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Where does the Government and Society Intersect with Personal Moral Inter-relationships?

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In today’s New York Times, I was reading T.M. Luhrmann’s piece about Evangelicals in relation with the government. Luhrmann quotes Rick Santorum: “Go into the neighborhoods in America where there is a lack of virtue and what will you find? Two things. You will find no families, no mothers and fathers living together in marriage. And you will find government everywhere: police, social service agencies. Because without faith, family, and virtue, government takes over.” Luhrmann continues: “This perspective emphasizes developing individual virtue from within – not changing social conditions from without.” [1]

The problem that we face is that an individualist ideology only perceives a half of reality, the way a collectivist ideology only takes in the other half. We need to “develop individual virtue from within” – and “change social conditions from without.”  Becoming more mature and moral is definitely part of reality, but there is more to reality, which lies beyond our direct personal relationships.

According to Reinhold Niebuhr, there are an infinite variety of structures and systems in which people seek to organize their common life in terms of some kind of justice. And higher approximations of justice are possible. All these mechanisms are to help people fulfill their obligations to their neighbors beyond the possibilities offered in direct personal relationships. [2]

For example, I once asked a capitalist, who was opening a factory in a third world country, how he would get workers if they all worked on farms and the society had never industrialized. “You have to manipulate the monetary policy,” he said, “in order to make the prices of farm produce lower so that farmers had to lay off workers, who would come to the city and work in his factory.”[3]

Another example: When the steel mills closed all around Pittsburgh, PA and 30,000 workers were suddenly unemployed a commentator in a newspaper article said that they would have jobs if unemployed workers were not so lazy.

Another: Getting a car gives you an incredible sense of individual freedom. You can now drive anywhere. You experience a different reality, a collective one, when you are stuck in a traffic jam, where a “freeway” seems to have become a parking lot.

How can people pay doctor and hospital bills, when they are priced for insurance companies with balances that the average individual cannot afford? In our day giant corporations walk the earth and as legal persons they are far more powerful than individual persons.

Social and economic forces are sometimes even insurmountable in the face of individual heroism. It did not matter how virtuous the worker when companies down-sized, out-sourced, and closed down whole factories to reopen them over in countries where labor could be hired for 20 cents an hour rather than $20 an hour.

The Great Recession we are still experiencing unleashed social and economic forces as real as the natural forces of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Fewer houses were lost in the floods there, while the recession has put many more houses across the country “under water.” A friend of ours first lost her job because of cut-backs, then she lost her home when her mortgage suddenly doubled. She moved her family into a rented home and her landlord lost his house to a bank foreclosure. She had to move again.

Now I take offense at Santorum’s blaming the victims. Some neighborhoods lack virtue? Many lives are wrecked because of the social disasters that have ruined many of our inner cities. There is much higher unemployment. Many also just consider the people there “unemployable.” The social forces in this country benefit one group and another has to contend with continual disadvantages and negative set-backs.

So the government is responsible for social, economic, and political policies that shape more humane social conditions from without and all people are called to become more mature and moral from within. But what is Santorum missing? He only sees the failing student, he ignores the fact that the student might be in a failing school. A renewal is required for the student and the school.

To get to the bottom of the issue, I need to use biblical language. The law (government)  encroaches upon people, when their faith and the Gospel has not issued into a new life in Christ. But the problem is not the law, it is not the government. A renewal is required for the individual as well as in the economic and political systems. Jesus came to proclaim that the Kingdom of heaven was at hand. We forget about the new system he launched. We tend to believe in him as the individual, Jesus Christ, and strip him of his reign in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus said that you cannot pour new wine into old wine skins – you have to pour new wine into new wine skins.

Thus it is not merely a matter of faith, family, and virtue, but a government that brings about a greater approximation of justice so that some neighborhoods are not ruined by the injustice of the many systems in our society that fail us. There is no law or government given whereby we must be saved, but they can certainly destroy our lives. When government is true to its purpose, the morality of people will gain traction. Even the best system counts on creative individuals, who face the moral challenge and breakthrough to the new life.

What am I saying? I think that by pontificating about “faith, family, and virtue,”  Santorum is oblivious to the powerful, negative social and economic forces that are also involved in destroying families and marriages. I’m not ruling our morality, but he should become aware of these forces, even unjust legal and police forces (with the pun intended) that require good government to correct. Those forces will even cause more social havoc, if government is merely presented as the problem and not as part of the solution.

[1]New York Times Op-Ed page (May 7, 2012, page A21)

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. II, (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1943), page 192.

[3] This was a brother-in-law of mine, who opened overseas factories for the mother company here in the U.S.A.


Written by peterkrey

May 7, 2012 at 8:34 pm

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