The Rev. Peter Rogness is bishop of the Saint Paul Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

The Rev. Peter Rogness is bishop of the Saint Paul Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Courtesy, ELCA

Bishop Peter Rogness: Government is not the enemy

  • Article by: PETER ROGNESS
  • February 6, 2011 - 4:33 PM


Is government us or them?

With no public announcement, we have changed from a people sharing a common life to several hundred million individuals who happen to live near one another, and we risk losing our soul in that change.

"We the People ... in order to form a more perfect union ..." Thus begins one of the crowning documents of human history -- the Constitution of the United States.

"We" was the first word. In the preamble alone, the phrases "establish justice," "domestic tranquility," "common defence," "general welfare" and "blessings of liberty" all appear.

Few statements have ever so nobly set forth the commitment of a people to their common life.

To be historically accurate, in the republic's early decades the "we" had a state rather than a federal leaning, leading to the Civil War, which Abraham Lincoln called the struggle to see if a nation conceived under the proposition that all are created equal could prevail.

His final words in that address expressed a resolve that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Historians note that the verb form that accompanied "the United States of America" prior to the Civil War was plural: "The United States are ...."

After that war, it became singular: "The United States is ...." We had become a single people, dedicated to our principles and to the notion that our individual well-being was tied somehow to the well-being of our neighbors.

On that wave of common identity, Franklin Roosevelt led us through the Depression, Dwight Eisenhower initiated a highway system that wove us together and Lyndon Johnson proposed a "Great Society."

But throughout history, from Old Testament times until now, prosperity has eroded common purpose. Prosperous people drift into self-preoccupation.

As people withdraw into greater concern for their private welfare, government as public enterprise fades; the "we" becomes "they." Common purpose becomes interference, and the poor and vulnerable are left on the margins.

So how is it with us? Is government "us" or "them"?

In the days of royalty and dictators, government was "them," but in a thriving democracy, government is a meant to be a robust "us."

We the people decide our fate. We the people elect our neighbors to come together and shape our common life.

Together, through our government, we build roads and hire teachers to nurture our children and police and firefighters to keep us safe. We establish courts to maintain order and fairness; we protect our land and build parks.

It's all we.

Government is not an "it" or a "them." Taxes aren't theft; they're the means by which we pool our resources, fairly and with order, to underwrite this common life.

When did "we" become "they?"

Social shifts happen imperceptibly over time. However this one unfolded, it was articulated clearly when in 1981 our president announced, "Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem."

Ever since, we have largely been in the grips of a culture that suggests government is "them." Political ads demonize government work, and taxes are seen not as fostering common purposes but the result of "them" robbing "us" of money we deserve to keep.

"We the people" is a powerful concept. When it arises to throw off dictators or tear down Iron Curtains, it is liberating and ennobling.

When in a democracy it is twisted to rally people against their own government, it is like an immune system run amuck that eats the very body in which it resides.

We are human, both noble and flawed. So is our common life, our government. We live today in a hard moment, where cuts are necessary and resources scarce.

We need to be wise, critical and imaginative. We have been those things in the past; we can be again.

So why is a Lutheran bishop writing a social and historical critique?

Because I believe the choices now before us are fundamentally moral choices: justice for all and compassion for the general welfare.

These are not simply constitutional values, they are values rooted in the faith traditions of the people who make up this state and nation. A budget is a moral document. In it we must not forget our commitment to the most vulnerable that live among the "we."

I believe we yearn to be a moral people. Amid challenging decisions, we must not lessen our commitment to those among us who depend on our common life for their own well-being.

If it means we use the vehicle of government to work smarter, leaner, more imaginatively, we do it. If it means pooling more of our resources through fair and smart taxation, we do it.

What we must not do is decide to meet the challenges solely with the tactic of retreat. We are too good a people for that. Too many lives depend on us and on our living out those words: We the People.

The Rev. Peter Rogness is bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and president of the Minnesota Council of Churches.

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