Phi Beta Cons

Religion and the Growth of Government

I enjoyed Carol’s comments on the ongoing debate between Heather McDonald and many esteemed Cornerites over the role of religious faith in the conservative movement and the use of religious arguments in public policy debates. Carol rightly notes that believers came to realize they’d made “devil’s bargain” when they decided to more or less “leave aside their beliefs when entering the public debate.” There is a major (and overlooked) reason why people of faith began to realize that they had made a profound mistake: The explosive growth of government.
When the “devil’s bargain” was first struck, the government had a much lesser place in our lives. The local public schools were viewed more as community schools than as parts of a larger state system. The government, while it certainly had a rudimentary social welfare system, was much more limited in scope. The absence of public-accommodation laws and other anti-bias regulations meant that government played very little role in the associational and economic life of most citizens. While the federal government of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s was not empirically small, it was a tiny fraction of its current size.
But then government mushroomed, at every level. All of a sudden, government officials — often officials who were not elected and did not live and work in the community — became involved in even the most intimate personal issues, from the local school curriculum, to hiring decisions, to the composition of the membership of the local country club, to drug treatment programs, to sex education. (If you want to see how much further the government can reach, check out our public universities where state employees believe it is their duty to make sure that their subjects, umm students, have a state nanny at their side whenever their feelings are hurt). And it did so not as a neutral arbiter between competing viewpoints but as a moral advocate (sometimes with the right moral view, sometimes not). Under such circumstances, the “bargain” began to fall apart. Religious citizens realized that while they could (and perhaps should) keep arguments about tax rates and foreign policy free of “God talk,” they could not abandon their spiritual core when it came to raising their children, healing the sick, and reaching out to the poor.   
Moreover, when dealing with intensely personal issues, arguments based on “reason” alone are so often completely insufficient. As Carol rightly notes in her example of the single mother, all the rational arguments in the world regarding the increase in poverty and abuse from single motherhood, and all the reason-based justifications for abstinence have not made much of an impact on young women who are sometimes “in love,” sometimes under intense pressure, and sometimes just stubborn. “Because it is a sin, and there’s a better way” can still be a strong argument. And it should be.
So here we are in 2006 where government employees can wax eloquent from the heart in support of their ideology and seek to perpetuate their ideology in our children, impacting them in virtually every aspect of their lives, and yet for some it is out of bounds for people of faith to respond in the public square with the ideas that not only persuade those who go to our church or synagogue but also millions upon millions of our fellow citizens.

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