Cover Story

The revival of localism

"The revival of localism" Continued...

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

One word younger Christians use frequently is "community." They read reports of selfish individuals flinging around their wealth thoughtlessly while many among the poor live in straitened circumstances. They don't have much faith in government, but if the choice in an election seems to be between greed and government, some still hope that government action will help to bring about community. They need to see what churches and other institutions of civil society can do.

Still local

Some new members of Congress like James Lankford have stepped into Washington-but only with one foot

By Marvin Olasky

James Lankford for 13 years was director of youth programming at Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center in Oklahoma, which describes itself as the largest youth encampment in the United States. For two months he has been a member of Congress, but he hasn't forgotten where he came from-although he is loath to mention part of his past.

The part he rarely mentions is his degree in education from the University of Texas at Austin, a biographical detail that wouldn't win him plaudits from Oklahoma fans, at least during the football season. The part he speaks about is his commitment to "civil society," the generally local institutions that encourage Americans to work together in problem-solving without relying on government.

Congress these days generally does its business from Monday evening through Thursday, which allows Lankford to spend half his time in Oklahoma even when the House is in session. He's not betting on a rise in D.C. real estate values: He sleeps in his office, in part to rebuild savings reduced during the year after he left his camp job to concentrate on campaigning. He's committed to "making government smaller, more local," and criticizes "national standards" in education and other spheres-"making every state the same, every city the same."

Lankford told me he's reluctant to criticize former President George W. Bush, but thinks "it was a terrible idea" to do No Child Left Behind as a national education program. Although his camping background makes inevitable the comparisons to movie character Jefferson Smith-one blog called him a "reincarnation of Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"-he has far more policy sophistication. For example, he understands that major deficit reductions require changes in Medicare and other sacred entitlements, and jokes about those who say, "If you just cut off the UN, we'd do fine."

He remains a member of Quail Springs Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, is exploring several congressional Bible studies, and readily makes references both to biblical passages-Proverbs 8 and 31 came up in our conversation-and Oklahoma poverty-fighting ministries like the City Rescue Mission.

Other newcomers to Congress also sound traditional GOP decentralist themes. Some do it with defiance: South Dakota's Kristi Noem, 38, told a crowd last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, "We don't have knowledge about the way Washington operates-and frankly, we don't really care." Some do it with determination. Raul Labrador, born to a single mom in Puerto Rico and now a member of Congress from Idaho, spoke of his opposition to "personal responsibility stripped away and replaced with government control."

Labrador said his views are "not mere talking points for me, but part of a mission statement that I have lived." That's the crucial question regarding a revival of localism: Talking points or mission statement?

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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