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Some while ago, not sure when, Facebook started embedding a feature called “Reels” into people’s news feeds. These are seemingly random video clips usually lasting under a minute. Last week I played one of them. It was from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson with former Governor Ronald Reagan. Since then I have sleuthed the clip and found out it was from 1975.
Carson asked Reagan a question pertaining to government and Reagan responded with what would become a signature line: Government is not the answer, it’s the problem. Then Reagan said, “If the government shut and locked its door for three weeks and just went away, we’d never miss it.” The line garnered applause and five years later Reagan would use a version of that line to ride all the way to the top seat of power in that very government.
But would we really not miss our government if it up and went AWOL for some weeks on end? How about people who depend on Medicare and Social Security checks? Or who like getting their mail just generally every day? Would we feel good getting on airplanes knowing the FAA was not monitoring and enforcing safety regulations or that someone was not necessarily checking there were qualified Air Traffic Controllers in the towers? Would we not miss the FBI and the DEA doing its work, cracking down on crime and keeping citizens safe? Would we not miss the Pentagon monitoring the activities of our enemies or the Coast Guard standing ready to rescue people stranded at sea?
Or look what actually does happen when we have government shutdowns over the budget. Are citizens generally happier when the door to the government quite literally gets shut and locked? Not usually. Family vacations get nixed because the National Parks close and no one can visit any one of the many Smithsonian Museums in Washington.
Of course, even President Reagan never actually entertained the abolition of all government just that we might be able to get away with smaller government, though it seems that no matter who is President or which party is in power, government never actually gets significantly smaller on a permanent basis. And friends have pointed out for years that private industry and private parties might be able to do some of what the federal government now does and perhaps in more efficient ways. Granted.
But Reagan’s political success in caricaturing all government as the problem and not the solution is indicative of the love-hate relationship a lot of people have with authority and with the authorities and with government. We like it when government or those in authority do things that benefit us but can turn right around and ballyhoo programs we sense help mostly other people or whose existence we question just generally. And today like everything else, attitudes toward the government are so rife now with partisanship that it seems very little support for any kind of government work can be generated in the hearts of those whose preferred party is not currently running things.
One of the lesser known parts of the Reformed Confessions is Article 36 of The Belgic Confession. If you look at the text of that article, you will see that both the CRCNA and the RCA have made their own tweaks to this over the years. But below is the main text still common to all who subscribe to this Confession:
We believe that because of the depravity of the human race, our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. God wants the world to be governed by laws and policies
so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings. For that purpose God has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good. Moreover everyone, regardless of status, condition, or rank, must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word, praying for them that the Lord may be willing to lead them in all their ways and that we may live a peaceful and quiet life in all piety and decency.
Considering how cruelly the Belgic Confession author Guide de Bres suffered under and was finally martyred under the machinations of a cruel government and king, these words become all the more remarkable. Of course, none of this precludes prudent criticism of government, efforts to reform it, or even making direct challenges to the governing authorities in case corruption or hostility to religious faith leads to repressive actions.
But for me and in general, this is a reminder to remain as charitable as possible where government is concerned. And these days I know I need to strive to do this all the more when the people running things have ideas on what the government should or should not do for people that differ from some of my own thoughts.
Governor Reagan was right: Government is not the answer to everything. Only Jesus fits that bill. Meanwhile, though, even Jesus asks us to pray for, respect, and be grateful for government, and not just when it helps me but when it helps anyone in meaningful ways.