Government & Civics

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Few things in the world are as potentially dangerous or universally misunderstood as government. Americans tend to think some form of democracy is the generally preferred system of national government, though even the briefest survey of political history will show this is not the case. When he had the Grand Inquisitor tell Jesus that men desired security more than freedom, Dostoevsky got much nearer the mark.

Man's tendency is to let himself be governed. It's easier to forfeit responsibility for one's actions and welfare to a powerful agency than to have to answer for them personally, and historically governments and the governed have been perfectly willing to make the exchange. So what if individual liberties are curtailed? At least there will be bread and circuses.

It's hard for Americans to imagine it, but years after the fall of the Soviet Union thousands of Russians were still gloomily wishing for a return of Communist rule. Of course, this is likely just a case of Israelites "remembering" Egypt as it was, but the fact remains—we don't like to answer for ourselves, take initiative,or work hard.

Letting the government take care of everything is so much easier.

But what is government? Is it Washington? the U.N.? anything that takes our money and liberty in exchange for bread and maybe some form of crass entertainment? For many it is nothing more than something to complain about. What is it really?

The word govern derives from the Latin word gubernare: to steer, drive, or guide. Government most simply, then, is how we guide our actions (or have them guided by someone else). Christians are bound to God's Law, which involves both avoiding and pursuing certain actions, behaviors and attitudes. This constitutes self-government, and is the most basic and foundational form of government--from self-government proceeds all other forms of human rule. Good governors must first be able to govern themselves.

After self-government comes family government. The hierarchy implicit in parent/child relationships constitutes a form of government, one that ideally trains its constituents how to be good citizens and participate in the government of church, community and nation. At its worst, family government teaches those under it how to get what they want and wield power abusively and selfishly.

Typically when we talk about government, though, we mean a national system of public authority and regulation. The government of any country is the organizational national head responsible for making and enforcing laws. This is what we mean by the term civil government, and it can take any one of several forms, including a democracy, aristocracy, republic, oligarchy, or dictatorship. Our United States government is a federal constitutional republic with some democratic elements thrown in for good measure (or bad measure, depending on your perspective).

America's founders sought to ensure the governmental system they developed would allow individual citizens the right to follow their own conscience in moral and religious matters. This didn't mean, however, people should be allowed to do whatever they wanted. It simply meant that the government wasn't going to step in and tell people where to go to church, or who to marry, or not to spank misbehaving kids. It certainly didn't mean that the government was going to delimit displays of religion on public premises.

Of course, as laid out by the Constitution and writings like The Federalist Papers, originally there were to be relatively few "public premises." Ol' James Madison wouldn't even know what to do with the current plethora of federal departments--education, welfare, agriculture, etc. were to be regulated by individuals first and states second.

It was the job of the federal government, not to subject people to bureaucracy and legality, but to protect them and help them flourish. The central national government was never intended to foist prosperity on anybody (which never works); it was to maintain the individual's right to pursue prosperity. Notice Jefferson didn't write "happiness," but "the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence.

To be successful, however, a government must be more concerned with upholding God's Law than with being happy in a temporal sense. As a people, Americans have forgotten or rejected God's Law. They don't govern themselves by His principles. The government has encroached more and more on the provinces of church and family, and the response has been to abdicate responsibility. True change begins at the bottom. Our hope is that Christian families begin by training children to love God and His Law above all else.

"Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."
— Luke 20:25

"When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when a wicked man rules, people groan."
— Proverbs 29:2

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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