Driving home from Iowa two weeks ago, I got tired of listening to the radio. I pulled out some old CDs to listen to music, and one was the sound-track to the movie “Evita,” which stars Madonna and tells the story of the rise to power in Argentina of Juan Perón, which was engineered in part by his wife, Eva. Perón was “elected” in a situation that was highly manipulated and backed by force. One song on that CD has this line: “That’s how we get the government we deserve.”
I think of that song as I read all of the complaints about Congress and the president in our current government “shutdown” and the arguing over Obamacare and raising the national debt. I hear all of those complaints, and I tend to agree with most of those complaints (what a mess we have in Washington, created by our elected leaders), but if we look a little deeper we have to admit that “we get the government we deserve.” Let me explain:
Our U.S. government is designed to create such stalemates. Our founders did not trust government, so they created a government with so many “checks and balances” that it is hard for any political party to take charge and rule (or simply govern). We have branches of government, a two-house Congress, and an active judiciary that inserts itself into the legislative processes. Our U.S. government was designed that way, so it should be no surprise that we have political divisions in Washington. In addition to our system of branches of government, we Americans also tend to elect different political parties to control the White House and Congress.
But it goes deeper. All of the traits in Washington that we decry are actually an outgrowth of the messed-up values in our whole culture.
We complain about overspending by Congress, but the average American household is spending 103 percent of its income.
We complain about the rising debt level, but the typical American is increasingly in debt (and that is even mirrored in our churches, which are increasingly in debt).
We complain about the culture of entitlement, but the typical American has an “entitlement” attitude (just watch the way people drive over the speed limit, cut off others in lanes, and ignore simple traffic rules — all of that reflects an attitude that says “I am entitled to break the rules that I don’t like.”).
We complain about the rising cost of health care, but most Americans are overweight, out of shape, and in poor health by virtue of lifestyle choices.
We complain that the politicians are not able to work together, but Americans seem to be more and more disagreeable and unruly (If you don’t believe that, just go to a Little League baseball game and watch the behavior of the parents. Or watch a local school board meeting and listen to the inability of people to listen politely to those with whom they disagree. Or you can even see that unruly behavior in some church meetings.).
We complain that our government too quickly resorts to the use of violence and unauthorized force, but our whole culture is becoming more violent as witnessed by the violent video games we allow our children to play and as witnessed by the shootings and crime in both our cities and our rural areas.
My point is this: We can complain about the government, but we get the government we deserve. We get the government we elect. We get the government that reflects the unhealthy trends in our whole American society.
What is the answer? I believe it is to be honest about the nature of human sin (a word which we seldom use, even in church). We have to confess that we all are the root of the problems we see in Washington. We have to quit destroying good and decent people who run for office. We have to elect people who reflect the “higher” American values. And we have to pray that God will forgive us for choosing the government we deserve.
God bless America is more than a bumper sticker or a political slogan. It is a prayer for help. And we need God’s help in the midst of this mess in Washington, in Indianapolis, and in every town and village in the U.S.
Bishop Michael Coyner is Indiana bishop of the United Methodist Church.