Posts Tagged “politics”

Worldview Lessons from a Pandemic: Federalism and Subsidiarity

We are now 4 solid months into America's reaction to COVID-19. Early on, the focus was on a national response to a pandemic that affected New York and Washington State most acutely; ventilators, masks, and all sorts of personal protective equipment were in short supply (or so we were told), and it was the Federal government's job to get the states these vitally important supplies. Many people clamored for a national lockdown order to keep the virus from spreading; never mind that a) the Federal government does not have that power, and b) the same people clamoring for heavy-handed action from Washington, D.C. were the same people who constantly told us that the current occupant is just waiting for his chance to become a dictator.

The national order never came, and the reason why leads us to our first term; if you read the linked article above, you saw David call it “federalism at work.” The word “federalism” can be a bit confusing, as we use Federal government and national government (or U.S. government) synonymously; however, “federalism” is the opposite of a centralized government. Federalism pushes as much responsibility and power as possible to the lowest level possible, the idea being that government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is best done by people in close proximity to one another. Our Federal government gets that name because it is a federation of the “several states” (to use the term from the Constitution) designed to deal with national-level issues.

How does federalism help us with our pandemic response? Easy - the states are in control of their responses, and can ask for help from the Federal government if they need it. We have seen this as the various states have begun their reopening procedures. Some have been aggressive, and ended up having to pull back; other states have been as aggressive, and have not seen as many issues. Some states are opening more cautiously - and, again, some are fine, but some are seeing cases spike in spite of that. Taken in isolation, this demonstrates that there is no one right answer for the nation at large. As we head into fall, states, cities, and school districts are trying to decide what school will look like; the one thing we can say for certain is that there will not be 50-state uniformity in these plans.

Back in the 1930s, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis voiced a concept that is now paraphrased "The states are laboratories of democracy." The term “laboratory” is interesting, in light of the pandemic; they're now serving as laboratories for more than just democracy! Different states will try different things, with different results. As a nation, our job will be to determine if successes could replicated at a larger scale; not everything that works in one place will work everywhere, and as programs grow, their efficiency often wanes. Federalism gives us a structure where we can have these public policy debates, realizing that we do not have to come up with a national answer. (I realize that I'm writing this in an election year; it can be tough to find candidates who say “Here's what I'm going to stop having the Federal government do ‘for’ you,” but you can find them if you try.)

The other principle I want to highlight is known as subsidiarity. That link will give you lots of history behind the word as a civil, political, and social concept; but, the quick version is the idea that issues are best handled at the lowest level possible, and the level that handles it is also responsible for it. Subsidiarity begins with self, and works outward to family / home, church / school, city / county / state, etc. A piece of trash on your kitchen floor is likely not a county issue; a missing guardrail on a dangerous curve is likely not something for your church to fix; and funding prisons is not likely the sole responsibility of your family. If you're thinking that it sounds a lot like federalism, you'd be right; federalism is subsidiarity in government.

Properly applying subsidiarity allows us to see positive changes in our communities. Politicians are going to politic; we can't control that. However, we can make sure that we are not becoming careless spreaders of disease. We, along with our families, can make food, do chores, or otherwise care for someone who needs it. Our churches and civic organizations are a great level for community-oriented help, and often serve as a way to get people who need help with those who can provide it. As each organization's focus gets wider, they are going to be the most productive if they can stay focused at that level. If they are having to do things that require more detail, they will be bogged down; if they are responsible for things above their level, they will not be able to do their actual mission.

A lot of the political anger overs masks vs. no masks, supplies, support, etc. can be seen as a failure of subsidiarity. Paul Harvey, the outstanding radio announcer, wrote “Government big enough to supply everything you need is big enough to take everything you have” (though this has widely been misattributed to Thomas Jefferson). The Federal government is the not the appropriate level for opening and closing decisions; that is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are precisely that - guidelines. Wyoming is going to have different needs than Florida; and, within Wyoming, Laramie and Cheyenne may need a different focus than Moorcroft or Hyattville. Pushing these decisions up too high is asking for those decisions to be poor and/or insufficient.

This isn't to say that the Federal government does not have a role to play; through laws and programs, it has stockpiles of emergency supplies, and it has the ability to shift a large amount of money around (relatively) quickly. This can help those who need it; yet, even then, our culture is such that those who don't need the help will raise a stink about those who do need it actually getting it. We also saw that Paycheck Protection Program funds went to many entities that are most certainly not small businesses; this, too, can be seen as a failure of subsidiarity, as these companies represented themselves as (at least) a level below what they actually were.

There really is no grand conclusion here. Just as no government can blink and make a million tests appear, I cannot sit here behind my keyboard and prescribe how all this gets better. What I can do, though, is encourage each of us to embrace and employ the principles of federalism and subsidiarity as our best chance of getting the best results for the largest number of people. Insisting on a centralized response is insisting on a lackluster, inept response - no matter who is in the White House.

p.s. This was planned to be the 3rd installment of this series from the time I wrote part 1, which I expected to have done within 2 weeks. But, given the emphasis of that post, the timing of this just proves the assertion I made in that first post - we are not in control.


My family is traveling, with our home base in Cincinnati, Ohio this week. Yesterday, we got the opportunity to visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, located on the riverfront here in Cincinnati. It was sobering, uncomfortable, and inspiring - all at the same time.

Our 20/20 hindsight makes it difficult to understand how slavery was defended. Politicians defended it as right and necessary (and we think that awful politicians are a new invention…). Businessmen claimed it fueled the economy; and, in large part, they were correct. Scientists claimed that people of African descent were inferior; while they were often stronger and more resilient, they drew the short straw when it came to intelligence. That's why owning them is OK. (Beware of “settled science”...) Even Africans themselves would raid other villages and tribes, capture people to sell to the white man, for their own financial gain.

That being said - the most uncomfortable part of this was how the preachers provided supposedly biblically-based cover for all this. Sermons were preached about the inferiority of those with darker skin, and how they are ordained by God to be subservient to the white man. (This was throughout North, Central, and South America - this isn't just a U-S-of-A sin.)

Why was that uncomfortable? It's no secret that I'm a Christian, recently coming on staff with my church. We, as Christians, must be sure that we faithfully divide the Word of Truth so that our ancestors do not look back on us with the same shame I felt when I heard my ancestors. They got it wrong - from the bottom to the top, point-blank, wrong. We are all made in the image of God, not a one of us more or less valuable or worthwhile than another. This does not mean that we completely capitulate to the current cultural zeitgeist, deciding that abortion is A-OK or that the clear prohibition of homosexual behaviors were somehow misconstrued. It means that we, as people of the Word, must make sure that when we stand up and say “thus saith the Lord,” that we're correct.

The most sobering part of the museum had to be the “modern day slavery” section. I knew that slavery still existed under different names, but the prevalence statistics were quite sobering. (I didn't memorize them, so I can't quote them; suffice it to say, unless you've looked into it, it's higher than you think.) We must ensure that, while we're looking for the best deal, or the least expensive way to get something, that we're not enabling modern-day slavery. From unfair labor practices (a big reason I'm against illegal immigration, BTW), to excessively cheap textiles, to service staff, to prostitution and pornography - the market for these things are the current demands that run the engine of modern-day slavery.

Now, apart from the statistics I mentioned in the last paragraph (and some of the details of the “regulated” slave trade), none of what I've mentioned above was new to me; it was just sobering (and good) to be reminded of it. I was also impressed with the even-handed display explaining the 3/5 compromise. (For those unaware, it was Southerners who wanted slaves counted as whole people; Northerners didn't want them counted at all, but agreed to 3/5 to placate the South. It was about apportionment of seats as it related to proportional representation, not an indication of one's humanity.) As with anything, there were a few places where this language was inappropriately applied, but all in all, I was greatly enriched from our visit there.

Let freedom ring; let us Christians amplify the sound, whether others use that freedom to choose the way we hope they would - or not.


Has anyone coined the term “Popesplaining” yet? If not, allow me. (If so - well, hey, my server, my rules. Why am I asking for permission, anyway?)

Popesplaining (n.)

  1. A politically conservative Roman Catholic justifying the public papal positions that disagree with their political positions and/or established church theology.
  2. A politically liberal person, typically allergic to anything religious entering the public square, justifying the papal message that coincide with their political views, while failing to recognize his message as a theological one.

(Spoiler alert: I'm not a fan of either one.)

2007 Year in Review: The Ridiculous

Continuing the tradition started last year, I'm writing a three-part series “2007 Year in Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Ridiculous.” And, as I did last year, I'll post them in reverse order so they're in the right order when they're done. Without further ado…

Global Glow-Bull Warming

During 2007, the global warming movement was exposed for the political, not scientific, issue that it is. As with any movement which sees its power diminished, its adherents ramped up their rhetoric; and, in many ways, the movement has become a parody of itself. In April, Sheryl Crow suggested limiting how much toilet paper we use at each sitting, and suggested we wear “dining sleeves” - devices on which we can wipe our mouths, then remove them and replace them with a clean one. (I'm not sure if the extra water for that laundry offsets the lack of a paper napkin - and wouldn't cloth napkins do the same thing?)

Carbon offsets were also shown to be next to useless. Carbon offsets, for the uninitiated, are fees one pays to a company which claims to do something “environmentally friendly” to offset one's carbon emissions. (If that sounds familiar, it should - I believe this technique was pioneered by the Roman Catholic church under the name “indulgences.” Can't stop sinning? Just get forgiveness beforehand!) A group of three environmentally-conscious people (not right-wing fanatics) created a site called CheatNeutral. It aspires to create a network of fidelity to offset those who cheat on their significant others. It illustrates the point beautifully - ten faithful people mean nothing if you're the one being cheated on.

In October, Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global warming, including his film An Inconvenient Truth. Inconveniently, though, many of the claims made in his film have been debunked. Also, a site called Surface Stations shows some of these temperature monitoring stations - these are the stations whose readings have been used to claim that temperatures are increasing. However, many stations are by air conditioning exhausts and other heat-producing structures. Finally, in December, at a UN conference in Bali on global warming, the man leading the negotiations broke down and cried. It must be rough to see all that power slipping away.

Never-Ending Political Cycle

I won't talk much about this, because I'm pretty much tired of it just when it becomes time for it to actually happen. Do we really need a 2-year period of time to pick our next President?

Celebrity Culture

This could probably be a ridiculous item every year, but this year seemed especially ridiculous. Earlier in the year, after Anna Nicole Smith passed away, a circus erupted over the paternity of her young daughter. I don't even know where to start - if every one who claimed that they were the father had a relationship with her that would result in a child in the timeframe where it would be believable… Sheesh.

Train wrecks all over - Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears… Even Britney's sister got into the fray. The biggest problem I have with all this is the amount of press they get, distracting people from other important issues. But, I don't know whether to be more exasperated with the media for putting out the information, or the people who give it such good ratings that they keep pumping it out.

That's enough ridiculousness for one year - up next, the bad…