In a recent Washington Post column, conservative commentator and pundit George F. Will argued that big government, and big government programs, can’t solve America’s problems or help those who are struggling. As conservative orthodoxy from the Reagan-era, Will’s argument was old stuff—but it caught my attention because of its unwelcome implications for America and the Church —and because I was confused as to what exactly Will was opposed to: big government programs, liberal government programs, modern-day government programs, or some, all, or none of these.
Will praised the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights, an enormous government assistance program enacted at the end of World War II to help millions of men who were being discharged from the armed forces in buying homes and going to college. “The G.I. Bill used liberal mean to achieve conservative results: Rather than maintaining people as permanent wards of government, it created an educated, property-owning middle-class equipped for self-reliant striving.” By contrast, Will saw Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program of 1964-1965 as disastrous for America; he regretted liberals’ tendency to “idealiz[e] government as a disinterested [and] neutral arbiter ensuring fair play.” The truth is that “government officials [are not] more nobl[e or] unselfis[h] than lesser mortals;” rather, government is easily “manipulated by those who [can] navigate [its] complexities.” It “is invariably regressive, transferring wealth upward.”
“The past,” Will concluded—including the era of Johnson’s Great Society, when the federal government “said it could create ‘model cities’ and other wonders, and people believed it—was less romantic in fact than it is in memory.”
Will is correct—and his piercing words deflate grandiose schemes of the left and the right. If liberals seek to create egalitarian great societies, conservatives similarly talk about making America great again, and returning America to some imagined heteronormative, Christian, Pro-Life, and White ideal. But the past was never as “great” or “ideal” as we imagine it. Will’s words also apply to the American Church, and to churchgoers’ wistful recollections of “the good old days”—which they invariably situate in the 1950s and the early 1960s—when their pastors, their worship, their youth, and their communities were (at least, in their recollection) perfect.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with government—or Church—leaders aspiring to be “neutral” and “disinterested arbiters ensuring fair play,” or for that matter, striving to “perfect” society. But our aspirations must be tempered with reality and a Niebuhrian recognition of limits, a kind of humility that recognizes that no political or denominational program, and no congregational social justice ministry, will ever achieve actual perfection, or result in total unmitigated good.
In his column, Will noted that Americans have lost trust in government, but of course, Americans’ distrust of government is not a constant—just as Americans’ indifference toward the church is not a constant. The more nuanced truth is that many Americans don’t like government or the church until they need it. Thus, anti-government Tea Party adherents still ask for FEMA disaster relief when their homes and land are inundated by flooding or other catastrophes. Similarly, Ronald Reagan conservatives, who believe that the best government is the least government, still cash their monthly Social Security checks. And people who don’t attend worship services will still drop by a church dinner when they want a good meal, or contact a pastor when they are facing a crisis.
Indeed, what Will proposes is nothing more than thinly-veiled Social Darwinism: Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Survival of the fittest. Rely on yourself. And in the end, some people will make it. But others won’t. Can we allow those who can’t or won’t to simply fall through the cracks?
Will’s anti-government arguments have resonance in the Church; indeed, there is a rough symmetry between American political and socio-religious ideologies. Thus, churchgoers who self-identify as “conservative” Roman Catholics, or as or “Evangelical” or “conservative” Protestants may also be political and social conservatives. And “liberal” and “Progressive” Christians are often politically and socially liberal.
Among the many hats I wear, one of them is that of an adjunct political scientist at SUNY-Cortland. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I teach courses on multiculturalism and world politics to college freshmen and sophomores, many of whom have not formed hardened political convictions. But some of them have, and my classes often become fora for ideological big government/small government debates.
And then, on Sunday mornings and at various other times during the week, I put on my ordained United Church of Christ (UCC) pastor hat and I listen to church people, some of whom distrust the UCC; and I listen to pastors, some of whom isolate themselves and their churches from our Conference and from other UCC churches and pastors.
Little wonder that so many of the anti-government assertions I hear these days on cable TV news shows and from my students sound like the anti-big denomination reasoning I hear in church. There seems to be a kind of self-flagellative urge in these arguments, as if Americans think they don’t deserve the support and the benefits that a large government or denomination can provide, and instead must deprive and punish themselves through isolation and puniness. But the opposite of big government and big denominations is not better and more personal government and ministry. It is social estrangement and cutoff. It is citizens and local congregations doing without the vital programs and benefits they need.
So here’s what I want to know: Is there a paranoid impulse behind this notion that a big government or church or denomination cannot possibly have our individual interest at heart—and indeed, may be out to get us?
This seems to be the case; “self-reliance” and “Go-it-alone” are popular philosophies in the Church these days. In some conservative and Evangelical churches this tendency used to have a pseudo-theological name: “the doctrine of separatism.” The upright are not to mingle with the morally compromised lest they too became morally compromised. These separatists even have a Bible verse—2 Corinthians 6:14: “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers, for what partnership can righteousness have with wickedness? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness” (Berean Study Bible [Glassport, Pennsylvania: Bible Hub, 2016)?
I wonder if this is why some conservative and Evangelical churches and some liberal and progressive denominations and churches look upon each other with a jaundiced eye. Perhaps it is why, historically, liberal and progressive denominations like the UCC have been more interested in ecumenism and interfaith dialogue than conservative and Evangelical churches. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, during the salad days of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), liberal Mainline denominations were always reaching out to Conservatives and Evangelicals—who rarely reciprocated.
There are many things I do not like about our Federal government. Like George Will, I believe that our government is not very responsive to the needs of real people. But unlike Will, I believe that it needs to be. People need programs, assistance, and advocacy—and America has complex social problems—that only government can provide or resolve. So I do not favor smaller government, or the elimination of government, or what former presidential advisor Steve Bannon termed, “the annihilation of the administrative state.” And I do not favor Social Darwinism. I favor a more effective and efficient government, a government that works, a government that is big enough not to be impotent.
In much the same way, it is obvious to me that the church is changing. Old theologies and techniques no longer suffice. As UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer wrote in 2015, postmodern Christians are rejecting the old buildings, old theologies, and old denominational structures of “Church 2.0” in favor of a looser and more decentralized way of being Christians in community—“Church 3.0!” A new church—an “emergent” church, in Phyllis Tickle’s parlance—is rising, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of the old.
I believe in Dorhauer’s vision of a new Church 3.0. Except that I don’t want to let go of denominations like the United Church of Christ. I believe that denominations can do things for people, and provide resources and programs that make a difference, in a way that individual churches and loose manifestations of Church 3.0 cannot.
Maybe I’m thinking simplistically or emotionally, but reducing the size of government and of denominations and churches seems nihilistic and prompts the question: What’s the point? Helping people and providing them with resources and benefits is an ongoing need; it doesn’t end or diminish. So why should government, denominations, or churches end or be diminished? Ultimately, the government is us. The Church is us. The United Church of Christ is us. Denominations and churches, no less than our government, are expressions and reflections of who we are and what we dream about—our hopes and aspirations.
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.