Keep government in its place |

Keep government in its place


Jack Van Ens

“Keep Uncle Sam in his place,” or “Keep Uncle Sam in his place.”

The same words, yet these sentences have different tones. The first delights in government; the second disdains it.

Depending on inflection, emphasis and vocal tone, this same sentence has opposite meanings.

In sync with the second meaning of the sentence, the defiant tea party wants government off its back. Tea partiers read our national history poorly. They see it as a litany of government interfering with individual initiative and personal success. The government’s a barrier to prosperity. Its spending oppresses capitalists and stunts Wall Street’s growth, they say.

Others interpreting U.S. history refute this tea party’s bias. Past government funded public-private projects, created jobs, spiked the economy and furnished small businesses with new revenue. Pro-government historians delight in keeping Uncle Sam in his place as a key player during fiscal recovery.

Does the federal government spur or stymie private enterprise?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his 1932 Commonwealth Club speech, sketched New Deal remedies that grew government. He sided with Thomas Jefferson.

FDR referred to the American Revolution and lifted up Jefferson as a prime pro-government initiator. “A government must so order its functions as not to interfere with the individual,” FDR admitted. “But even Jefferson realized that the exercise of the property rights might so interfere with the rights of the individual that the government, without whose assistance the property rights could not exist, must intervene, not to destroy individualism but to protect it.”

“Keep Uncle Sam in his place” allows government to turn around a listless economy, declared Roosevelt. His 1930s New Deal delivered the goods as citizens benefitted from government prominently figuring in their lives.

“The FDR years changed the country profoundly as the federal government assumed a much larger role in regulating the workings of banking and commerce and the relations between employers and employees,” reports commentator E. J. Dionne Jr. “It (federal government) found itself being held ever more accountable for the economy’s overall performance. Through Social Security, the federal government assumed a decisive role in protecting older Americans from poverty, and widows and orphans from penury. Unemployment insurance, public power and rural electrification expanded government’s writ. And so, most drastically, did all the exertions required to win the vast war against Hitler’s Germany and imperial Japan” (“Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent,” pp.164-165).

The Great Depression and World War II show how the federal government, working with private partnerships, brought economic prosperity and military victory.

Rick Perry, the Texas governor who the tea party favors, uses bogus history to keep government in its place, saying it’s a minor player in bull markets. “The federal government was created by the states to be an agent for the states, not the other way around,” Perry told Republican Party leaders in spring 2011.

Perry misspoke himself out of contention as a presidential candidate. He brashly predicted Uncle Sam’s demise. “I’ll work every day,” Perry declared, “to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.” Ironically, he became an inconsequential candidate.

Perry’s fallacy sounds like the biblical fool who built his house on sand instead of rock. Jesus told how the “rain fell and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell …” (Matthew 7:27).

Constitutional expert Garrett Epps shows how silly and off-target tea partier Perry is. He invents fictitious history that diminishes the colonial government’s role.

Conservatives “claim that the Constitution was set up to restrain the federal government.”

If so, there’s precious little evidence for it. The actual text of the Constitution is overwhelmingly concerned with making sure the new government had enough power; the framers thought the old Articles of Confederation were fatally weak.”

Epps wants to keep Uncle Sam in his place, showing how our republic flourished because government played a pivotal, vital and irreplaceable role. He emphasizes how the Constitution “as a whole is much more concerned with what the government can do — not with what it can’t” (“Stealing the Constitution,” Nation, Feb. 7, 2011).

The anti-FDR Liberty League of the 1930s, the John Birch Society of the 1960s and today’s tea party cherry-pick history to support their anti-government bias. Apologist C.S. Lewis defended the Christian faith soon after World War II began. He preached a sermon, “Learning in War-time,” to students, alerting them to those who select from the past only what they already know.

Study history, advised Lewis, “to remind us that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village. The scholar who has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

“Keep government in its place.” That place is pivotal for citizens who support effective and efficient government.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (, 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.

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