Church and state

In My Humble Opinion

Issue 15 - December 1996

"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My Yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest from your souls." - Matthew 11:28-29

"We need to make sure that every American can be a winner in this time of economic change, to make sure that every American has access to education and training, and good health care and secure pensions. And we absolutely have to get wages rising again in our country." - Bill Clinton - 1996

The reason Bill Clinton was re-elected is that government has become the post-modern God.

I don't mean this in a literal sense. We don't actually see people praying to the President or lighting prayer candles for the State, but the relationship that people have with their government is more like faith than like a partnership. It's not a logical connection, but a deep, sub-conscious association. Without God there is Hell. Without Taxes, there is Chaos.

At a level beyond words or debate, we rely on government to provide our society with its soul, to care for people, to give us order and answers. This seems like simple common sense. After all, it is the very essence of government to set rules, provide a framework for society, and defend and protect us. What I'm seeing, however, goes deeper than this. Government seems to have taken on the appearance of a force of nature, something beyond us and not a part of us, a mysterious caretaker that provides, punishes, and gives our world its structure and purpose.

It is only because we have this notion of a separated church and state that this is even apparent to us. There has always been a strong, perhaps inseparable, bond between these two institutions, from the divine right of the King to "one nation under God." Although this is a bit of a simplification, we have always looked to God for guidance, moral leadership, and meaning for the social order while looking to government to pick up the trash and keep records of property rights.

Today, as we learn more of the mysteries of life, and as God becomes more mythical and poetic, there has been a transference away from the Church and God as the wards of social order. Today we are looking for all kinds of alternatives from crystals to psychics to Scientology. However, for the majority of modern, rational Americans who are searching for something else, the role of moral leader is now granted to government, and with that has been born a new faith that could be called the Religion of Liberalism.

I am quite familiar with the sense of overwhelming disbelief that affects some people who learn that I don't believe in their God. They usually think that I'm angry at Him, or have been seduced by their devil-man, and in the end they simply cannot understand why I don't kill, hurt, and steal. Their belief is so deeply ingrained that they quite literally are unable to even imagine a different morality other than the one given to mankind by their Holy God. I see exactly the same reaction from people when I suggest reducing the power of government. It is as if they are quite literally unable to even imagine a different moral code other than the one given to us by politicians.

What interests me isn't that people can think up reasons that a society of free individuals won't work. What I find fascinating is that most people simply accept that the very idea is unthinkable and that there must be something wrong with us for selecting Evil over Good. They say, "What do you do about the poor family that can't afford school or even food." That question is exactly like the Christian asking, 'Why don't you kill what you hate, take what you like, and live for yourself without morals.'* In other words, both are asking the question: "What kind of evil is in you to think such a thing?"

The question is based on fear, faith, and feelings, and not on reason. Reason tells us that much of the causes of modern poverty comes from the government in its awkward attempts to fulfill its new moral role, a role for which it is not designed and is ill-equipped. Reason reveals how welfare rewards broken families, how having too many good ideas creates a bureaucracy that inhibits rather than helps kids learn, how the black market of drugs encourages and even ensures serious crime, how big money and campaigns and lobbies have turned the government into a distorted caricature of its former self.

And yet the faith remains, transcending reason and the obvious flaws of the President himself. If faith can cause Christians to discount the entire field of genetics, faith certainly can cause others to discount a few FBI files.

The reason this phenomenon is primarily a liberal one is because these are the people, the majority of the nation, who are finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile the traditional religious perspective with the new world. They are pulling the nation toward more personal freedom and liberties such as a woman's right to choose, Affirmative Action, access to education, and a decent chance for all people.

We're moving with stuttering steps toward a new vision of what is right, what works, and the way things ought to be. What's happening is nothing less than a neo-reformation.

The Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s brought about many changes in the perception of man's relationship with God. As Karen Armstrong puts it on page 276 of the hard cover edition of A History Of God, "Instead of expressing their faith in external, collective ways, the people of Europe were beginning to explore the more interior consequences of religion. All these factors contributed to the painful and frequently violent changes that propelled the West toward modernity."

The Calvinists especially assisted a transformation from a world of indulgences and unquestionable fealty to God and King toward one of personal salvation and personal rights. This ushered in a world view that eventually became the Age Of Enlightenment and led to the replacing of Monarchies with republics and democracies.

We are in the early stages of the next great ideological shift. We have begun the transition from the image of God as the ultimate King and toward God as an archetype for our own personal spiritual growth. Technology may be replacing God, but we are still bound within a God-centric paradigm, and so the need for a larger good falls upon the government, especially one which promotes harmony, compassion, brotherhood, and Peace On Earth.

The change in ideology must happen first, followed by the change in government. As much as I would like to wake up in a world of rational freedom tomorrow, I fear that we may be seeing only the beginning of a three or four century trend that may eventually, someday, if we're lucky, lead us to a more mature spiritual perspective that will enable the type of society that the Libertarians envision today.

The irony is that the very people advancing the cause of individual rights and liberty believe, with their displaced religious fervor, that Big Brother will grant this to all mankind because He is wise and good. Thus the ones who seem to favor liberty are actually making it harder by increasing the power of government over us all, while the other side, the ones that want to reduce the size and influence of government, want to tell us how to live and when to pray.

What is a Libertarian to make of this?

We know that government doesn't work, not because the people in it are bad or have bad intentions, but that its very design makes it ineffective to perform the tasks that have been thrust upon it. For example, the military is designed to win wars through the effective use of violence, which makes it the wrong type of tool to feed children, police a refugee camp, or help build nations. Likewise, a government designed as a minimalist tool of a free people makes a poor social welfare dictator.

I wish I could find some way to point out the fact that, not only does government do poorly at so much of what it tries, but that other solutions can be so much more effective. Why should any of us put up with neighborhoods overrun with drugs, schools that starve for money while cities build stadiums, families that are locked into poverty and dependency, and a federal spending habit that cannot be cured? It's not that people like these things; they're just afraid that the alternative might be worse. So often I find that when I suggest the heresy that alternatives do indeed exist, most people scurry back to the choke hold of a pretentious, self-serving government and then wonder what evil is in me.

I wonder if there will ever be a time when the majority of the people of this nation are governed by reason and intellect rather than the superstition and reaction that passes for thought so easily. It may be as pointless to tell men that they can live free as it is to tell a Christian that he will never see Heaven. What if we're not ready to be free? There may in fact be something built into the very deepest corner of our brains that demands that we be members of a social order ruled by an alpha-male with a firm handshake and a handful of platitudes.

As long as people demand to be penned in someone else's cage, then keeping them locked under heavy taxes and extensive laws may be just what they need. "Tax me before I sin again," they seem to be saying. If faith in God or the State really is the only restraint keeping most people from looting and killing, then forcing them into a libertarian world would be disastrous for everyone.

Actually, I don't think that's anywhere close to reality. I don't think for a second that most people are wild savages ready to run amok, and only by the good graces of the government do we have any social order. On the contrary, most people just want to live and let live. Some would point to the wanton looting and fighting that occurs during times of disaster as evidence that society is not old enough to know better. It looks different to me. The reason people steal and vandalize property at such times comes from a disconnect they feel between themselves and their community. It's not like they're doing anything against their neighbors; they're just stealing from the Man, some faceless force of Nature to be dealt with. Well, if the Man weren't in their face all the time, telling them what to do and how to act and where to live and what they can have and how they can work, then they might feel more in control and not feel the need to strike back when his back is turned.

What's the cause and what's the effect? It's like withholding information and responsibility from young adults and then justifying that on the basis that they are ignorant and irresponsible. How will they learn? How will we learn if all we do is wait for government to try to solve social cancers like bigotry, hatred, and fear?

The new reformation is underway, and though many would like to sew patches on the emperor's invisible clothes, the naked ineffectiveness of government is beginning to show through. Most people are at least aware that something is wrong, just as most people feel a growing uneasiness with the realities of the world that intrude upon their religion.

The time has never been better than it is today to set this nation upon a course of liberty. It is clear that people need something grand to believe in, so much so that they will accept government with all its dangers. What we need to do as Libertarians is to throw truth down upon the golden calf of government, and to replace the empty hole they will feel with something better: Freedom, Liberty, Excellence, Opportunity, Honor, Knowledge, Dignity, Strength.

Therefore, I offer the following suggestions to Libertarians everywhere. This movement needs leaders.

  • When you are discussing politics with friends and neighbors, remember that you are treading on emotions that run very deep within them. Remember that to their ears your suggestions are by definition evil and unthinkable. Because of this, you must be extra patient, kind, and good.
  • Give them solutions, not ideology. Nobody gives a wet slap about Rand or Objectivism. They want to know how poor people will eat. It does more harm than good to point out that neither they nor the government has the moral right force you to feed them, or that a factory has no moral duty to stay open and provide expensive benefits. Remember they're looking for someone to let them off the emotional hook for feeling bad about taking away the welfare gravy train. Remind your friend that he cares about the poor, you care about the poor, and that caring isn't the exclusive domain of the government. (You might also mention that if your friend isn't willing to put up his own money to help after the income tax is abolished that he doesn't really care about the poor so why bring up that question.) When your friend wants to know how poor kids will get an education, remind them that education doesn't have to expensive - it was made that way by government - that with less restriction and more freedom, there will be plenty of inexpensive alternatives and more opportunities for things like community scholarships, church schools, day school at the YMCA, education benefits from employers, and better support for home schooling. (Again you can ask if your friend would be willing to donate to a free community school if he didn't have to pay any income taxes.)
  • Remind them that government is not God. Keep beating the drumbeat that was Harry Browne's tag line: Government doesn't work. Again, remember you're treading on Holy Ground. Just tell them things they already know about government, but forgot to wince at the first time. When they demand that the government is there to protect the little guy, by all means don't go into the lecture on the evils of Robin Hood or the moral bankruptcy of socialism. Instead, agree that closing factories and moving jobs overseas is rotten, but remind them that big companies don't act alone. Taxation, lawsuits that come from employment regulation, environmental mandates, price controls, and intrusive regulations from top to bottom all conspire to make running a large business in America very expensive and unreliable.
  • Promote the wisdom and compassion of local communities over the federal government. This is a critical point. Most people think that Libertarians are anarchists, that we want to just open the doors and let the wild beast of greedy big companies squash little guys. Tell them that the goal is not a lack of government, but more effective government. Why send money on a round trip only to pay for the journey through the hands of the bureaucrats of Washington DC?
  • Avoid the phrase 'Less Government.' Say safer neighborhoods, stronger local businesses, better schools, less corruption. You and I know it's the same thing, but it sounds better to everyone else. Also, avoid the term libertarian if you can get away with it. It usually conveys zero information and besides, most people feel a strong party affiliation so the label just gets in the way. Labels don't matter all that much as long as they're thinking.
  • Use the right carrot with the right person. If you're speaking with a Republican, emphasize religious freedom and gun ownership. If you're speaking with a Democrat, talk about liberal rights such as gay marriages or the legalization of drugs. Remember that Libertarians are not at odds with either of the two parties. In fact, both of them hold a big piece of the puzzle. They just need us to fit the pieces together.
  • Make sure you're prepared, patient, and polite, and if it's not going well, just nod and tell them they have a good point. Hey, it's not so important that you've got to piss people off. They care about America too.