BreakPoint

The Political Illusion

Mark Twain once quipped that "Congress is the only criminal class native to America." He was joking, of course, but there's a kernel of truth in his witty remark—one we ought to remember as we prepare to vote for another Congress. For years Congress has been promising to put its own house in order and balance the federal budget. And for years it has failed. Some of our representatives even refuse to let the balanced budget amendment come up for a vote. In essence, they're telling us, We can't do it; we don't have the character it takes to impose restraints on government spending. In fact, it's finally beginning to dawn on people that government is not able to deliver on a lot of its promises. For most of us, that's a hard lesson to learn. We instinctively turn to government to solve our social problems. It's a habit reinforced from the time we're young. The state has become an idol. Listen to these quotations from the teachers' edition of a fifth-grade social studies textbook. "Today, when people lose their jobs," the textbook says, "they can get some money from the government." A few pages later the book says, "Today, families who do not have enough money for food can get money from the government." And a few pages later we read, "Today, families who cannot afford to pay their rent can get help from the government." The message is obvious: Government is the solution to every social need. And here's a quotation that sums it all up. It's from a junior high civics textbook, explaining why the national government has grown so large. The book says that over time, "people were no longer content to live as their forefathers had lived. They wanted richer, fuller lives. They wanted the government to help make their lives rich and full." (Emphasis added.) What is this book teaching kids? That government can make our lives "rich and full." This goes far beyond the traditional philosophy of limited government, in which the state is given only certain specified tasks, such as operating a police force and regulating traffic. And it shows that Americans have fallen prey to what political writer Jacques Ellul calls "the political illusion": the idea that government is actually capable of creating the good life—the good society. This is nothing short of idolatry, treating the state as a god. But like all idols, the state inevitably disappoints those who worship at its shrine. A government that can't even manage the simple accounting task of balancing its budget is certainly not capable of making people's lives "rich and full." And it was never meant to. Biblically speaking, government is simply one of several social structures ordained by God, each with a specific task to do. The job of the state is to promote justice and restrain evil. The hope that it can do more than that—that it can make people happy or fulfilled—is doomed to failure and disappointment. There's only one way to make life "rich and full"—not by turning to government but by turning to God. The kingdoms of this world rise and fall, but the kingdom of God will rule in human hearts for eternity.

10/26/94

Chuck Colson

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