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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.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • RZ says:

    Good reminder, Scott. The best argument for government is that it is better than no government. History illustrates that any and every over-empowered group will exploit others: Industrialists, railroads, unions, Ku Klux Klan, Cavalry…the list is endless (and it includes the church). In purest form, government is nothing more and nothing less than a covenant. It works best when people stay in their lanes. Shalom, mutuality, shared power. Democracy is getting lots of scorn lately for inefficiency, excessive spending, speed, and moral compromise. But we must remember that it came into existence because of the intolerable abuses of monarchies and empires. Checks and balances are not all bad. Ask Sudan, ask Syria, ask Russia or North Korea.
    Last thought: What an opportunity for the church to model how a covenant works!

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    Good point. Aside from safety and public services, government also protects individual rights and group rights. Sometimes government needs to protect us from ourselves, from abuse from religious groups or abusive individuals (like pedophile priests or religious scam artists after our money). Other times religious groups have held the government accountable, as in the civil rights movement. Checks & balances indeed!

  • Nolan Duane Palsma says:

    You never disappoint in your writings. Thanks!

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Today, April 18, echoing what my dad, a life-long Baptist and Democrat would say: “I did my patriotic duty–I paid my taxes.”

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      It is a privilege to pay taxes. I write the check with joy in my heart. Not because it is easy, but because I’m proud to be an American with all its warts and failures.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    You can’t say everything, but some things are worth adding in the comments. In 2021, the federal government employed 2.85 million people, more than any other entity. Ask those people if the government shut down how that would go, or businesses who would no longer have anything purchased by these people. The government gave SNAP benefits to 41 million in 2021 (37% white, 26% black, 16% Hispanic just to put that out there). A high percentage of that number are children. Ask those people if the government shut down how hunger would go, or ask grocery stores how they would handle the huge cut in revenue or farmers who would have their crops suddenly not bought up. What’s more for every $1 billion the govt spends in SNAP it results in $1.5 billion in economic activity and creates 13,560 jobs. That’s
    a lot of economic activity going away. You could argue we should expand the program not cut it from both ends. Keep that in mind when discussing cuts to SNAP. I could go on.

    One last thing, I’m always curious about private industry doing it better than government, but no one offers an example. Why is that? I don’t believe government is the be all and end all. I’m with you and RZ in general, but I grow weary of the exultation of big business and private industry, as if the altar of Mammon is where our knees belong.

  • RZ says:

    Thanks for the prompt in your last paragraph. Not sure private industry does it better. Maybe more profitably and perhaps cheaper. To grossly oversimplify, private industry is motivated by profit and government by oversight and perpetuation. Private industry is rarely known to over- regulate itself and government is rarely known to bankrupt itself to the point of extinction due to nonprofitability. In my experience it turns out to be somewhat of a wash. Call it greed, bureaucracy, or sin, it infiltrates both sides. Yet, there are still kingdom-of-God people in both arenas who stand out for integrity, compassion and excellence.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      I think I agree with most of this. I would only add that the most profitable businesses that do things cheaper are usually provided with government subsidies, products, or tax breaks (i.e. the internet, start up loans for companies like Tesla, huge subsidies for oil companies, all weather related industries using the national weather service and all its research and reporting, the USPS finishing a huge number of deliveries for UPS and FedEx to rural places they can’t complete the work without losing money-i.e. USPS must deliver, so they lose money to help companies make a profit. I could go on, but why?). But on the whole I think I’m right there with you.
      Thanks again.

  • Theo says:

    Rodney — The government wholly relies upon profitable businesses in order to operate. Tax money has to come from somewhere, and by definition that needs to be from someone else doing something productive and having excess to “share” with the government. Without private industry, we’re all peasant farmers and none of this “good” the government does for the poor exists.

    These are minor points, and I don’t mean to distract, but USPS is mandated to deliver everywhere. Doing those last mile package deliveries in remote areas on without the timeliness requirements of UPS or FedEx actually makes USPS more money. They might still “lose” money but they lose *less* money than they otherwise would. Similarly, these “huge subsidies for oil companies” are something of a figment of various advocacy groups imaginations. While I am loathe to quote the IER, their points are valid, and similar to those I was going to make. When I tried to find the breakdown of these subsidies, I found one of the most significant was the ability to deduct the costs of capital investments and the use of “last in, first out” accounting. Given what I know about taxes, those did not really sound like “subsidies” but something everyone gets–or at least something similar to it.
    Thus, I’m constrained to agree with IER, which does cite the non-partisal Congressional Research Service in depth:

    My point? I think we have a tendency to think about things on a surface level. Something might sound good, or sound trustworthy, but if you look behind the curtain, a lot of stuff just is not true or is not as it first appears. Which leads to my last point…

    Shutting the government down in a moment would cause chaos, but I am also not convinced that so much assistance for the poor and these other myriad “helpful” programs really are good thing, from a Christian perspective, when you look behind the curtain and do a more in depth look at it. Oil companies get huge subsidies! Well, maybe not so much. SNAP feeds people and creates jobs and does so much good? Well, maybe no so much. Hear me out. There’s a definite tendency among many more progressive Christians to want to operate the government as some sort of charitable organization. I’ve never understood that. Christ tells Christians to feed the sick and care for the poor. Not to fob it off onto the government.

    Churches actually used to do the work of caring for the sick, feeding the poor, and housing the homeless.
    Now the government picks up a lot of that tab. There’s a strong argument that pushing off so much benevolent work onto the government has had catastrophic consequences for the church and its ability to do missions and outreach. Not to mention decimated church attendance over the years and tear away at the social fabric which is strengthened by people helping other people directly. If people had more in their pockets and gave it in tithes to churches, who could then spend it caring for the poor and the needy, I think we would all be in a much better spot than we are with the government doing it for us. Instead of the government employing people to do those jobs, we could. And it’s hard to say that would be a worse situation from a salvation perspective, or even a societal perspective.

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