Future Economy (SAFE), for which Congressman Frank Wolf has tirelessly advocated.
The tea party movement may have a lot of traction in America today, but it makes no attempt to present a governing philosophy. It simply seeks an outlet—an understandable one—for the brooding frustrations of many Americans. But anti-government attitudes are not the substitute for good government.We should be instructing people enraged at the excesses of Washington and the growing ethical malaise in the Capitol to focus their rage at fixing government, not throwing the baby out with the bath water.
We Christians are to be the best citizens, praying for our leaders and holding them in high regard, even as we push for the reforms desperately needed to keep representative government flourishing. Only when we funnel frustrations into constructive reformation can we expect a government that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people.
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Previous columns by Charles Colson are available on our website, including:
Valentine's Dynamic Love | Our love is most godly when it is against the world for the world. (February 12, 2010)
The Problem of Goodness | It's not just the problem of evil that baffles the secularist. (December 22, 2009)
When Atheists Believe | The confounding attraction of the Christian worldview. (October 22, 2009)
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