Friday, August 17, 2012

The Value of Government -- An Argument from Calvin


It seems rather clear that Americans are fed up with government.  We hear lots of calls for throwing the bums out and working to rid ourselves of government.  In the minds of many government is an unnecessary burden that keeps us from fulfilling our destinies. Some politicians run on platforms calling for decreasing the size of government, including getting rid of burdensome regulations. It's the vision of Laissez-faire capitalism, which reigned supreme at the end of the 19th century.  But the Founders of the nation believed that government was essential.  As the Constitution was being written, opponents worried about the over-reaching powers of a national government, but the earlier Articles of Confederation had been a failure.  Thus, a Constitution was written and enacted that gave certain responsibilities to the States and reserved others for the Federal Government.  

Interestingly enough the argument for a strong government is rooted in a Calvinist belief in human depravity.  John Calvin believed that human behavior needed regulating, lest we engage in behavior that is injurious to ourselves and others.  Government isn't perfect, even a republican democracy like that in the United States.  But, before we reject government, perhaps we should think about what happens when government is absent.  Consider one of the most extreme examples -- that of Somalia.  There is no central government, just tribes and clans fighting it out.

So, consider this statement by Kendall Clark Baker in  his book on community organizing, a book that argues for the importance of faith mixing into the political realm -- though with specific guidelines that respects the rights of others.  Concerning this specific issue, we read:
The Calvinism that religiously shaped colonial America held a high view of government and a low view of individual human proclivities. Actually, that is putting it mildly. Left to their own devises and desires, human beings were considered by Calvin to be totally depraved. To speak of sin is not to say that people essentially are no damn good, but it is to acknowledge the dark side to human nature. This is what Reinhold Niebuhr described when he said that “there is no level of human moral or social achievement in which there is not some corruption of inordinate self-love.”5 That is why government is good and necessary. God instituted government to encourage and protect the goodness of a sinful humanity. The function of government is to humanize.  [Baker,. When Faith Storms the Public Square: Mixing Religion and Politics through Community Organizing to Enhance our Democracy(p. 74). 
Note what he writes:  "God instituted government to encourage and protect the goodness of a sinful humanity."  That is Calvin's view.  I may not be a Calvinist, but there is great wisdom in this message.  We need government to encourage and protect goodness and to help humanize us.  

If government needs reforming then let's reform it.  We can always make things better, but getting rid of government or making it so small that it's no longer effective is not a good choice.  Consider the benefits that government regulation provides -- clean air, water, airplane safety, food safety, and more.  And consider the other benefits -- roads and bridges, airports, and more.  We may not like paying for government, but when we're in a pinch -- it's good to know that there's government there to walk beside us.




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