3. Why Government Should Not Be “The Primary Thing that Gives Us Unity”

I thought that I might continue the line of thought that I began last week. One of the most discouraging things about the state of our national polity is the extent to which our national government has become both dominant over other levels of government and intrusive into the life of persons, families, communities and other social organizations.

In The Naked Public Square, Richard Neuhaus makes the following important statement:  “The things that matter most happen in the Mediating Structures of our personal and communal existence. These structures, family, neighborhood, church, Voluntary association—are the people sized” institutions where we work day by day at our felicities and fears. The public square is not limited to the Government Square. At the same time—and for reasons that unavoidable—government impinges on all public squares.” [1]

There is a lot to ponder in this little quote. Neuhaus begins with an observation that we too easily dismiss: even in the most intrusive of dictatorships, the family, friendships, neighborhood, community, church, and other societies have not only great influence, but they are the source of the day-to-day meaningfulness of life for most people. This past week, my wife and I have visited two of our children, entertained guests from out of town, attended an historic preservation community meeting, and been to two different church activities. We also listened to the State of the Union Address and wrote a check to a political group we support. Guess which of those activities were most meaningful and important to our happiness and to the fullness of our lives? It was family and friends. Then it was helping our local neighborhood and church. Finally, it was those activities that impinge upon our national politics.

The Tao Te Ching has a passage that I find important in thinking about politics and persons:

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a person,

virtue grows and becomes genuine.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a family,

virtue grows by loving transmission.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a community,

virtue grows through careful schooling.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a nation,

virtue grows by wise leadership.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in the world,

virtue grows as the Way is followed. [2]

One does not have to ponder this quotation for very long before what is deeply wrong with our political culture becomes obvious: We pay too little attention to the smaller, more intimate and personal aspects of our society. In so doing, we weaken our national polity, which inevitably relies upon the health of other institutions.

The modern world has created a kind of schizophrenia as “self-actualizing individuals” seeking their own happiness paradoxically diminish the very institutions that give the most meaning, purpose and wholeness to life. The rampant incidence of divorce in our society is but one example.

As a result of the interconnectedness of society, social institutions, and personal happiness, it is one of the roles of government to respect the limitations in its potential reach. The power of the sword is an important power. It inevitably creates the potential for governments of all kinds to emasculate and diminish other institutions. The temptation to do so in the search of some public good is ever present, but the temptation must be resisted, or the society as a whole will suffer.

In the United States, the national government has intruded itself into almost every aspect of life, personal and communal. It tells farmers what they can grow, small business persons what they can sell and to whom they may sell, businesses how they can manufacture, community schools what they can teach, doctors and hospitals what care they can deliver—the list could go on and on. The point is not that what they government is doing is necessarily wrong or that the motives of the national government are suspect. It is that we would all be better off if local communities decided for themselves what to do as much as possible.

One of the primary goals of any Christian public philosophy should be to give a general kind of guidance to policy makers concerning how much power they should exercise and how much restraint they should exercise in the public good. The principle I gather from all this is quite simple: Every public decision should be made at the lowest possible level and when there is a question, the lower body should remain free to do as it believes best.

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.”

[2] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/ Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love an Adaptation of the Tao Te Ching for Christ-Followers (Cordova, TN: Permissio Por Favor (Booksurge), 2014). This quote is found in Chapter 54 on page 108.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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