Is Government the Problem, or A Way to Serve One Another?
Written by:
Joe Morris Doss

Almost every American feels that he or she lacks agency; we all seem to share a feeling that we have very little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.

Peter Wehner, in an op-ed column labeled American Politics and Conservative Thought recently lamented in reflection on “…how my party could produce Mr. Trump as its nominee…” He arrived at this conclusion:

“A friend of mine pointed out to me that part of the problem is that we are drenched in distaste for the actual practice of politics, and there’s an unstated sense among conservative activists in particular that the activity of governing is somehow illegitimate.

“Instead of arguing for the dignity and necessity of politics – instead of making the case for why the give and take, the debate and compromise, are both necessary and appropriate – activists and their counterparts in government disparaged it. This helps explain how Mr. Trump seized on deeply anti-political feelings and used them to his advantage, why Republicans so devalued any focus on policy this election season, and why the former reality television star was rewarded for his vast ignorance on issues. That can work only with people who disdain the government and the activity of governing.”

Mr. Wehner is dead-on! Some fifty years ago, when JFK was President, young Americans saw elective politics and governmental office as an idealistic way to serve their fellow citizens and the nation as a whole. One can hear the clarion call to service in that famous line of Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what the nation can do for you, ask what you can do for the nation!” Civic classes had taught that citizen engagement for the common good was what made American government different from those of other lands, and while young Americans felt sorry for peoples living under other forms of government it was assumed that it was just a matter of time and circumstance before all peoples would discover truth, justice, and the American way and manage to become like us. We assumed that “democracy” meant “citizen political participation.” We assumed that the very purpose of democracy was to serve one another, to share with one another, and to unite in and through government to resolve problems and fight the cause of right.

Churches are among the many American institutions and organizations dedicated to serving the public as well as individuals, performing good works and striving for the good of society. The mainline and institutionally traditional churches – Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox – share a grand picture in which God’s creation is moved toward fulfillment through history. Peace and justice – social, economic, and legal – are special concerns of focus for the Christian church. Even so, we have learned where the church’s boundaries are regarding elective politics, and we understand that the government is entirely unique and irreplaceable in its reach and ability to bring together all citizens to accomplish things no other institution can. There will be no peace and/or justice without political action and the successful functioning of government.

Abraham Lincoln, of course, said it best. The victory at Gettysburg gave him new confidence that the time had come to proclaim that the unique American idea of government – an astoundingly new ideal – was finally going to become constitutionally founded and could become actualized. Such a government as was articulated by the founding fathers and being fought for in 1863 is not a necessary evil, not a great monster rising from the depths that has to be borne for the virtue of enforced order. This form of government was not to exist merely as a means to protect the properties and rights of those so endowed, or for a ruler, or any body of officials, to lord it over the people. Lincoln declared the definition of the government of the United States of America: “…government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

But then, Ronald Reagan challenged that in his slogan: “Government is the problem!” This was the summary of the political platform on which he ran and was elected President of the United States. On that premise he established the conservative movement as the dominant political force up to this very day. “Government is the problem” became the established mantra, the consensus attitude, the driving force, the assumption, of the conservative movement, and that it became the attitude of most Americans.

Mr. Wehner, perhaps a bit belatedly, is indeed correct: a government cannot function unless it is considered legitimate. It is even more basic, more penetrating in importance, for government itself to be considered legitimate. If not, the result will be that nothing gets done. And that, in fact, is the picture of our national government at this time. Congress increasingly has been unable to act, and the majority sees a “prevention defense” as its assignment – don’t bend and don’t break. Even the current Supreme Court is hard pressed to make majority decisions, and it is unlikely to issue any lasting decisions.

Much direct blame is be laid at the feet of the conservative movement in the way it moved the Republican Party from a traditional conservative philosophy with such goals as small government, strong defense, free trade, and social conservatism to getting bogged down in the radical tea party agenda, to a handful of overwhelmingly wealthy families that are off the chart right-wingers not below clandestine manipulation, to administrations that actually created the biggest of governments and are, by far, the ones most guilty of driving up the national debt, and finally to the nomination of a nationalist strong-man who talks like he has no confidence in American institutions and is bent on benign rule. But the most devastating cause of the lack of agency is how American citizens are giving up on politics and government. It is common for people to brag about being apolitical! Plato had something direct to say about that: “The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”

The assumption that human beings are to participate in society through the polis, the political community, was so crucial in the ancient Greek democratic culture that the term “idiot” (idios) was invented to refer to those who had the right to participate in the political system but did not. This was made explicit in both Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. Plato said that such a person was less than human because the human being is, anthropologically, a political animal. To distance oneself from politics is to act like an idiot, and to allow oneself and ones fellow citizens to be ruled by evil men.

Given the choice, At the Threshold will stand with Abraham Lincoln, JFK, and Plato: Government is not the problem, it is the means for us to serve one another and to act for the common good in a way completely unavailable by any other means.

Yes, and thank you Mr. Wehner. Now help us get past this election and finally restore the effective two party system required by the American Presidential scheme of democratic politics.

Why Can’t the Majority Get What They Want?
Written by: 
Joe Morris Doss

Almost every American feels that he or she lacks agency; we all seem to share a feeling that we have very little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine that frustration. We began by recognizing how globalization is remaking the way the world works, especially the way worldwide interconnections are so new and operate so very differently. We will come back to that, but the recent events demand that we divert from that path to examine another crucially important reality that causes us to feel scared, sad, and out of control. We can’t get what we want; it is the wealthy and the powerful who get what they want instead.

A majority of Americans want gun control. The extent of gun control that is desired varies, but overall the public wants to institute enough control to make it harder for someone to get a gun for the wrong reason. Even people who use guns for sport are, as a majority, in favor of some forms of control. Yet, we cannot so much as obtain a meaningful vote on the subject in Congress.

Those in society who are on the front lines in the fight against violence, crime, terrorism, and the actions of the mentally imbalanced are the police, law enforcement officials and institutions, and the military. These are the “experts” on guns, who have first order responsibility to counter the danger of guns and whose fundamental purpose is to protect the public from the danger of guns. These are the people who are most in danger when guns and weapons are in the wrong hands. Among the officials and the institutions with responsibility as public servants, these are the least subject to direct political pressures, and who don’t need to kowtow to the phony slogans of the IRA and arms manufacturers, or pretend to ignore the fact that gun control has worked everywhere else around the world. Yet, these people and these institutions distance themselves from gun control as a political “issue.”

Our hearts go out to police officers who are killed, and it is painful to see the sincere grief they express for their fallen comrades. But should this not mean that the police understand more than others the need for preventive protection rather than limiting themselves to after-the-fact responses and willingness to take the bullets in street firefights. Is it possible that the police do not see the need to protect themselves by controlling the proliferation of guns and weapons of war? Can they really think it is someone else’s job to rid us of the danger of guns? Where is Wyatt Earp when we need him?

The same holds true for officers of the court, who are willing to send people to jail but unwilling to prevent the need to arrest and imprison them for the use of guns. The military is the biggest purchaser or arms and munitions. Where are they when we need their expertise and their power regarding the manufacture, sale, and trading of armaments that appear on the streets even though they are, supposedly, only designed only for troops in armed combat?
Gun control is the immediate issue to which we must point, but there are many other issues about which the will of the people is frustrated. Why do the wealthy pay a far lower tax rate than middle-class workers? Why, in the face of the gradual awakening of the vast majority of citizens to the dangers of climate change, have even modest environmental reforms been defeated time after time, and why is there so little attention being given to development of alternative forms of energy? Why have protections for employees been devastated? Why are so many people so obviously choosing to vote against their own and their family’s economic interests?

The ugly reality is that in the America of today a small minority of very wealthy people, and certain massively powerful industries, have enough money to get what they want instead of what the people want. In fact, their wealth is such – and thus they enjoy so much more “free speech” which others cannot afford – that most of the time there are plenty of voters who can be convinced that what they should want, is what they are told to want. A network of excessively wealthy people with extreme and inevitably self-serving views are bankrolling support of personally held beliefs, such as the notion that taxes, government regulation of business, and any control of gun sales are violations of freedom. These wealthy and politically motived movers and shakers are shockingly successful, and they are likely to continue to be successful until our political and judicial system finds some way to remove the controlling power of money in politics.

This insight deserved far more attention than can be granted in this space. For a revealing, almost sure to be a shocking, revelation of the problem we suggest the best selling book Dark Money, by Jane Mayer (an investigative reporter on the staff of “The New Yorker”).

The Confusing New World
Written by:
Joe Morris Doss

The vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union has caused all of us to sit up and pay attention to new realities. No one is confident of predicting where that decision may lead, but we all know that important things are going to be different. The fact is, this crisis is due in large measure, perhaps decisively, to the way everything is already changing from what we know and assumed to be relatively permanent.

Even though we know better, we still tend to see history as leading up to now, and somehow feel that this is fundamentally the way it will be – adding in the improvements and rough bumps in the road – world without end. Most of us picture Western history roughly in terms of a movement from the primitive life of tribal hunting and gathering, to agriculturally based ethnic communities that began to settle in defined territories, to a civilization of empires, to some dark ages, that in turn gave rise to rule by feudal lords, and then built to the establishment of princedoms and finally monarchical nations having ethnically homogeneous populations, to culminate in nation-states, increasingly governed as liberal parliamentary democracies, finally forming an international community of nations that hold a rather broadly based common vision of international law and human rights. From here it should be onward and upward with that!

But of course history is always on the move and suddenly we are starting to feel like we are on a runaway horse without a good grip on the reins or a saddle with stirrups. We are in the beginning stages of a technological revolution, which for the time being we might term “the digital age.” But we are also in the crisis of going from a world order grounded in nation-states to, well, whatever globalization is going to become. Already we have gone beyond the straightforward and exclusive governance by governments, and the populations within national territories are less and less defined by a homogeneous ethnic identify.

Governance now occurs, not only through governments that are accountable to the people of a state, but through decisions made and actions taken by market agents (such as multinational corporations, social entrepreneurs, and micro-financiers), inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Some facts to ponder:

  • As of 2010, there were about 200 nations that have relations with one another;
  • 130 of the countries were unable to feed the population, and had to rely on the generosity of outside resources, many if not most provided through NGO and IGO operations.
  • There were close to 100,000 multinational corporations that constantly negotiate with governments and one another;
  • There were at least 50,000 transnational NGO’s (Non-governmental Organizations) that consulted on international laws and treaties and intervene in conflict zones to provide assistance to regimes and peoples in need (There was only one as of 1970: Common Cause, a watch-dog organization in the US made famous for the Watergate Reforms)
  • Of the 100 largest economic entities in the world, half were companies. At the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, corporations had their own pavilions alongside countries;
  • HSBC had 20,000 offices in 83 countries, 300,000 employees, and 150 million customers.
  • More than 100 countries have external voting rights for citizens of other countries in diaspora and 11 reserve seats in parliament for them.
  • In 2006, people of the US (not the government) sent $192 billion to the developing world – most of it in foreign investment, portfolio capital, foundation grants, and philanthropic giving.

A random list providing some sense of NGOs:

Americans for Informed Democracy, World Economic Forum, CARE, Save the Children, Mercy Corps, US Committee to Expand NATO, Clinton Global Initiative, Peace Corps, U.S. Overseas Private Investment Company, Global Business Council for HIV/AIDS, International Campaign for Tibet, Lighting a Billion Lives, Open Society Institute, The Soros Foundation, International Crisis Group, International Rescue Committee, National Solidarity Program, Business for Diplomatic Action, The Business and Human Rights Resource Center, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International, AccountAbility, LeapFrog Investments, The Self-Employed Women’s Association, Kiva, World Wide Water, Clinical Directors Network, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, Institute for OneWorld Health, Habitat for Humanity, International Union for the Conservation of Nature

Only governments, and international organizations founded by governmental accords and agreements have the traditional sort of direct accountability to a population that provides legitimacy of power.

Businesses are directly accountable only to shareholders.

NGOs are accountable to standards set by donors, charities, customers, and their own competition. The legitimacy they are granted depends on their authority of expertise, impartiality, representativeness, and transparency of operations.

The ability of NGOs, as well as businesses, to leverage technology and capital enables them at times to bypass governments altogether.

It is a confusing, churning international picture, within a hot house of rapid change and newly arising realities: new powers, failed states, multinational corporations, organized crime, cyber crime, drug cartels, terrorism, powerful families, increased percentage of wealth in the hands of a decreasing percentage of individuals, vast amounts of inherited wealth, religious radicals, humanitarian philanthropists, powerful and independent organizations, and on and on.

Technology and money, not sovereignty, seems increasingly determinative of who has authority and calls the shots.

No wonder we feel that little ol’ us lacks agency. “Grab a ‘hold and ride,” seems more like the order of the day.

But, stand by, more coming.

Who’s in Charge?

Written by: Joe Morris Doss

Democracy is supposed to maximize the agency of the individual citizen, to give everyone, to the extent possible, the opportunity to control her or his own destiny together with fellow citizens. Today, few of us in the United States who are ordinary citizens feel that we have much of a say. We share a profound sense of being out of the loop, in some else’s control, helpless. This is leading to rather scary possibilities. I make no secret of my most immediate fear that could come of this: election of a pseudo-strong-man hyper-nationalist who will “take charge” by running over whole categories of population that he opposes and seek fatuously simplistic solutions that will not come close to working, but instead can be devastatingly counterproductive. Whatever may come in the fall, the fact is that our collective sense of being out of a political ballgame that feels rigged begs some analysis and evaluation.

It will not surprise anyone that people of faith are unsettled by the institutional decline of the church and by the overwhelming secularization of western culture. A society that has no faith in religion, and takes so little interest in transcendent reality, will become faithful only to matters that cannot ground us and are bound to fail us. If being out of touch with reality is the definition of insanity, then it is hardly surprising that human society seems increasingly crazy, for it is more and more out of touch with the fullness of reality. It is especially dismaying to a Christian to grasp how misunderstood the gospel of Jesus Christ is within this society – despite the assumption that it knows all about it. In fact, the Christianity that is popularized in American society comes closer to the first century pagan religious understandings of God and humanity than to the vision of the man from Nazareth. But let’s come back to this after some consideration of facts “on the ground.”

We will need to think about this in a series of offerings. This will be more productive if you contribute to our thinking about why we feel that we lack the personal agency that we once enjoyed. Nothing would be more helpful than a conversation. I would be happy to post whatever you have to say.

I have to begin with an admission that I don’t understand the world as clearly as I used to think I did.

I wrote a book (The Songs of the Mothers) in which I asserted that the world is changing so much and so rapidly that the church, as an incarnational faith, was going to have to change in order to adapt to it, and serve it as the body of Christ. Thus did I predict the coming ecumenical reformation and issued a plea that we begin reforming now – even if full and ecumenical reformation is not so immediately at hand.

I based this assertion regarding the church’s reformation on the premise that there have been only three watershed reformations (The Constantinian Settlement of the Fourth Century, the Gregorian Reformation that established the Medieval Church, and the Protestant and Catholic Counter Reformations of the Sixteenth Century) and they came about because of two simultaneous forces. First, there was, in each instance, so much pain being experience by the faithful within the church that the internal call for reform was insistent. But at the same time, the world was changing so profoundly that the church too had to adjust just as radically, by way of reform.

That brings us to the question of what is forcing change in the world today. Historically it takes a turning point crisis or a technological revolution to bring about the magnitude of change the world is in the process of going through. Today we have both. We will begin our discussion there.