Data from a recent Pew Center poll suggest that political differences are creating a great divide in American society. Indeed, differences over partisan politics are even stronger than those based on race, class, and education. The area of greatest disagreement is over the role of government – voters are fundamentally divided about what government should do and how well it is achieving its goals.
If we want to engage in helpful dialogue about politics and find ways to talk to one another across divides, I would suggest that we start by searching for some common ground and then thinking through some of the reason for our political differences.
So let's start at the very beginning: Why do we need government in the first place? Consider a couple of examples that will help us begin to tackle this question.
The Haitian earthquake in January 2010 left hundreds of thousands dead and caused billions of dollars in damages. International aid poured into Haiti, and more than 10,000 non-governmental organizations worked to alleviate the suffering. At the one year anniversary of the quake, however, almost a million people remained homeless, most of the rubble had yet to be cleared, and more than two of three Haitians lacked permanent jobs. The absence of a stable government significantly hindered relief efforts. Corruption and inefficiency made the problems even worse. The widespread poverty, homelessness, and despair in Haiti before and after the earthquake offer a powerful reminder of what can happen when government is too weak.
In contrast, the failed communist experiment in the former Soviet Union illustrates the devastating effects of unchecked state power. Their communist political system outlawed all independent, non-communist organizations. As a result, professional societies, unions, churches, youth groups, sports teams, and the like were under the direct control of the Communist party or met illegally at great personal risk to the participants. The Soviet Union’s all-consuming power led to massive state abuses that left an estimated 20 to 50 million people dead.
After centuries of trial and error, we have reached somewhat of a consensus: a well-run government is vital for quality of life. We don’t want to live in a place like Haiti, nor do we want to live in a place like the former Soviet Union. Too little government leads to chaos and entrenched poverty; too much government control leads to fear and oppression. The key to good government is finding the right balance between the two.
Government is one of God’s good gifts to his creation. Like all human institutions in our fallen world, government is far from perfect but serves essential functions that help us to survive and thrive. As Paul exhorts: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God established. . . . This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing” (Romans 13: 1, 6). As followers of Christ, our allegiance to God always comes first, but we are called to honor and respect governmental leaders.