Just this week we received the stunning news that the President of the United States for all intents and purposes fired the chairman of General Motors. He also gave Chrysler 30 days to merge with Italian automaker Fiat. This level of White House involvement in areas formerly reserved to corporate board rooms is unprecedented.
And whether you applaud or bemoan the President’s actions, we have to ask the question: What is the proper role of government? It’s a good time to ask it now, especially when people seem to be succumbing yet again to what I call the “political illusion.”
Putting it simply, the political illusion is the notion that human nature can be perfected by government; that a new Jerusalem, so to speak, can be built using the tools of politics; that politics is all that matters.
The enormous destruction wrought by the utopian “isms” of the 20th century—socialism, communism, fascism, and Nazism—should have disabused us of the political illusion. But today people are turning once again to government to solve all our problems.
But government simply cannot meet all of humanity’s needs, nor should it try to. The biblical mandate for government is clear: to preserve order, restrain evil, and to do justice. Civil authority, as Paul said in Romans, is “God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrong doer.” Peter wrote that governments were to “punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”
Even in the Old Testament, whether we see Moses judging disputes among the people or the prophet Amos excoriating the leaders of Israel for “depriving the poor of justice in the courts,” we can understand God’s concern to establish civil order and justice.
There is no biblical basis, however, for government to solve every problem under the sun.
And practically speaking, no president can do what President Obama says he wants to do. I believe he’s sincerely trying to live up to his campaign promises. I think he has a true reformer’s zeal for the environment and healthcare and a host of other domestic issues.
But right now, as some columnists— like the New York Times ’ David Brooks—are urging, we need him to focus on the economic and national security issues. By trying to focus on everything, the President can focus on nothing. And in times like these, that could be disastrous. I learned this lesson in the Nixon White House many years ago.
There were many agenda items that President Nixon had campaigned on. But when we got to the White House and started reading the daily intelligence summaries, we quickly realized that in the midst of the Cold War and Vietnam, any mistake we made could result in nuclear holocaust.
Sure, President Nixon had to deal with politics and budgets. But I can tell you that foreign affairs consumed 80 percent of his time; it had to. There was simply no way for the President to focus on five or eight major issues at one time.
Today, focusing on the financial crisis and on maintaining our security against terrorism are just as critical for our survival as was winning the Cold War back then. If the President does well on these, he will be judged favorably by the people and by history.
So, for the sake of the country, I hope President Obama takes a more restrained and, dare I say, more biblical view of what the government ought to do and ought not to do.