February 14, 2011
A Bishop's Defense of Government
— Martin E. Marty
Belgian sociologist of religion Henri Desroche once observed three functions of religion in society. Religion normally attests a society when it is in the business of “affirming.” There and then it serves an integrating function. That’s normal: think “God bless America.” Next, in a society that is examining its own premises and reorganizing its constituencies, the function of religion is to be contending “within the limit of contesting the status quo.” Think Martin Luther King, Jr. “In a society that is denying, challenging and refusing its own right to exist, religion appears as a function of protesting, revolting and subverting,” writes Desroche. Think recent Egypt.
Beyond these three functions of attesting, contending and protesting are chaotic movements like anarchism, or, closer to home in today’s America, simple “anti-government” actions, expressions, and tantrums. Think of Ayn Rand’s shrugs and the many current declarations in praise of the selfish individual. Now and then religious leaders, themselves aware of the attesting, protesting, and even, though too rarely, the contending functions of faiths, will examine and take on selfish declarations. One whose words reached publics in the Minneapolis StarTribune and subsequently, of course, on the internet, is Peter Rogness, a bishop within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and president of the Minnesota Council of Churches. He had the sense to speak of the obvious to multitudes and the courage to take on the anti-government folk, in a column entitled “Government is not the enemy.”
His question is clear: “Is government us or them?” a question which he follows up with the observation: “With no public announcement, we have changed from a people sharing a common life to several hundred million individuals who happen to live near one another, and we risk losing our soul in that change.” His “we” is “the people” who appear(ed) in so many of “our” founding and later public documents. He adds: “As people withdraw into greater concern for their private welfare, government as public enterprise fades; the ‘we’ becomes ‘they,’ common purpose becomes interference and the poor and vulnerable are left on the margins.”
Government, in our history and for Rogness, is not an “it” or a “them.” “Taxes aren’t theft; they’re the means by which we pool our resources, fairly and with order, to underwrite this common life.” Ready to take on an icon, he looks back to 1981 when an unnamed U.S. President announced, “Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The bishop anticipates legitimate debate over his words “fairly and with order.” No party, no policy, has a monopoly on “fairness” and good “order.” Contesting policies and programs is a right and duty of “we the people.”
Rogness asks, “So why is a Lutheran bishop writing a social and historical critique?” He is not unique. Numbers of other bishops do so, among them Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. They do it because at stake are “values rooted in the faith traditions of the people who make up this state and nation.” And: “A budget is a moral document.” Let debating over budgets continue, something that can’t happen in an “anti-government” moment, which one hopes will not become an era of potential destruction. It would be caused by the “I’s” who, Rogness writes, take care of themselves and do not notice or who do disdain the “others.” These others, the vulnerable and marginal, are prime in the faith traditions of which the bishop speaks.
Henri Desroche, Jacob and the Angel: An Essay in Sociologies of Religion (University of Massachusetts, 1973).
Peter Rogness, “Government is not the Enemy,” StarTribune.com, February 6, 2011.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.