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Vail Daily column: Does government mess up the works?

Jack Van Ens

Since our nation’s birth, Americans have debated what’s the right balance of citizens’ rights, states’ roles and the federal government’s responsibilities.

How does the federal government work for the common good without overreaching? President Ronald Reagan answered that “government is the problem.” A majority of the Greatest Generation, however, depended on government to lift them out of the Great Depression. Led by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, they believed capable government functions like grease on a car’s gears. It makes the motor of progress hum by filling human needs. Government is part of the solution, claimed FDR.

President Barack Obama sides with Roosevelt. He’s instructed also by Reinhold Niebuhr, the preeminent intellectual who taught at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary from the 1930s to 1960s. Niebuhr coined an aphorism about the unjust human condition and government’s responsibility to rescue victims from its plight. Using sexist language common to his era, Niebuhr declared, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

President Obama takes this aphorism to mean that government acts as a referee, making sure citizens are treated fairly and have a chance to improve their lives. Giving the 2011 commencement address, the president alerted Notre Dame University graduates to be wary of “voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems, even as they [Washington’s bureaucrats] do their best to gum up the works.”

He challenged Notre Dame’s graduates to nurture a positive, practical political will. Use it “to harness the ingenuity of your generation, and encourage and inspire the hard work of dedicated citizens … to repair the middle class; to give more families a fair shake; to reject a country in which only a lucky few prosper.” Citizens working hand-in-hand with government improve society.

Theologian Leonard Sweet’s sports analogy exposes a faulty argument used by perfectionists who frown on government. “Every baseball team could use a player who never strikes out and who never makes an error,” observes Sweet. “The problem is getting them to put down their hot dog and come out of the stands and into the field.” Like Sweet, the Apostle Paul advocated government’s strategic place in civil society, even though the Roman regime had deficiencies: “Let every person,” he advised, “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1).

U.S. history teaches about the value of government’s place in our lives. President John Quincy Adams, who served from 1825-1829, had no chance to win a second term because of conservatives’ fierce backlash against his conservation measures.

In 1828, Adams preserved 1,378 oak trees on Santa Rosa Island in Pensacola Bay. The president wanted to use this wood to construct naval ships.

Presidential contender Andrew Jackson sounded like conservatives today who rail against expansive government. He lambasted Adams’ tree-farm as a federal land-grab, robbing Florida’s citizens of timber rightfully theirs. Jackson’s partisans dubbed him “Old Hickory” because he didn’t bend to government pressure to further the common good by preserving trees to build naval ships. Where does the Constitution explicitly give government tree-farming rights, fumed conservatives?

Today, try selling this specious argument to citizens who vacation in Sequoia National Park, which the federal government preserves and protects.

President John Quincy Adams irked conservatives when he proclaimed a controversial “visionary agenda” in his December 1825 State of the Union message. He proposed the federal government spearhead the first national transportation infrastructure, calling for new roads, canals and bridges. In addition, Adams wanted government to fund a national university, establish a naval academy, send an exploratory expedition to the Oregon Territory and build an observatory to scan the universe.

During the 1820s, political adversaries objected to these visionary public services because the Constitution didn’t specify them. They denied the government’s constitutional implied powers.

Biographer Fred Kaplan reveals why Congress hamstrung John Quincy Adams’ administration. Washington officials accomplished little because conservatives believed the Constitution delegated very limited powers to the federal government.

“Jefferson and Madison had come to power, Adams noted, by attacking Washington and [John] Adams ‘under the banners of state rights and state sovereignty. They argued and scolded against all implied powers but such as were expressly delegated by the Constitution. They succeeded. Mr. Jefferson was elected President of the United States, and the first thing he did was purchase Louisiana. An assumption of implied power greater in itself and more comprehensive in all its consequences than all the assumptions of implied powers, in the twelve years of the Washington and [John] Adams administrations put together’” (John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, p. 363, 2014).

Conservatives’ anti-government arguments in the 1820s sound ludicrous today. They bashed government-sponsored canals, highways, bridges and reforestation, messing up the works.

Today, similar anti-government rhetoric gets a wide hearing because of historical amnesia. But it doesn’t convince President Obama who taught constitutional law and has mastered U.S. history.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.


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