From December 28, 1981
HAT IS OUR ATTITUDE toward government? Public opinion polls show that the general public holds a very skeptical view of politics and of politicians in general. The frightening indications are that the higher the office held, the lower the level of trust registered in that office; the lower the level of authority, the higher the degree of confidence registered. The pollsters fear that the governmental structure is crumbling, that we are losing confidence in our leaders, and that the absence of trust at the higher levels is a definite indication of public despair . . . the throwing up of hands. I don’t agree with their thinking. To me, the survey results are encouraging, not frightening.
These statistics tell me that the man on the street, the housewife, and the student believe that their school board members or local city and county officials are doing a good job. They trust them because they see them on the street, they work with them, and they go to church with them. They know what kind of citizens they are. “They aren’t politicians, they are neighbors.”
“Those fellows in state government and in Washington, I’m not so sure about them.” We have a tendency to distrust those we aren’t familiar with. To become familiar, we need to roll up our sleeves and get involved in the process.
It’s so much easier to criticize our government than to get involved in its workings; in fact, it’s even a disturbing trend. The dissenters have enjoyed the spotlight for so long that we are prone to think we are out of step with the times if we are content and not rebelling. Two years ago I mailed a questionnaire into my district asking my constituents, Do you feel our public education system is doing an effective job? Are graduates well-rounded students who can read and write and be useful, productive citizens? Of the more than 500 responses, 95 percent answered, “No, we feel our schools are failing.”
At the time, newspapers were raising the question, Why can’t Johnny read? Almost daily we were hearing accounts of colleges graduating students who could barely read and write or fill out a job application. These were horror stories that made heavy hearts, but good news stories.
This year I rephrased the questions: Do you feel that your school, your principal, and your teachers are doing an effective job? Is the system producing well-rounded students prepared to be useful and productive citizens? It was the same people responding to the same questions, but this time about an organization they were familiar with. They had been in these schools; they had worked in the parent-teacher organization. This time my constituents weren’t .evaluating a faceless and nameless entity. They were quick to uphold their schools for they were part of them. They knew the system was effective because at one time or another they had joined hands and worked to make it so. That is the attitude we need to have toward our government-a positive viewpoint.
First, we must remove a lot of negative catchphrases which we accept and repeat, phrases which only give us a ready excuse to escape our civic responsibilities. Whether or not we speak the words ourselves, we are all guilty of hearing them and then confirming them-by our silence. “All politicians are crooks!” “Why vote? My vote couldn’t change anything!” The most classic phrase is, “We can’t do anything about it anyhow!” It is so easy to turn and walk away when we justify our actions, or our failure to act, by accepting a defeatist attitude.
The champions of tyranny must smile every time they hear an American hoisting his white flag of submission by accepting such an attitude, and that is exactly what we are doing. The road to slavery is a gradual decline-first losing faith in our leaders; then in our purpose; then in our ability to function effectively as a people; and, finally, losing confidence in ourselves. We first cease to dream, then to hope, to build, then cease to resist. Freedom becomes no longer worth the effort.
Second, we need to take a close look at our government. Have we ever stopped to read past the headlines? the Watergates? the parole scandals? the welfare frauds? the food-stamp abuses? the smoke-filled rooms? the growing bureaucracies? the strangling regulations? and the corrupt politicians?
Yes, we have faults. Remember, however, that every time they have been discovered, they have been exposed for the whole world to see; for we Americans are free to criticize and to publicize our flaws. We have a system that is far from perfect, but it is the best system any civilization has known. We hang our wash on the line-the patches, frayed collars, and all-for the whole world to see. That is why these occurrences are news, because they are still unacceptable in our society. When they become so commonplace and acceptable that they are no longer news, our government will be endangered.
We must recognize that government is far more noble than its flaws. Government is the orderly process which enables men to work collectively-to build hospitals, schools, orphanages, and roads. Government is caring for the helpless, making laws to guide the lawless, and providing the unity of purpose that ensures each of us the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is the operation of government, and we take it for granted. No, it isn’t news; we can be thankful that in this land its presence is commonplace.
The next thing we should do is take a close, critical look at ourselves. The greatest fault Americans have is a tendency to sell ourselves short. When we think of it, Americans come from good stock. Our bloodline can be traced back through men who blazed trails; defeated tyrants; crossed unchartered oceans; built cities out of wildernesses; and, for some of us, to One who even hung on a Cross. We can do something!
We must not ever think that we don’t have a voice in government. There’s never been a patriot in history who stood any taller than the modern American stands at the ballot box. There has never been a patriot who spoke louder than the person who does research, plants his feet, speaks out, and votes his convictions. Only one vote? The expensive campaigns, the extensive research, the polling, the image-building, the strategies-all are designed for one purpose-to get one vote. Don’t ever think one vote doesn’t matter. Don’t ever think one voice doesn’t matter until it first has been heard.
Finally, when we decide that our forefathers might have known what they were building and dying for after all, let’s not be embarrassed to throw out our chests when we walk or to hold our heads a little higher. When that old flag comes sweeping down the streets and we stand for its passing, we might have to brush back a tear as we suddenly realize that we have stood not out of courtesy, but because we are Americans, identifying with that flag. We are proclaiming this is our flag, representing our country and our government. We want to stand with it!
Yes, that’s the proper attitude toward government-although it may seem corny, out-of-date, and even unexciting. This viewpoint will never make headlines, but then the heartbeat of America will never be written in bold print. Only when it skips a beat is it newsworthy. The real heartbeat of America is recognizing that we are free to own a home, to choose our neighbors, to select our profession, to worship our God, and to speak our convictions. In appreciating these freedoms, these rights we inherit as citizens, we also assume a responsibility to cherish and preserve them, then to pass them on to yet unborn generations.
We have the proper attitude toward our government when we admit that it is no better or worse than we want it to be. Government is a mirror that clearly reflects the image of those who stand closest to it. Too long, we as Christians have been content to stay out of its picture.