Founding fathers believed in limited government. Moreover, they promoted smart government that actively shaped our nation's future, establishing innovations such as postal roads to unite settlers who lived far apart and canals to transport crops.
When House tea party candidates won 2010 mid-term elections, they misread our early national history.
Tea partiers accept archival evidence propping up their bias. They distort our country's origins, saying they spread Jeffersonian values. The tea party claims limited government always means it's small. They say diminished government inspires citizens to exercise personal liberties, bold initiatives and individual responsibility.
Tea partiers - mostly older, white, well-off evangelical Republicans - contort colonial history to support their anti-government tirades. They interpret the Constitution's inherent powers given to the federal government as a betrayal, rather than the intent, of the founders' vision.
Such historical revisionists turn on its head the Apostle Paul's counsel about government. He insists: "Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad" (Romans 13:3).
The tea party revises this text to say Uncle Sam is bad because he terrorizes with taxes, spending and welfare. They err, claiming government poses an obstacle to our Republic - not an opportunity for individuals to thrive. Tea partiers caricature Washington bureaucrats who, they allege, build mountains of debt rather than getting indigent folk off the dole.
Political commentator E.J. Dionne in his book, "Our Divided Political Heart," pinpoints the deep divide over government: "Is democratic government primarily constructive or destructive? Does it protect and expand our freedoms, or does it undermine them? Can public action make the private economy work better, or are all attempts to alter the market's course doomed to failure? Do government efforts to widen opportunities and lessen inequality enhance individual achievement or promote dependency?" (p. 10).
Whether the federal government moves smartly or trips stupidly, tea party advocates want less of it.
Tea party favorite Amity Shlaes, director of the Four Percent Growth Project at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, distorts how the federal government dealt with the Great Depression.
In "The Forgotten Man: a New History of the Great Depression," Shlaes spreads half-truths. They are more harmful than outright lies because a half-truth hugs what's correct and at first reading makes the lie sound credible.
Shlaes posits the half-truth that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal didn't end the Great Depression, but intensified it with massive debt. She rightly reports smarter government implementing New Deal policies didn't end rampant unemployment. Private-public partnerships for spending in World War II finally put Americans back to work.
Shlaes and tea party colleagues spread analytical bias, sticking with Roosevelt's policies that didn't deliver jobs for full employment. The New Deal gave Uncle Sam enormous credibility when he wrapped his arms around needy citizens, offering help, hope and honest remedies to escape their plight.
Historian Alan Brinkley, in his biography "Franklin Delano Roosevelt," refutes Shlaes sloppy scholarship. He exposes the tea party's lie that the government is good for little, except going to war. "The New Deal," Brinkley said, "created more institutions that significantly and permanently expanded the role of the federal government in American life, providing at least minimal assistance to the elderly, the poor and the unemployed; protecting the rights of labor unions; stabilizing the banking system; building low-income housing; regulating financial markets; subsidizing agricultural production; and doing many other things that had not previously been federal responsibilities" (p.61).
In turn, these federal policies allowed more citizens to get a bigger piece of the financial pie that the rich had sliced for themselves. More citizens exercised personal liberties because the government protected their rights.
President Barack Obama, in his first inaugural address, rejected two versions of American individualism. One gained enormous popularity in the 1960s when protesters raised placards to "do our own thing" because "if it feels good, we deserve to do it."
Instead, the president spoke of shouldering responsibility and acting on others' behalf. He echoed Lord Acton's dictum: "Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right to do what we ought." Then the president criticized economic individualism that began in Ronald Reagan's presidency and led to the Great Recession at the end of Bush II's administration.
Obama warned not to itch with the "pleasures of riches and fame." He urged us to define ourselves as citizens, not consumers, who spread wealth by fostering equal opportunity. The president challenged citizens to protect economic liberty, rather than allowing a few to benefit most from it.
The tea party unfairly excoriated him as a "socialist." They're wrong. Smart government protects and expands personal liberties for citizens, rich and poor.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive. Van Ens' book, "How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes," is available in local bookstores for $7.95.