This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on June 11, 2018
In a recent Washington Post column, conservative commentator and pundit George F. Will argued that big government, and big government programs, can’t solve America’s problems or help those who are struggling. As conservative orthodoxy from the Reagan-era, Will’s argument was old stuff—but it caught my attention because of its unwelcome implications for America and the Church —and because I was confused as to what exactly Will was opposed to: big government programs, liberalgovernment programs, modern-day government programs, or some, all, or none of these.
Will praised the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights, an enormous government assistance program enacted at the end of World War II to help millions of men who were being discharged from the armed forces in buying homes and going to college. “The G.I. Bill used liberal mean to achieve conservative results: Rather than maintaining people as permanent wards of government, it created an educated, property-owning middle-class equipped for self-reliant striving.” By contrast, Will saw Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program of 1964-1965 as disastrous for America; he regretted liberals’ tendency to “idealiz[e] government as a disinterested [and] neutral arbiter ensuring fair play.” The truth is that “government officials [are not] more nobl[e or] unselfis[h] than lesser mortals;” rather, government is easily “manipulated by those who [can] navigate [its] complexities.” It “is invariably regressive, transferring wealth upward.”
“The past,” Will concluded—including the era of Johnson’s Great Society, when the federal government “said it could create ‘model cities’ and other wonders, and people believed it—was less romantic in fact than it is in memory.”
Will is correct—and his piercing words deflate grandiose schemes of the left and the right. If liberals seek to create egalitarian great societies, conservatives similarly talk about making America great again, and returning America to some imagined heteronormative, Christian, Pro-Life, and White ideal. But the past was never as “great” or “ideal” as we imagine it. Will’s words also apply to the American Church, and to churchgoers’ wistful recollections of “the good old days”—which they invariably situate in the 1950s and the early 1960s—when their pastors, their worship, their youth, and their communities were (at least, in their recollection) perfect.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with government—or Church—leaders aspiring to be “neutral” and “disinterested arbiters ensuring fair play,” or for that matter, striving to “perfect” society. But our aspirations must be tempered with reality and a Niebuhrian recognition of limits, a kind of humility that recognizes that no political or denominational program, and no congregational social justice ministry, will ever achieve actual perfection, or result in total unmitigated good.
In his column, Will noted that Americans have lost trust in government, but of course, Americans’ distrust of government is not a constant—just as Americans’ indifference toward the church is not a constant. The more nuanced truth is that many Americans don’t like government or the church until they need it. Thus, anti-government Tea Party adherents still ask for FEMA disaster relief when their homes and land are inundated by flooding or other catastrophes. Similarly, Ronald Reagan conservatives, who believe that the best government is the least government, still cash their monthly Social Security checks. And people who don’t attend worship services will still drop by a church dinner when they want a good meal, or contact a pastor when they are facing a crisis.
To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at https://carducc.wordpress.com/2018/06/11/candy-is-dandy-but-caring-for-people-wont-rot-your-teeth/