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Friday, June 20, 2008

We Could Do More

So a couple of weeks ago, we had a few couples at our house for the evening. The conversation drifted to the state of society today. One man, whom I won’t name but whom I dearly love, launched into a tirade against what he seemed to consider lazy Christians who don’t do enough in American society. He appears to see the travesty unfolding of people in America who are suffering in extreme poverty, teens who are not parented, criminals who are not rehabilitated and more. It was shocking to see him descend into anger over this situation.

As I later processed what I had witnessed in my own home that evening, I began to wonder if my dear friend might not be aware of how history has shaped our current culture. I agree with him that today’s Christians don’t do enough to shape our society. We could do so much more to change the world we live in. But I am cognizant of the fact that history has an awful lot to do with it. By that I mean that our government maybe had a role in training us to behave the way we behave. I think this is true in many respects, actually. But it is relatively easy to trace that path to philanthropy and social endeavors.

Advent of Big Government
President Roosevelt, whom of course was way before my time, has a reputation for having been one of our country’s greatest leaders. However, closely examining history, you may find that the truth --- played out in his policies in the decades that followed his presidency, may not be so rosy.

Revisit Franklin Roosevelt's first 100 days, which began with his March 4, 1933 inaugural. Seventy-five years ago this coming week FDR's big push climaxed with the National Industrial Recovery Act, officially known as the Act of June 16, 1933, which established the National Recovery Administration (NRA).

One big difference between then and now, though, is that in 1933 the materially depressed United States was in crisis, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt needed to act. His effective rhetoric did lift American spirits, and that was important. Yet New Deal programs that rolled through a Congress of 313 Democrats and 117 Republicans ended up prolonging the Depression, at least from the perspectives of many historians.

The NRA established a bureaucracy that led even the FDR-supportive Washington Post to note "the difficulty the business man has in keeping informed of these codes, supplemental codes, code amendments, executive orders, administrative orders, office orders, interpretations, rules, regulations and obiter dicta." The NRA would not allow prices to be lowered, so millions of people did not buy what they could not afford. The NRA demanded above-market wage rates for those newly hired, and the result was prolongation of high unemployment as businesses were reluctant to make hires.

Roosevelt could push through such government-growing legislation not only because of congressional dominance: he artfully used biblical allusions. In his first inaugural address, for example, FDR argued that America's land was bountiful and should be productive, but the problem was that "unscrupulous money changers . . . have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish." Then came the good news: "The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths."

The political application of these New Testament references soon became clear: Roosevelt wanted to increase federal power through "national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and communications and other utilities which have a definitely public character." The era of big government had begun. Roosevelt threatened to become dictatorial if Congress balked. "I shall then ask the Congress for . . . the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe."

Roosevelt was also adept at practical politics. Depression-era property tax revenues were down, so city officials had less money to spend. Demands from constituents for jobs and other favors were up. When New York City Democrats in 1933 laid off city employees and reduced services, Republican Fiorello La Guardia won election as mayor. Democratic urban machines across the country needed money, and fast, if they were to avoid similarly unceremonious boots—and Roosevelt's radically increased spending rescued them.

For example, Roosevelt gave Chicago Mayor Edward J. Kelly funds that enabled him to build a subway, airport, new roads and parks, public housing projects, and 30 new schools. Since the federal government paid 88 percent of Chicago's relief and jobs costs, the state government 11 percent and the city itself only one penny of every dollar, Kelly did not have to raise property taxes to pay for these projects. He received new terms as mayor in 1935, 1939, and 1943, and delivered Illinois to Roosevelt four times.

City by city, Roosevelt also used the urban machines to turn out people at marches and demonstrations that he then cited as proof of popular support for his programs. Many economists opposed the National Recovery Administration, with its price-fixing and wage-setting schedules. They complained about the biggest non-wartime intrusion on economic freedom in American history.

News pages, though, played up the human interest of 100,000 children assembled on the Boston Common to repeat this pledge: "I promise as a good American citizen to do my part for the NRA. I will buy only where the Blue Eagle flies. . . . I will help President Roosevelt bring back good times."

Combining religious rhetoric and power politics, Roosevelt consistently tried to show his followers that they could construct a stairway to heaven. To do that, however, he had to dump on the private efforts that apparently could build the stairway only halfway up: Bennington College professor James McCamy concluded that New Deal publicists were deliberately trying to discredit private institutions so as to promote a "shift of loyalty from private to public authority and decision."

Church vs. Government Relief
MIT economist John Gruber last year confirmed that Roosevelt succeeded in having New Deal governmental programs crowd out private giving. "Church relief made up 90 percent of the income of the poor before the New Deal," he found out: "Government relief made up 90 percent of the income of the poor after the New Deal." Gruber found that church and charitable giving held up well in 1929 after the stock market crash and did not drop until 1933 when the New Deal began. Then and only then did church spending for charitable purposes fall by one-third.

But, due to a conservative Supreme Court, the federal government did not grow as fast as Roosevelt wished. The justices in 1935 found the NRA to be an unconstitutional depriving of liberty, and FDR temporarily backtracked—only to come out swinging in his reelection campaign. Throughout 1936 Roosevelt alternated fiery speeches with pastorals, such as the one he gave in North Carolina based on the 23rd Psalm's teaching: "He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters."

Roosevelt argued that the declarations about God from 3,000 years ago could be replaced by declarations coming from Washington now: If wages were raised, those who "work in the mill or in the office" could have "a life in green pastures and beside still waters." Voters preferred that hope to the medicine GOP candidate Alf Landon offered, and Democratic domination of Capitol Hill became so great that only 88 Republicans were left to wander disconsolately through the House chamber.

So you see, my friend was right in his conclusion that the churches should be leading the social change in our society. He was right to opine that churches should be the major feeders of the hungry, ministering to the poor. And the fact of the matter is that this used to be the case! Churches in America were the primary source of social services – until FDR came along with his plan to save the world. And save the country he did. Now our churches and organized Christians sit and watch our inept government neglect the poor, the impoverished, the downtrodden and the misfortunate. And while billions of government dollars are poured into these social causes, our country continues to, as my friend might put it, “go to hell in a hand-basket.”

Today’s Christians could of course do much, much more to positively influence the society that we Americans live in. But today’s voters would do well to consider how history plays out – and make voting decisions based on truth and not just perception. Today’s politicians are giving us short-term fixes for immediate problems. But as history can teach (if we’re teachable), short term fixes to immediate problems often have long-term … and unintended … ramifications.

Listen to what current presidential candidates McCain and Obama have to tell you about how they’ll use government to forge a better America. Then try to consider what long term outcomes could result from the short term fixes they’ll propose – and you will embrace.

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