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The Role of Government - From the Constitution and the BibleIntroduction
Americans are blessed by God to live in a free republic with a government structured upon democratic principles at multiple levels, including local, state, and federal government bodies. We are privileged to be able to vote, elect our government representatives, and influence our decision-makers and lawmakers. Still, many Americans disagree on various public policies, so how can we discern when government should be involved, especially the federal government? For Christians, the ideal government would base its laws and policies upon God's laws, and fortunately for Americans, history teaches that our founding fathers indeed structured our government upon biblical principles. However, have we strayed from God's ideals as our government has evolved? Let's examine the role of government, primarily the federal government, from a biblical and historical perspective.
The Biblical Mandate for the Role of Government
Consider the role of government as set forth in the Bible in 1 Timothy 2:1-2: "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone--for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness."
This passage not only says that, as Christians, we are obligated to thank God for our leaders and to pray for them, but it also tells us what the role of government should be.
National Defense - The Primary Role of Government at the Federal Level
The most fundamental role of government is to allow its citizens to live peaceful and quiet lives. In Genesis 10 through 12 (specifically 10:5, 11:9, and 12:1-2), God created the institution of nations, and determined that people would be divided according to national entities, with each controlled by its own independent government. God condemned aggression from one nation against another, but knowing man's greed and evil, He sanctioned warfare as a means of protection against aggressors. Herein lies the first and foremost responsibility and role of government, that of defense, and in our republic, this responsibility falls primarily upon the federal government. Therefore, as sanctioned by the Bible, and by our constitution, our federal government has the right and responsibility to tax us citizens for the funds required to build and maintain a defense system that will afford us continued peace and freedom.
Law and Order
In fact, this principle affects all levels of government in terms of justice, and ensuring that laws are enforced. Our local, state, and federal government bodies each have the right to collect taxes from us in order to fund the costs of maintaining law and order. This includes government expenses for law enforcement, legislation, courts, and highway development. Again, this is all justified by the Bible's explicit call for the role of government to be that of allowing us to live peaceful and quiet lives.
The essence of this passage is that the role of government is to provide us the freedom to bring glory to God by fulfilling Genesis 1:28: "God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it...'"
The Constitutional Mandate for the Role of Government
Because our government was built upon Christian principles, the historical documents penned by our forefathers, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, support the biblical guidelines for the role of government, as outlined above. The preamble of the Constitution states that the powers of the federal government are limited to:
1. Insuring domestic tranquility (law and order)
2. Providing for the common defense (national defense)
3. Promoting the general welfare (support scriptural truths)
4. Secure the blessings of Liberty (provide freedom)
The Limited Powers of the Federal Government
The Constitution is quite clear in setting forth its purpose of limiting the role of government. It doesn't simply present a list of things the federal government should do. Instead, it limits what the federal government can do. For example, in Article 1, Section 8, it says, "The Congress shall have power to..." If it's not listed there, the Congress should not have the power to do it.
The following is a summary of the limits placed upon the power of the federal government power as set forth by the Constitution:
Article 1, Section 8, Congress (Legislative Branch)
- Collect taxes.
- Pay debts.
- Borrow money.
- Regulate commerce.
- Establish uniform naturalization laws.
- Establish uniform bankruptcy laws.
- Coin money.
- Establish punishment for counterfeiters.
- Establish post offices and roads for delivering the mail.
- Provide laws for copyrights and patents.
- Constitute tribunals accountable to the Supreme Court.
- Establish punishment for crimes committed at sea.
- Declare war.
- Raise and support various branches of the military.
- Establish a national capital.
- Make laws.
Article 2, Section 2, The President (Executive Branch)
- Serve as Commander in Chief of the military.
- Make treaties.
- Fill vacancies of various government posts.
Article 3, Section 2, The Supreme Court (Judicial Branch)
- Serve as the superior court for law and equity.
The Bill of Rights
Furthermore, the Bill of Rights goes so far as to explicitly name certain rights which the federal government cannot violate. These are summarized as follows:
- Congress cannot establish a state religion.
- Congress cannot prohibit the free exercise of religion.
- Congress cannot abridge the freedom of speech.
- Congress cannot abridge the freedom of the press.
- Congress cannot forbid the right to assemble.
- Congress cannot forbid the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
- The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
- The people cannot be forced to give room and board to soldiers.
- The government cannot execute unreasonable searches and seizures.
- The people have a right to a Grand Jury.
- Accused persons have a right to a speedy and public trial.
- The people have a right to a trial by jury.
- The government cannot execute excessive bails or fines.
- The government cannot execute cruel and unusual punishments.
- This list does not deny any other rights.
- "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." In other words, the intent was to limit the role, size, and power of the federal government.
An Evaluation of Our Government
Now, how does our federal government compare to the role set forth in the Bible and the Constitution? Most of us would agree that the U.S. military is the strongest in the world, and we have a high degree of comfort that we are well protected by the national defense of our federal government. Whether or not our system of defense is well managed or efficient is another matter, but most of us do feel safe, free, and fairly unafraid of outside aggression. Likewise, though our system of justice has its faults, and crime is always too high, most of us probably feel at least somewhat comfortable with our system of law and order. Our law enforcement agencies and fire departments afford us protection to live happily and safely, and for that we should be grateful. In this respect, the role of government is being fulfilled.
The Size of Government
However, I believe that the role of government has expanded far beyond that set forth in the Bible and the Constitution. This seems obvious simply by the size of our government. Isn't something obviously wrong when we have 90,000 government units (cities, counties, etc.) employing 20 million people and paying $600 billion in salaries? Remember that they're all collecting taxes from us, and this spending represents only their own payroll which we're paying them to think of ways to spend the other trillions of dollars they collect from us. Government employees add much overhead to the tax burden. In this respect, the role of government is not being fulfilled, because it is far exceeding its authority.
Federal Government Spending
For 2007, federal government spending can be broken down approximately as follows:
* Note that Entitlements includes Social Security ($586B), Medicare ($372B), Medicaid ($268B), and Means tested entitlements ($263B).
Yes, our federal government spends nearly three times as much on entitlement programs as on national defense. Some politicians who oppose the war in Iraq complain that we spend $12 billion per month in Iraq ($144B per year). Yet this is only 10% of what we spend on entitlement programs. Also, the "Other" category above includes some $150B for the salaries of the 3 million civilian employees in the federal government.
Not surprisingly, runaway federal government spending results in runaway federal government taxation. For a more detailed look at unreasonable taxation, please refer to The Problem With Taxes.
The Distorted Role of the Federal Government
Our federal government is trying to do much more than it is supposed to do, according to both the Bible and the Constitution. As a result, federal government spending is out of control. Regardless of its intentions to help people, the federal government should not be involved in most of its current spending activities. Just because someone somewhere will receive some benefit, this does not justify going forward with a program to be funded by tax increases.
It is not the role of government to distribute or re-distribute wealth. Unfortunately, some politicians have used "promoting the general welfare" as an excuse for empowering the federal government to do anything as long as it's intended to provide some good for any selected individual or group. This distorts the meaning of the word "welfare".
Some politicians have such "compassion" (or perhaps their own lust for power) to "protect" us that they continue to restrict our freedom through government regulations such as OSHA. If they can spend $50 billion of our money to enforce safety policies that save a single human life, then that's what they do. Granted it's difficult to place a price tag upon human life, but does reason have no say? Why are they so much more concerned for that single human life than for the lives of the million innocent children who are aborted each year?
Many Americans don't understand the role of government, and some just look to the federal government for free handouts. It becomes a political game, believing that we're paying more than our fair share in taxes, and subsequently demanding that the federal government does some new thing for us. I once read an editorial in the newspaper where someone wrote, "I'm an addicted smoker... What is my government doing for me?" Do we actually believe that absolutely anything justifies more federal government spending?
Entitlements are Not the Role of the Federal Government
It is not the role of government to continually grow into an unmanageable and wasteful institution in the name of doing good for select individuals through undeserved entitlements, at the expense of others. In this respect, the role of government is being exceeded beyond what the Bible and the Constitution allow.
Of course, we have a moral obligation to assist the truly needy and the genuinely helpless, but the Bible has explicit guidelines for this process, which we have unfortunately distorted to include many undeserving recipients. Although President Johnson's heart may have been in the right place in trying to abolish poverty by ushering in the welfare state for his "Great Society," it has grown into a grossly unjust financial
nightmare. We see able men and women refusing to work because they can live comfortably on welfare. Also, I believe that our churches should step up to shoulder more of the load of caring for the truly needy. Of course this needs to be done, but it's not a part of the role of government, and it only fails to motivate our people and increases federal government spending.
It doesn't please God or bring glory to Him when we "help" an able-bodied person in such a way that he/she becomes dependent upon the federal government to the point of refusing to work because they know they don't have to. Many times, they find themselves in desperate situations due only to their own carelessness and mismanagement of what God has given them. When the federal government does assist such an able-bodied person, both parties must understand that the assistance is limited and temporary, and has a definite terminal point. The assistance should continue only until that person has had adequate time to get his life reorganized. The federal government should offer welfare assistance similar to the way that it offers disaster relief, with quick response, with limited assistance based upon the need, and of a temporary and specified duration. Perhaps our assistance should then be in the form of a low-interest loan. Consider what the Bible says on this subject in 2 Thessalonians 3:20, "If a man will not work, he shall not eat."
There comes a point at which a person does not deserve additional help, especially if he has chosen the easy way out by evading responsibility. If a person is hungry because of the consequences of his own actions, and he refuses to help himself by the means which God has provided to him, then this verse says that he should be permitted to starve.
Perhaps the federal government should limit the amount of time that some people can spend on public assistance; maybe no more than six months at a time, and a lifetime limit of two years. This might help in teaching the biblical principle of personal responsibility.
Perhaps the federal government should institute penalties, instead of rewards, for having addition children while on public assistance. Maybe these penalties could be expanded to teenage pregnancies and abortions. This would encourage personal responsibility concerning sexual promiscuity, birth control, and having additional children without the means to support them.
Perhaps if the federal government decreased all public assistance payments by the amount of the minimum wage, this would encourage recipients to get jobs.
Perhaps public assistance payments should be decreased by the amount that the recipient spent in the previous month on things such as alcohol, tobacco, and convenience items. Should people on public assistance really expect to live as well as those who are working? Does it make any sense to use our increased federal government spending to provide food stamps which enable people to buy and smoke cigarettes, especially when the federal government rightly discourages smoking anyway? If a person on public assistance splurges on an i-Phone, maybe his assistance payment should be decrease by $50 per month for six months. If he overspends on an apartment or a car, maybe his payment should be reduced by that overspent amount, perhaps above a reasonable pre-set amount. This would encourage wiser choices in spending habits. Remember that this person is spending the taxpayers' money, not his own.
Perhaps the federal government should deny public assistance payments to those who use illegal drugs, in order to discourage drug use.
We must stop growing the federal government, raising taxes, and shrinking freedom based solely on the "compassion" of the liberals to make the federal government everything for everybody. Upon any mention of tax cuts, there is always the unfounded social objection that it would take food out of the mouths of babes. In reality, many families on public assistance have all of the modern conveniences of the middle class.
In addition to entitlement programs for individuals, the federal government has no business bailing out companies or industries that are failing, especially those that are failing because of mismanagement. We should allow such companies, and individuals, to declare bankruptcy. Also, it's simply dishonest to disguise any such federal government spending by burying it as pork barrel spending in a bill labeled as an "economic stimulus" package.
President Franklin Roosevelt may have had a good idea when he institutionalized our Social Security system to help assure financial stability for elderly citizens on the heels of the Great Depression. However, just as with welfare, we've let this grow into something unbiblical. The federal government is mismanaging this massive tax by using it for other purposes, so the fund is going broke. The federal government will never be able to deliver on the benefits previously promised, especially to today's younger workers. The federal government is denying us the right to invest our own money for retirement. Even in nominal cases there are gross inequities, such as the following:
- A wealthy 95-year-old man continues to collect the maximum amount of social security from the federal government, as he has for 30 years, despite the fact that he has already collected hundreds of times the amount he paid. He's a millionaire, and doesn't really need the money.
- A 64-year old man had always been the primary breadwinner of his family, and he earned a nominal income. He paid tens of thousands in Social Security taxes to the federal government over his 48-year career. He contracted cancer, couldn't work, and signed up for disability. He died, and his wife received a single disability payment, which she was forced to return to the federal government. Neither he nor his family received a single penny of the Social Security he had paid. Since his son was 18 years old, there was also no assistance for dependent children, despite the fact that the mother was trying to send the son to college on a meager income. Where's the equity in this?
The federal government refuses to allow taxpayers to invest even part of their Social Security money themselves (their own money). Therefore, perhaps the best solution for fixing Social Security would be for the federal government to admit that it's a bad idea and abolish it. We would simply divide the current balance in the Social Security fund among those who contributed to it, based upon how much they contributed. Due to the inability of the federal government to manage money, none of us will receive as much as we have paid so far, so we will all lose accordingly. Of course, this would also mean that the federal government would have to simply trust the American people to have the sense to manage their money. Then the federal government could reinstate a much smaller program only for our truly need elderly citizens. Even if the system is abolished, the federal government could at least: cap total payments to the amount of Social Security taxes the recipient has paid; use means testing to prevent providing benefits to millionaires; and, remove the limit on Social Security taxes so that millionaire executives have to pay in the same percentage as everyone else.
Other Unjustified Uses of Taxes by the Federal Government
Suppose a man chooses to build a house on a muddy hillside because of its awesome beauty. After being warned of the danger, and seeing that other nearby houses have been destroyed because of the insecure foundation, the man insists on proceeding with the building of his house. Now, when the rains come, and the house slides down the hill, should the federal government tax all the other people who built their houses in safer locations, in order to reimburse this man for his loss? Obviously it shouldn't, as suggested by both biblical responsibility and common sense.
The Environment - More Federal Government Spending
The environment is a hot political issue, and those whose hearts bleed for its protection have discovered that it presents a relatively easy excuse for federal government spending and raising income taxes. The popular view that man will ruin the environment demonstrates the height of arrogance. Matthew 10:29 says, "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father." God is in control, and His plan will not be compromised by left-wing liberals. If he wants the ozone layer to be destroyed, it will be destroyed. However, he has also given His earth an amazing resiliency. Rain forests grow back, and even devastating flows of volcanic lava and ash eventually give way to an even more fertile environment. The extinction of the next species, sad as it may be, will cause no more havoc than the thousands preceding it. Again, the role of government is being exceeded beyond its legal limits here, and it is usually unnecessary federal government spending, caused by much ado about nothing. Just as the federal government is in a panic about global warming this very week (01/26/09), the United Arab Emirates saw only the second snowfall ever recorded on its desert floor.
Education - State and Federal Government Spending
Perhaps education should not even be subsidized by the state or federal government. Private schools, which receive no government money, seem to be producing graduates who are at least as well educated as those from public schools. Why should my funds for education first be filtered through the infrastructure of a huge bureaucracy, leaving so little for the actual education of my own children? Again, we're in a vicious cycle, claiming that since the state and federal government paid for my education, then they should pay for my children's education as well. Nobody is brave enough to break the cycle, but this doesn't make it right. Education should be important enough to families (just behind food, clothing, and shelter), such that we budget for it like everything else. Why should the couple with no children pay the same in school taxes as the couple with ten?
The Role of the Church
Concerning assistance for the truly needy, Galatians 2:10 says, "All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor."
However, this verse says that helping the poor is the Church's role, not the role of the government. Perhaps our churches would be more responsible in this role if its members weren't overtaxed in order to fund our increased federal government spending programs. How can we expect a family to afford to donate 10% of its income to a church when the government is already taking 43% of it?
Clarification of the Separation of Church and State
As a quick side note, the First Amendment doesn't deny the church the right to influence government policy. It's just the opposite, because the First Amendment says that. Congress cannot prohibit the free exercise of religion. Churches can, and should, influence their government with godly morals and values. Despite popular opinion, Separation of Church and State means that the federal government is denied the power to form a state church or restrict religious freedom.
It is important to note that the taxation problem is not primarily due to an oppressive Internal Revenue Service. The IRS is just doing its job of enforcing our flawed tax code, and I believe that the problem of people cheating on their taxes is much greater than the problem of people being abused by the IRS. For every case of the IRS abusing an innocent victim, there are probably thousands of cases of fraudulent tax evasion that go undiscovered. If the IRS is at fault, it's probably because they're understaffed and can verify only a very small percentage of under-reported income. If we taxpayers were more honest, tax rates could be lowered.
Unfortunately, this week's appointment of Timothy Geithner as the Secretary of the Treasury sets a poor example for us citizens. Just as President Clintons sexual permissiveness caused a new and lax mindset for sexual promiscuity among our youth, so too will Geithner's past late payment of taxes serve as an encouragement for tax cheats everywhere to cheat on their taxes, and claim ignorance if they're caught.
Obeying the Government
Though our government is not perfect, we should respect it, just as the Bible says:
"Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor." Romans 13:1-7
In general, the bible says that we should obey the federal government. For example, we should pay our taxes even when we believe that federal government spending is out of control. However, we should not allow the federal government to directly enforce an unjust or immoral law upon us. For example, if the federal government fails to appropriately punish criminals, we are within the biblical guideline to object through peaceful civil disobedience, because the federal government is failing to provide adequate freedom and protection. Likewise, if we recognize that the Bible condemns abortion, and the federal government permits and/or funds abortion with taxpayer money, we again have the right to resort to peaceful civil disobedience on the basis that the federal government is condoning unscriptural behavior. However, if the federal government were to demand abortion, it would be not only our right, but our very Christian obligation to refuse to obey.
Civil Disobedience Toward the Federal Government
What should we do then, when the federal government is enforcing unbiblical laws? Obviously, we should not resort to violence. The Bible condemns the violent acts of militant organizations such as those at Waco or Ruby Ridge, as well as acts of terrorism such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the bombing of abortion clinics. However, we do have some godly alternatives:
- Our first point of attack is the ballot. We have no right to complain if our adversaries can go to the courthouse records to show that we rarely vote.
- We can take legal action. We should be aware of our legal alternatives, and be able to use our legal rights just as effectively as our adversaries do. This implies that there must be those among us who are well versed in the law, and that we need plenty of Christian lawyers.
- We can flee. If we are truly disenchanted with the extent of corruption and immorality of the federal government, we can legally remove ourselves from its jurisdiction. Of course, this is not always a viable alternative in countries whose citizens do not have the rights to which we are accustomed.
- Finally, if the federal government does attempt to force immoral and ungodly laws upon us, we should stand up to our adversaries through non-violent refusal. This can be in the form of public protests, marches, and boycotts, a technique effectively used by the late Dr. Martin Luther King. Of course, due to his non-violent protests, Dr. King was no stranger to a jail cell, and we should be ready to accept this consequence as well, if we truly want to protest an unjust situation. For example, if we believe that the federal government is unjustly collecting too much in taxes, and using the proceeds in unbiblical ways, then we have the alternative to openly refuse to pay our taxes, and then willingly accept the consequences of fines or jail sentences.
Other problems in the Federal Government
By the same principles as outlined above, it is also wrong to use federal government spending programs to use taxpayer money to promote abortion; tolerate illegal drugs, sexual immorality, adultery, or homosexuality; undermine family values; burden Christian schools with federal government bureaucracy; remove the distinction of the biblical roles of the sexes; fight wars we don't intend to win; send money and technology to socialist countries; and, as stated above, finance the welfare state on the basis of compassion.
Why This Trend Continues in our Federal Government
There is some truth to the allegation that we have nobody to blame for the size and expanded role of the federal government except ourselves. After all, we are blessed to live in a free republic under a democratic government. The people making all of these decisions were either voted into office by us or appointed by the officials we elected. What does this mean for those of us who believe that the federal government is too large, that its power and authority are too large in scope, and that federal government spending is inflating our taxes? Are in the minority? Are most people apparently pleased with our present situation? Suppose a pollster contacted every adult in the country and asked the following questions:
- "Would you like for federal government spending to continue to include $1.4 trillion (half of our federal budget) on Welfare, Social Security, and Medicare as we do today?"
- "Would you like for federal government spending to continue to include paying $600 billion (more than we spend on national defense) for government employee payrolls?"
- "Would you like for federal government spending to continue to include trillions of dollars to bail out individuals and corporations who are in financial trouble due to poor decision-making? And, would you like to continue referring to these bailouts as "loans," or better yet, "economic stimulus packages?"
- "Would you like to continue paying 43 cents of every dollar to the federal government in taxes?"
Speculation about the results of such a poll is difficult to quantify, but I believe that most people would answer in favor of reduced spending and lower taxes. However, due to problems with our system of voting, policy is often created by a minority rather than by a majority. For a more detailed look at these problems, and suggested solutions, please refer to The Trouble With Voting.
However, there is another train of thought that would suggest that most people would respond to the above spending poll in favor of keeping our system of massive federal government spending and high taxes. In this case, the problem is that we ourselves are caught up in the bureaucracy of the federal government spending programs, and we selfishly protect our own interests in spite of what is right. Consider how many people are collecting money from the federal government spending. Although the federal government reports are quite ambiguous, The Statistical Analysis of the U.S. seems to support these estimates:
- The number of Americans collecting some form of Social Security (retirement, disability, etc.) from the federal government is approximately 60 million, representing some 30 million households. The average amount they collect is somewhere over $10,000 per year, and the total is over $500 billion.
- The number of Americans collecting other social entitlements from the federal government, such as welfare, food stamps, earned income credit, farm subsidies, etc. is approximately 50 million, representing some 30 million households. The average amount they collect is again over $10,000 per year, and the total is again over $500 billion.
- The number of Americans collecting a payroll check from the state, local, or federal government, as cited above, is approximately 20 million, representing some 20 million households, and some 50 million people who depend upon those government payroll checks. The average amount they collect is over $30,000, and the total is over $600 billion.
If you total these numbers, you have 160 million people in 80 million households collecting $1.35 trillion from the state, local, and federal government. That only leaves approximately 140 million of us in 40 million households who receive no checks from the government. 45% of us are providing most of the funding, not only for ourselves, but for the other 55% as well. We are clearly outnumbered. We can't return to a godly federal government because over half of us are already dependent upon this one. We feel like we can't reduce the role of the federal government to its proper size because tens of millions of government employees would lose their jobs. The bad news, even for those receiving checks, is that this trend simply cannot continue. When too many people become dependent upon a government funded by too few, the system will collapse. In this respect, the role of government is simply not being fulfilled responsibly.
These estimates were further substantiated by Dick Morris on January 22nd, 2009, when he estimated the effects of President Obama's economic stimulus packages. Morris said that they would result in 57% of Americans being off the income tax rolls, while only 43% would be paying all of the income taxes.
The role of government doesn't include doing everything for everyone. In fact, it's supposed to do very little--only provide protection and freedom to obey God's commands and bring Him glory. The Church should shoulder more of the responsibility of helping the poor and needy. Everything else, including subsidies to lazy freeloaders and millionaires, is wrong. The blame lays both with us voters and with the federal government. We voters are wrong in selfishly and repeatedly voting for the same big spenders term after term, and the federal government is wrong in not imposing term limits, and in letting federal government spending get out of hand.
Owen Weber 2009