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Choosing Between Care and Responsibility? Why the U.S. Government Shut Down

October 16, 2013
I think that the lure of the simple answers on both sides have been shown to be illusory...Obama is not the Messiah and the Tea Party is not the Kingdom of God.

The U.S. government narrowly avoided economic catastrophe by finally reaching an agreement on October 16 to raise the debt ceiling and end the sixteen-day government closure. In early October, we sat down with Professor John Stackhouse to find out what started the downward spiral that led to the initial government closure on October 1st, and threatened further disaster this week.

Question: Why did the U.S. government shut down?

JGS: Simply put, Congress had to authorize continued funding and the majority of the House [of Representatives] decided not to do so.

Question: How does that decision relate to the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as “ObamaCare”?

JGS: The Affordable Care Act was tied to everything—to funding for numerous other government services. Opponents of it refused to fund legislation that was passed several years ago. They will also have to face raising the debt ceiling, and it will make a bad situation worse if they don’t do that.

Question: Do you think ObamaCare is the real issue? Why would the Republicans go to such lengths to try to shut down a bill that’s already been passed into law?

JGS: The Republican party is at war with itself right now. The mainstream Republicans originally worked with the Obama administration on getting provisions into the bill, so a number of Republican ideas are in the program they have now denounced. Why? Because they are being pushed very hard by the Tea Party.

These radicals, small-government Republicans, are political puritans. They are unhappy that their own party has temporized. Under Reagan and both Bushes, the federal government grew and the debt became bigger. The Tea Party arose as a purifying movement within the Republican Party, which is why they attack their own—as puritans do. They are trying to seize control because they believe they are the true Republicans.

Question: So, is this really about fiscal responsibility, or is it more about political control?

JGS: Yes and yes. It’s about America having smaller government at every level, leaving more space for private initiative—less of the state and more of the intermediate institutions of society and individuals.

The Tea Party is basically playing a long game. They know they’re hurting the Republican Party in the short term, but the long game is to get rid of these temporizing Republicans. By taking a strong stand, they not only get in the way of Obama and the Democrats, they also expose their own party quite clearly–the “true believers” are digging in and the “apostates” are trying to make a deal.

Question: How is this government feud affecting people on the ground?

JGS: In order to avoid allowing too much power to fall into any one person’s (or party’s) hands the Founding Fathers purposely designed the American government to be wildly inefficient. And that’s okay as long as there’s enough wealth to go around. But there isn’t enough in America: there have always been poor people who haven’t been cared for properly by their neighbours, churches, or governments. This health care bill exposes that. Millions of Americans are not getting the insurance they need and are therefore not getting the healthcare they need. These poor people are paying a huge premium for the “resistance to tyranny.”

In regards to this particular “resistance act”—shutting down the government—all sorts of ordinary people are being immediately effected. From the campers who can’t enjoy the last nice days of summer in public parks to the terminally ill patients being turned away from the Hospital of Last Resort—it’s a real mess.

Question: It seems a bit like a game of chicken: who will blink first? What will open the government again?

JGS: The Tea Party, to achieve their long-term goals, doesn’t have to keep this going very long—just long enough to expose the members of their own party that, in their opinion, need to be replaced. But, eventually, they’ve got to fund the government.

Question: As citizens who feel powerless when we watch our democratic governments behave this way, how should we respond?

JGS: We should understand what’s really going on so that we can vote better next time. I think that the lure of the simple answers on both sides have been shown to be illusory, whether it’s the allure of the Tea Party’s “common sense” or the allure of “Yes, we can.” Obama is not the Messiah and the Tea Party is not the Kingdom of God.

In the real world, as Jesus said, there’s a mixed field. There’s wheat and there’s weeds, and they grow up together. Therefore, "compromise" is not a dirty word; it’s a real word. There’s dirt on it—you’re going to get your hands dirty—but that’s what you’ve got to do to garden, especially in a world of pests and resistance and enemies. I hope [this incident] will help people grow up in their political outlook and not look for saviours but rather for shrewd politicians who can get things done, who will nudge the country, whether it’s the United States or Canada, in what you feel to be a better direction. That’s how I’ve looked at my successive votes: here’s the way things have been going recently; what party or policy will nudge it in a better direction?

Question: That being said, should we nudge our governments in the direction of fiscal responsibility or social compassion? These are the polarized choices we feel we’ve been given.

JGS: This to me is one of the great illusions of American politics, as it is increasingly in Canada: as if that’s the choice. It’s not the choice. Everybody who has more than two days’ experience in government knows that money is being wasted that should not be wasted. Nobody is calling for a new Great Society. Even the Democrats know that they’ve got to reduce the deficit and be fiscally responsible. The argument should be about how do we most efficiently provide for our citizens what’s necessary.

Question: Do you have advice for us while we try to become informed voters who can look beyond simplistic political answers and false dichotomies?

JGS: We do have to realize that politicians aren’t pastors. Pastors properly call us to binary categories—the Kingdom of God versus the kingdom of this world, light versus darkness, truth versus error—and that’s a good job for pastors to do. Politicians need pastors to keep themselves oriented, but politicians constantly have to work in the world of partial success. You ask for twelve, you hope for ten, and you settle for eight. And that’s actually most people’s lives most of the time. Whether you’re in business or other professions, you’re not going to educate everybody, or save everybody, or make money and not lose some.

Somehow, we as evangelical Christians have got to simultaneously hold to our binary categories as our stars, our guiding lights, while also appreciating that between here and the age to come there’s an awful lot of meandering, backtracking, strange bedfellows, and all the stuff that comes from working in a mixed world. And our theology can help us with that if we’ll let it, if we’ll be sufficiently sophisticated about it, but we have to beware the lure of the easy answer.

Dr. John Stackhouse is a professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College and has published more than 500 articles, book chapters, and reviews in the history, sociology, and philosophy of religion, in ethics, and in theology. He has authored seven books and co-authored, edited, or co-edited seven more.

John will be co-teaching Valuing More than What Counts: The Ethics of Filmmaking with acclaimed film producer, Ralph Winter, in Summer 2014 at Regent College

Read John's blog, follow him on Twitter, attend an event to hear him speak, or visit Regent Audio to download his public lectures, courses, and more.

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