Why Americans Hate Politics

One of the best political books to come out in recent years is called Why Americans Hate Politics. The reason we have grown cynical, says author E. J. Dionne, is that the federal government has reached its tentacles into more and more areas never before under its jurisdiction—most of them controversial social issues that tie the government up in endless political conflict. As sociologist James Q. Wilson explains in The Public Interest, before the 1960s the federal government was much more limited. The few tasks it did, it did well: It ended the depression, helped win World War II, built the interstate highway system, established Social Security. Americans took pride in their government. But today the federal government has plunged into every area imaginable. It tries to control education, manage race relations, stop sex discrimination, set up universal health-care schemes, and even outlaw so-called hate crimes (as though the state could control people's motives). These are all issues over which the American people themselves disagree sharply. Which just about guarantees that the government will be tangled up in constant ideological warfare. Maybe it's time to ask whether the government really should be taking on all these tasks. What is the proper role and function of government? Biblically speaking, the purpose of government is twofold: to promote justice and restrain evil. The first is a positive task: promoting harmony among people so they can live together in shalom, the Hebrew word for peace. Even if there were no sin in the world, societies would still need organization and leadership. Someone would have to work out procedural rules to maintain public order, starting with simple things like where to place traffic lights. But after the Fall, a second task was given to government: restraining evil. Public order must now be maintained through coercion. The angel that drove Adam and Eve out of the garden with flaming sword in hand was the first cop on the beat. In Romans 13, Paul says God has given the state the power of the sword to punish evildoers. The biblical teaching of a limited state is revolutionary. We must remember that in the first century when Paul was writing his epistle, the biblical idea that the state has specific, limited tasks was revolutionary. It meant that government does not have ultimate or unlimited authority over its citizens. Yet at the very time these words were penned, the Roman emperors were making a claim to exactly that kind of unlimited authority. They were setting themselves up as deities. It was a collision course that ended with Christians being thrown to the lions. In our own age, Christians aren't faced with a Roman coliseum, but the biblical teaching is just as revolutionary. Our national government increasingly rejects any inherent limits. It keeps reaching deeper and deeper into social and moral issues that ought to be the province of churches, families, and local communities. That may well be why Americans hate politics, as E. J. Dionne says. But the solution is not to withdraw from politics. It's to regain the biblical teaching on the proper limits of the state.


Chuck Colson


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