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Big G, little g

Big government and big egos forget Who is in charge

Issue: "Simpsons: Fair or Foul?," June 11, 2005

I haven't settled in my own mind yet which is more dangerous for a society: the explicit rejection of the God of the universe, or the much more common implicit rejection of that same God.

I have argued in this space before, for example, that big government, just because of its bigness, tends to become a false god. When people start to be enamored of all its largesse, they never give a thought to the possibility that this new god is taking the place of the one they should be reverencing. The transfer of their loyalty is subtle and quiet.

By such a standard, Christians would oppose big government even if it performed its functions very well. While traditional secular political conservatives oppose big government because they believe it is inefficient, bureaucratic, and therefore wasteful of the citizens' resources-or simply because they don't want any government to gain too much power-Christians would be concerned that big government might become a god-like figure.

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In similar fashion, of course, those same people should be just as skeptical of other big systems that tend to become false gods. The free enterprise system, the remarkable complex of higher education, modern science and technology, and the accomplishments of contemporary medicine all tend to shift our trust from Jehovah to other vendors of miracles. And that, Christians properly affirm, is dangerous-wherever the temptation is coming from.

Yet in all these cases, things aren't yet as bad as they could be. For the threat, up to this point, has been largely implicit. Big government isn't saying explicitly that God doesn't exist; big government just acts as if God doesn't exist. He certainly plays no major role in taking care of health problems or old age or threats from terrorist nations. Those are functions of government (or the free market system, or the universities, or modern science or medicine), and so we come more and more to take all those agencies very seriously, and God a good bit less so. But we've done that based on an implicit rather than an explicit argument. And the implicit argument for secularism has been at work for many generations.

What gets scary, and what is increasingly different about our current age, is that the argument is turning so explicit. What for several decades has been left quietly unsaid is more and more being brashly proposed.

No one could have put it more bluntly than did syndicated columnist Michael Kinsley a few days ago while arguing that there's no place for religious ethics in the debate over embryonic stem-cell research. "We know all that we're going to know about the moral issues," says Mr. Kinsley with frightening arrogance. "There are three issues: First, do the embryos used for stem cell research and therapy have rights? They are clumps of a few dozen cells, biologically more primitive than a mosquito. They have no consciousness, are not aware that they exist, and never have been. Nature itself creates and destroys millions of these every year. No one objects. No one mourns. In most cases no one even knows."

Then Mr. Kinsley gets very bold: "If my life is worth no more than the survival of one of these clumps, then it is terribly unfair that I can plead my case on the op-ed page and they can't. But I have no trouble feeling that the government should value my life more than the lives of these clumps. God may disagree. But the government reports to me and to other adult Americans, not to God."

Yet startling as Mr. Kinsley's audacious words might be, we shouldn't pretend any longer that he doesn't speak for those who dominate government, academia, business, medicine, science, and, of course, the media. Most may be more polite in expressing what they think God's place is-but, practically speaking, they think like Mr. Kinsley.

So God has now moved from being explicitly referred to as "Creator" in our founding documents, to being politely ignored, to being explicitly excluded. So I ask which is better-to be shut out of discourse while folks pretend otherwise, or to make it official?

Not that it's our decision to make. No one should pretend that He who sits in the heavens is ignoring all this. It's true that He has remarkable patience. It's also true that sometimes it's most quiet just before a storm.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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