Big government vs. Bible and Constitution

Posted: Jan 09, 2002 12:00 AM
Liberals and neoconservative pundits are saying that the easy U.S. victory in the first stage of the war on terrorism shows the merits of a big government. That's illogical spin, and they should not be allowed to get away with it. We can puncture the balloon of those who would use military needs to engorge government generally by learning from the original Cassius Clay of Kentucky. Some may remember that name as Muhammad Ali's pre-Muslim moniker, but I'm referring to the antebellum anti-slavery editor and politician who, when giving a speech in the 1840s, would often say, "To those who respect God's word, I appeal to this book." Then he held up a copy of the Constitution and said, "To those who respect our fundamental law, I appeal to this document." Conservatives today might start with the Bible, as just about all the Founders did a little over two centuries ago. The Bible is clear on government's chief role: to wield "the power of the sword" against both external enemies and internal criminals. Government is needed to terrorize terrorists and other evildoers, so soldiers, cops and judges are needed. The role of government, though, is not to construct a new Eden or reconstruct society. The prophet Samuel was among those who warned Israel that kings did not like to stick to their proper work of providing for the common defense. He initially argued against having a king at all, because a person who did a good job as a military leader would not stop there: "He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves, and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage, and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves." Such Bible lessons are important, but many Americans believe we have outgrown them. For them and for all of us who respect the Constitution as written, the Preamble to that great document makes a memorable distinction. It notes that the federal government exists to "provide for the common defense" but to "promote the general welfare." There's a huge difference between providing and promoting -- the choice of those particular words was not accidental. "Providing" means doing the job yourself. The government has an army -- religious organizations, the Lions Club and labor unions do not have armies -- because Washington's job is to provide for the common defense. "Promoting" means developing a favorable environment within which others are likely to step up. The federal government was not involved in poverty-fighting during the 19th century, but American churches, synagogues, businesses, and civic and fraternal associations fought a war on poverty then that was far more effective than our capital-W War of the 1960s and 1970s. It is constitutionally right to grow a big government for defense when we have potent adversaries abroad. It is constitutionally wrong to grow a big government for welfare, especially since civil society can accomplish many of the tasks that government has taken upon itself. If a church, synagogue or Optimists club can provide after-school care or baseball leagues for kids, we don't need government to do it. If religious groups or atheists clubs can provide counseling in times of trouble, we don't need government grief counselors. All Americans should learn the Constitutional distinction between providing and promoting. If proponents of big government pay no attention to the Bible, they should read the Constitution. It's great that folks in Washington know how to run an army. That doesn't mean they can manage well the compassionate work of a Salvation Army. Winning a war in Afghanistan is still different from winning a war on poverty.