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American Government

A lot of people use the terms government and American government interchangeably, as though they mean the same thing. They don't. Government simply refers to the act of guidance within any hierarchy, be it church, family or civil government. American government refers specifically to the civil government of the United States of America, and should not be confused with the government of, say, a children's nursery (though at times there appears to be little difference).

The United States is, technically, a federated constitutional republic comprised of fifty states. Three branches ensure laws are made (legislative), interpreted and enforced (judicial), and administered (executive). That's a pretty basic description and there's way more to it, but the essential thing to understand is that the U.S. government was built around the concept of checks and balances, that no branch would enjoy preeminence or be able to act autonomously without the support of the other two. In short, authority was to remain limited.

Each state in the Union functions the same way: a governor and his staff act as executives, state legislatures pass or reject laws, and state courts hear and judge cases. The Tenth Amendment (and final item of the Bill of Rights) to the U.S. Constitution clearly states that all powers not delegated by the Constitution are to be determined either by the states individually or by individual citizens. Things as relatively minor as legal drinking age, and as important as firearm control, were originally the province of states, not the central government.

But times change. The Federalists at the time of the Constitution's ratification argued that the inclusion of a Bill of Rights (meant to specifically defend the rights of citizens) would eventually shift the power over individuals' rights away from states and onto the federal government, and that this would in turn lead to an over-inflated central government habituated to aggrandizing more and more power to itself. They probably didn't think a civil war would be the event that solidified those fears permanently into reality.

Yes, the American Civil War was largely about slavery, and slavery is very bad. But it also really was about states' rights (in part, a state's right to legalize or ban slavery), and the limitations the federal government would or would not have. The Confederates went too far in the opposite direction (their version of anti-federalism led to a dilution of federal power that at times rendered the central government ineffectual), but their fundamental sentiments were very American in the limited government and protection of individual liberties sense.

Great a man as Lincoln was, his insistence that ultimate power rest with the federal government meant that it began determining issues of moral, economic and libertarian importance that had previously been the right of states and citizens to determine. Now, many Americans simply accept the federal government as the mediator of rights, and willingly submit to its every whim in exchange for security and fulfillment of basic desires. Those dedicated to the rights of individuals and freedom from too much restriction (or from compulsory measures) are often seen as radicals.

What is the appropriate Christian response to all this? We are called to live in a radically different way from our secular neighbors, and with a radically different creed—"For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; He will save us" (Isaiah 33:22). Our government is a heavenly one, though of course we are also commanded to render to Caesar what belongs to him, and to obey the laws of whatever nation we live in (as long as they don't conflict with God's Law).

For Christians, government should limit evil and propagate good. To the extent the U.S. government does this, it's a good government; to the extent it does not, it's a merely human enterprise rebellious against God. Our job is not to topple anything, nor to disobey laws, but it is to influence those in authority (as far as it is in our ability to do so) to make and keep laws that accord with God's Law. As far as we are able to govern ourselves, we are called to live quietly, soberly and above reproach. This is the biblical attitude toward civil government, and the only plan besides Christian evangelism which will actually serve to reform a system of government increasingly given to ungodly practices and ideals.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

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