"National greatness"

Looking for purpose in all the wrong places

Issue: "Walk the Talk," Nov. 15, 1997

Two rallies last month-Promise Keepers in Washington and the "Million Women March" in Philadelphia-showed that some political intellectuals have it wrong when they try to give us only two choices: individualism or nationalism.

Promise Keepers speakers stayed away from talk of government, but such silence spoke loudly in Washington, D.C. Speakers at the Philadelphia gathering similarly emphasized "repentance, resurrection, restoration," not governmental action. Both rallies emphasized individuals' gaining purpose in their lives by looking beyond themselves and working to build strong families, churches, and communities.

None of the speakers, to my knowledge, said that people will be sad unless government gives them something to be glad about. But that, curiously, is the gist of the message from Washington neoconservatives William Kristol and David Brooks, a message that has created an East Coast teapot tempest.

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Mssrs. Kristol and Brooks, in a much-discussed Wall Street Journal column in September, started the debate by attacking the conservative push to reduce federal power. They proposed instead a "national greatness conservatism," arguing that if Washington really does leave folks alone to pursue their own goals, the liberated citizens will be miserable.

The reason, according to Mssrs. Kristol and Brooks, is that people in a democratic society lose "a sense of grand aspiration and noble purpose [when] they think of nothing but their narrow self-interest." To relieve us from what amounts to a national malaise, the writers argued that Washington should come up with some grand and noble goals that will give meaning to the otherwise wasted lives of all those folks outside the Beltway.

Had the column been the product of conventional Washington arrogance, no one would have been surprised-but coming from Mr. Kristol, who in 1993 had rallied Republican forces to fight the Clintons' government-run health care, it attracted wide attention. Not surprisingly, liberals were delighted. Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher called the Kristol-Brooks essay "stunning ... phenomenal." Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. noted that "using government on behalf of 'national greatness' could get you right back to the New Deal."

Not surprisingly, conservatives were furious. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay snorted at "Rockefeller Republicanism." Rep. David McIntosh told fellow Republicans, "We have to be the party of less government." Sen. Phil Gramm presented the political imperative: "There are only two ideas in the history of government: government and freedom. When government is the answer, the Democrats are in the ascendancy. When freedom is in the answer, we [Republicans] are in the ascendancy."

Conservatives were right to be critical. Look at the way federal officials have creatively turned the Constitution's commerce clause into a license to become all-purpose Santa Clauses. Look at how hard it is to keep programs from expanding, as their constituents lobby hard for more dollars. The energizer bunnies of the Environmental Protection Agency, which Ronald Reagan tried to rein in, are now getting themselves new offices in, of all things, the just-completed Ronald Reagan federal office building.

And yet, critical thinking has often been left by the wayside as politicians have endorsed or criticized the Kristol-Brooks thesis. The real problem with that essay is that it set up a "false dichotomy." Mssrs. Kristol and Brooks offered two alternatives: selfishness, or submergence in "some larger national goal." Their assumption was the same as that made by liberal college professors who complain that students not signing onto a revival of the 1960s are showing themselves to be self-absorbed.

The dichotomy is false because we do not have to choose between nationalism and individualism, between pyramid-building or hut-inhabiting. Christians know of the third alternative, one also suggested by some of the speakers at last month's rallies: people walking in Christ's steps, and thereby working for a cause far greater than themselves. We do not build a great nation by emphasizing "national greatness." Our nation achieves greatness when ministers unselfishly serve their congregations, teachers and coaches sacrificially minister to their students, businessmen build enterprises that create good products and good jobs, and parents train their children in the way they should go.

This type of national greatness is nothing new: Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s wrote that America's genius was its emphasis on citizens, often followers of Christ, coming together to build community institutions. For decades, Europe emphasized nationalism, but America was a land of church-based associations. In recent decades, however, government expansion has marginalized many "mediating structures," those community and religious institutions that stand between the individual and the state. The greatest political task for the next decade is to find ways to make such groups central once more.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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