Charlotte and Janie Talk about Government: What is it and what is it for?

Janie and Charlotte were best friends in college. They still maintain a good friendship even though they have some different perspectives on politics, culture and theology: Janie grew to the “Right” while Charlotte grew to the “Left.” They have maintained their friendship and now talk about their differences in a shared blog. Charlotte and Janie published four conversations on religious liberty.

Recently they have been exploring their different expectations for health care and education in America. You can find their earlier conversation here. The current conversation seeks to lay some foundation about how they understand the fundamental nature of government.

Janie: Some classic Christian traditions teach that from the beginning God ordained three organizational entities: the family, the civil government, and the church.  These three have their separate spheres of influence, which are distinct even though they overlap.  The family is not just a basic economic unit but a home (for raising responsible adults and providing companionship and care to individuals).  The church is not just a fellowship of believers but a prophet and moral conscience to society.  And the government is not just the enforcer of social order and law but guarantor of national security—if only it would!

When one sphere tries to take over the purview of the others, trouble always follows.  When a family becomes law unto itself, you get oppressive cults like David Koresh and Jim Jones (remember them)?  When a church takes over civil functions you get the Inquisition.  And when the civil government assumes family functions you get widespread dependency and a welfare state that looks like The Blob.  Or totalitarianism.

Those distinctions aren’t always cut and dried, and I’m not saying civil authority has no part whatsoever to play in helping people.  But the essential power of government is coercive.  That’s what Paul means in Romans 13:4: “He [the governor] does not bear the sword in vain.”  Government exists to stop corruption, police neighborhoods, throw crooks in jail, defend against attack; “to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good” (I Pet. 2:14).  Praising, encouraging, or rewarding good behavior is a legitimate function; enforcing good behavior is problematic.

Government by nature is impersonal and (at its best) impartial, and the larger it gets the more impersonal.  But we’ve come to think of the United States Government as a kind of extended family, which must take over family functions when necessary.  It’s also a kind of church, which must correct false doctrine when necessary. Your reference to the federal government as a “wise parent” in our last discussion implies something like this.  Thus it imposes on the responsibilities of the other two God-ordained spheres, one organic and the other moral and spiritual.  And we got trouble, my friends.

I think the federal government has actually done more to break down community than build it up.  Here’s how: when parents die or fail to meet their responsibilities, extended family members have traditionally stepped in to fill gaps.  When a house in the neighborhood burns down, neighbors have traditionally pitched in to help rebuild.  Churches have performed heroically in supporting widows, feeding orphans, building schools and hospitals, and voluntary organizations have formed to provide other needs like scholarship and benevolence funds.  All these functions build community because they are horizontal—people reaching out to people—with strings attached.  Local or church-based charity often comes with some sort of obligation to the receiver—that she take a life-skills class and get a job, for instance.

Those strings represent connectedness.  With the introduction of federal aid, those horizontal bonds break down; rather than reaching out, people are reaching up.  Rather than forming a network of mutual obligations the strings are all connected to a faceless bureaucracy that sends the checks.  You don’t have to sheepishly confess to Uncle Mike that you drank up that loan he extended on your next paycheck—you don’t even have to worry that much about the next paycheck, because that pittance from Uncle Sam will come regardless.  I’ve had personal experience with this attitude; it’s not something I read in National Review.

I think anyone would agree that there’s been a widespread breakdown of families and neighborhoods in the last fifty years.  I don’t blame government aid for all of this, and I don’t deny there should be a safety net.  But the safety net has become wider and wider as our meaningful personal connections get thinner. The expansion of welfare from The Great Society has not produced a great society, and I don’t see any likelihood that it will.


Charlotte: I can agree with much of what you say. We share concerns about the breakdown of American families, the cycles of poverty and the effectiveness of welfare. We both see fracturing within too many personal relationships and the subsequent isolation away from healthy community. The reasons for our social ills are deeply complex and the burden of responsibility must be shared by all of us.

But I disagree with your fundamental understanding of church and government. Our topic today is government but we do want to get to a discussion about how religion and politics might appropriately intersect in America so I’ll wait to talk about my own understanding of what “church” is to be. Here are some of my thoughts about what “government” is to be within the American context.

You say: “..the federal government has actually done more to break down community than build it up…” I say community breaks down because of our human brokenness and government should act as a kind of check on our natural self-centeredness. Of course the idealistic Great Society did not produce an actual great society but that doesn’t mean the efforts failed. Lots of people had work and food and homes because of that critical safety net during those hard years. And we made a national shift in some of our understandings about how government can properly function to “promote the common welfare.” But no human institution or program will ever produce perfection. We can only work towards it and try to keep making things better.

I used the metaphor of government as a “strong wise parent” in an earlier discussion because I am arguing that our society functions as a kind of far-flung, eclectic family. This metaphor is not my own creation; the mythology is deeply embedded within our story. We speak of George Washington as the “father” of our country. We send our “sons” off to war. We still celebrate the “Daughters of the American Revolution.” This is our “homeland” and “Uncle Sam” models for us what we are about as a people together.

I don’t think of government as the extended family as you imply. Rather We the People are the family, and government – in its appropriate role – ensures that the “family” values we claim in our founding documents are actual practices that we all share. And not just in our Constitution; but also in the traditions we have come to cherish. For example, hospitality to others seeking refuge, asylum and opportunity. Immigrants are people who become part of our family and government (as a strong wise parent) makes sure the table is big enough and we all make room for one another.

Have you read George Lakoff at all? He’s a cognitive scientist who has been offering insights for years now on how we relate to one another in our political system, and he is one who has been informing and expanding my understandings lately. Lakoff looks at the ways Conservatives and Progressives see the role of government and uses parental images to help us recognize how we make meaning of our relationship to government and to one another. Conservatives, he says, see government as a “strict father” while Progressives see it as a “nurturing parent.”

Much of what I hear Conservatives say makes sense within this “strict father” frame: actions have consequences; strength is better than vulnerability; traditional morality and national patriotism are high values; obedience is moral and disobedience is immoral. Don’t hear me knocking these values; I agree up to a point but as a Progressive, I find myself valuing other things more. Like equal opportunity, compassion and second chances. I hear Conservatives say government should leave them alone and let them tend to their own business without interference. I hear Progressives say government should leave them alone and stay out of our bedrooms and doctors’ offices. Both are right, in my view. A strong wise parent launches strong wise children who can make their own decisions. But since we humans (children and citizens) don’t always make wise decisions, there still must be some protections and safe guards that government should have in place.

So I do see America as a community, a family forced into relationship by virtue of our shared society and geography. And I think the various governments of America are responsible for nurturing our civic relationships in ways that are compassionate and equitable. That means honoring those who are strong and successful; celebrating their gifts and advantages. But also, at the same time, in appropriate balance, honoring and protecting those who are weak and disadvantaged; celebrating their inherent human dignity and finding ways to level the American playing field so they too have a shot at the American Dream.

Two things going on in this discussion: 1) who are we together as Americans? And 2) what is government and what is the people’s relationship to government?

A caveat, however; since America is a representative democracy, “We the People” choose people to represent us and govern in our stead with our approval. So in a very real way, WE are the government. Bureaucracies may be impersonal but governments and public servants should be lively and responsive to real people and real needs.

You say: The church is not just a fellowship of believers but a prophet and moral conscience to society. Please talk more about this. Is this how you understand the proper relationship between faith and politics, between church and state, between the religious and the secular? Thanks for this conversation; this is helpful for me.


Janie: A few responses before I answer that question:

  • Of course civil government has a role as moral arbiter. Its function is making and upholding the law, after all, and law should have a moral base (even if it doesn’t always). I don’t disagree that government can act as a check on our natural self-centeredness, but governments are made up of broken individuals with their own self-centeredness. We agree that society and government are not the same, but I notice that progressives sometimes speak of them interchangeably. What does government have that society doesn’t? Authority. Sometimes governments have to force people to behave better, if they’re stealing or mugging or neglecting their kids or otherwise behaving badly.
  • But you cannot force people to be compassionate. I believe Americans are basically generous and don’t mind contributing tax money to provide a safety net for those who truly can’t take care of themselves. However, the more government sets itself up as a social cop, determining who gets what and who has to pay for it, the more resentment will be created on one side and a sense of entitlement on the other.
  • Governments can’t nurture; only people can do that. To the extent that there are compassionate individuals within an agency who can make a personal commitment to those they serve (and I know there are some of those), well and good. But that’s not primarily how an agency operates, nor can it. Government agencies are not primarily about people, they are about money: getting it, appropriating it, allocating it, doling it out, and keeping track of it with endless paperwork. Even if that wasn’t the intention going in, that’s what it becomes.
  • Yes, we elect our representatives. What’s happened in the last 50 years or so, however, is the growth of a vast, overlapping array of agencies and initiatives and programs and staffers, none of whom are elected and all of whom tend to be permanent. They are accountable to no one and, as time goes on, many of these agencies become more about perpetuating themselves than meeting the needs they were originally created to serve. Many, if not most, of these employees have good intentions, but ask them how much time they have to get personally involved with their clients.
  • You’re talking about admirable principles; I’m saying they don’t work so well in practice. Government solutions should be evaluated like any other solution, and they almost never are. No program is ever eliminated, regardless of how lousy it turns out (and yeah, they all do some good, but at tremendous cost and often with unintended consequences). Some programs, I believe, have done actual harm, and they all tend to become politicized.
  • Finally, government is necessary, but it’s made of broken people. Government must “bear the sword,” as I mentioned before, but the bigger the sword, the greater the potential for abuse.

That’s where the church comes in. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” meaning he didn’t come to set up a theocracy. Still, the church has a voice, and she is supposed to use it. “You are the salt of the earth.” I believe every Christian is called to be not only the hands of Christ (serving others) but also the voice of Christ (speaking truth in love).

If a Christian is elected president, he or she must operate within the law, while at the same time using the bully pulpit to do good wherever possible. This may mean operating within constitutional limits to withdraw federal funds from Planned Parenthood, or working diplomatically to relieve persecuted Christians in other countries, or lobbying for laws that encourage marriage, or sometimes, in rare cases, even going to war.

Individual Christians in government can do these things; the church as a body can’t do any of these things, because they are the prerogative of government. Still, the church can and should be visible “salt and light” within a society. Individual Christians are not called to violently protest, but to live peaceful lives and do good. They are not called to stage political revolutions, but to work within the system to push back on government actions they consider unjust or ungodly. They are not called to disobey the law, except in extraordinary situations where “We must obey God rather than men.” The church as a whole is called to reach out, help meet needs, set a godly example, and speak out when necessary. I’m thankful we live under a government that allows us the freedom to do this, at least so far.


Charlotte: Oh my, Janie! I hardly know where to begin. In some ways we see many things similarly but in many other ways, we have fundamentally different visions.

You seem to be using the words “government” and “bureaucracy” as synonyms. You say: “government by nature is impersonal and (at its best) impartial…” I can see why you say that, given your paradigm.

But in contrast, when I speak of “government” I am talking about the people who do the work of governing within the framework of our guiding documents. In this understanding, the persons who govern should not be impersonal but must act with wisdom and compassion on behalf of the persons within their area of responsibility. In this understanding, the “government” should not be impartial but rather must work to protect the poor and the vulnerable from the rich and the powerful.

You argue that government per se is “God ordained.” I will agree with that but I can only understand what it means based on theological reflection of God’s own way of governing creation. What do the ancient stories and psalms say about God’s stewardship of the earth: its people, its creatures, its water and lands? What do the ancient rules within Israel’s national life say about equity, caring for the poor, and welcoming the stranger? What do the prophets say about governmental leaders, “Shepherds,” who plunder the flock, who abuse the widows and orphans, who make themselves rich at the expense of the poor? I think these are the biblical insights into “God-ordained government” that should best inform a Christian’s understanding even in our own day.

I confess your description of a “Christian president doing good wherever possible” startled me. You will actually claim that defunding health care for poor women is “doing good?” I think you are probably talking about abortion, but Planned Parenthood has played an active role in increasing contraception and family planning so that the abortion rates have dropped dramatically in the past few years. (Federal monies are not used to fund abortions.) How on earth can a pro-life, “Christian” lawmaker justify defunding an organization that promotes life and health in such a variety of ways?

And as I recall, our last Christian president did lobby for laws that encourage marriage; marriage equality – and the Conservative community was up in arms. You speak as if there is only one way to be “Christian.”

“The Church” in America has a long proud history of challenging government prophetically. The Christian community (across several denominations) worked to abolish slavery, to ensure civil rights for people of color, to protect children who were basically enslaved in factories and warehouses. Today many churches and congregations offer sanctuary for immigrants, protecting families from harsh and unforgiving governmental policies. In my understanding, these are appropriate ways Christians can be “the hands and the voice” of the Christ for our world.

We promised to engage in this dialogue with an honest effort to hear each other out, not to try to change each other’s minds. I’m glad for that commitment because we sure do see some things differently, don’t we? How do you think we need to continue this conversation next time? Is it time to get back to a discussion on health care in America?


Janie: Thanks for hearing me out.  By “impartial,” I mean that government should not favor either rich or poor, but protect both.  It’s not a crime to grow rich and spend your money as you see fit in this country, but there have been times in our history when our government aided and abetted the rich.  That had to be corrected, and I’m sure it will still need to be corrected, because the rich tend to be the powerful.  And the powerful will always, always, always have an outsized place in government, whether Democratic or Republican.  In fact, the bigger the government, the more clout they will have.  My point is that that the apparatus is too big, too costly, too awkward, too impersonal—and yes, governments are always bureaucratic.  How could they not be?  I still think I’m talking about things as they are, and you’re talking about things as they should be.

So, it looks like the ACA is here to stay, until we get a single-payer system.  Pros and cons?


Janie B. Cheaney blogs at Gobsmacked by Life … sometimes

Janie has published six novels for teens. Her historical fiction is especially well done with solid research, engaging characters and great writing.  Janie’s J.B.Cheaney Facebook page is a fun and helpful author resource.

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She is national secretary for Coffee Party USA and contributes regularly to the Join the Coffee Party Movement Facebook page.

Charlotte is an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also blogs about Scripture from a progressive Christian approach in her Living in The Story Musings.

Charlotte and Janie Talk about Health Care, Education and NASA

Janie and Charlotte were best friends in college. They still maintain a good friendship even though they have some different perspectives on politics, culture and theology: Janie grew to the “Right” while Charlotte grew to the “Left.” They have maintained their friendship and now talk about their differences in a shared blog. Charlotte and Janie published four conversations on religious liberty and now they are exploring their different expectations for health care in America. You can find their earlier conversation here.

Charlotte: I’m pleasantly surprised and grateful to see that you and I agree that there should be a basic right to health care in America. I think this is a growing belief for more and more people and probably the Affordable Care Act contributed to that expectation. We are seeing reports from town hall meetings in numerous states where Republicans as well as Democrats are loudly challenging their representatives not to disrupt their access to affordable insurance and health care. With all its problems, the ACA has helped millions of people and saved numerous lives. I agree with you that it would be political suicide for the Republican Congress to repeal Obamacare without a solid replacement. If they mess this up, Town Hall meetings will only get noisier and rowdier.

I’ve been thinking about the similarities between this current process and the process America went through to provide free public education for all our children. I think there are numerous comparisons and we might be able to learn how to do this better if we will look back at our recent history.

For many years, there was no expectation that all children should be educated. Education was a privilege not a right. Before the Civil War, some states made it illegal to even teach slaves to read and write. Countless children worked the land and toiled in factories instead of going to school. I wonder how many men proclaimed that girls should tend the home and not fill their pretty heads with too much learning.

So how did America move to the place where we are now? Where our society as a whole assumes every child should go to school? And where there are often legal consequences for parents and children when they are not in school.

One reason public schools developed is that we figured out that our society as a whole is better when we have an educated population. All of us benefit when all of us function together in this community with basic knowledge and skills. All of us benefit when each of us is allowed to grow to our potential. All of us benefit when the geniuses among us are discovered and nurtured.

So it makes perfect sense to me that all of us will benefit if we will assume that everyone among us should have access to basic health care. If we will see health care as a right and not a privilege. I believe our entire nation will be healthier and more productive if we can make that societal shift in our expectations.

Janie: I disagree that there was little or no expectation in the U.S. that children should be educated. It was not something we figured out along the way–education has always been important in American public life, but it was local-community-based rather than government-based. The Northwest Ordinance, which opened US territories up for settlement after the War for Independence, divided the land into townships, with one section of each township dedicated to the support of the school. The New England puritans and others were extremely zealous for education. The only ethnic group that demonstrated a more casual attitude were the Scotch-Irish who settled in the Appalachians and southern foothills. But then, the South was a much more stratified society (big divide between the landed gentry and poor whites) in colonial days, and for a long time after. That’s one reason slavery was able to dig such a foothold there. And yes, it was illegal in many southern states (as slavery became more entrenched in the early 19th centuries) to teach blacks to read.

The first big step toward public education as we know it today occurred in the second half of the 19th century, when (mostly) northern intellectuals became enamored with the Prussian model and decided that was the way to go: strict age-level divisions, certified teachers, pre-determined curriculum. Lots of school districts adopted the model, but it was still local control.

Charlotte: I really like talking with smart people! Obviously you know quite a bit about American education and I appreciate your passion. I think you and I definitely need to talk more about school choice, vouchers and Secretary DeVos. (I’m holding my nose here but I’m willing to listen.)

But for now, I want to go back to my original point in this conversation: America as a whole did not have an expectation that all children should be provided with a basic, free education until about 150 years into its national life. I believe the process by which America came to this expectation that all children should have a right to education is similar to the process in which we are currently engaged: America is slowly but surely coming to understand that all citizens should have a basic right to health care.

Notice in my first foray, I did not say people did not value education. Of course, throughout human history many people have valued education; but for many societies – as for our own – the education of all children was not the common expectation. Horace Mann moved the needle on this issue in America; his advocacy for Common Schools was controversial but his ideas finally took hold. By 1918, every one of the 48 states provided public schools and had compulsory attendance laws on their books.

So my question to you: should affordable, accessible health care be a right for all our citizens much as a free, public education is now considered to be a right for all our children? Do you accept my comparison?

And secondly, since you take issue with “Obamacare” but you agree with me that there should be a basic right to health care in America, do you have any ideas for an equitable system to replace the Affordable Care Act?

Janie: Okay. I was a little confused about where you were going. I don’t think it’s entirely an accurate comparison, because education was considered more an obligation and necessity for free citizens than a “right.” I still disagree with your statement that “America as a whole did not have an expectation that all children should be provided with a basic, free education until about 150 years into its national life”—I think that was the expectation from the beginning (in most of the country, anyway), but the disagreement was in how to provide it and who should be responsible for it. Before the late 19th century, communities generally took responsibility for it themselves. As the population became more diverse over successive waves of immigration and as governments, both federal and state, grew more centralized, the idea of free public schools grew along with it. For a lot of reasons, though, not entirely as a matter of individual rights. Education was seen—and is still seen—as a way of molding the populace, assimilating immigrants, and preparing future citizens to participate in public life (e.g., by reading newspapers and following political debates). I don’t mean to quibble, but I think there is a difference education as a right and education as a necessity.

That said, we can certainly agree that by this time in our history a free basic education is a right as well as a necessity. The controversy over Betsy DeVos is mostly about how much control the federal government should have, and there’s a comparison I can get behind: how much control should the federal government likewise have over health care? The argument over Obamacare is not about right. Over time, as I tried to demonstrate in our earlier conversation, most Americans, including Republicans, have accepted that there is a right to some kind of health coverage. The argument is now over control. To what extent should the federal government step in and regulate insurance companies, hospitals, doctors, treatments, etc., etc.?

The basic idea behind Republican reform—and I sure hope they hurry up and get to it—is less top-down control and more individual choice. This would involve several elements, including 1) individual Health Saving Accounts, or HSAs, to which the government contributes (and which go with the person, not the job); 2) shopping for insurance across state lines, which we currently can’t do, 3) high-risk pools for chronic conditions, 4) safety nets for those who are unable to make decisions for themselves, 5) incentives for healthy choices, and more. I expect any reforms will include all of these, and I think we’ll have some concrete proposals within a couple of months. That will give us something to talk about.

Charlotte: I’m remembering something you said in our first published discussion on this topic. Something about it bothered me and I couldn’t put my finger on it until now.

I wonder why Obamacare prescribes a one-size-fits-all solution by requiring all insurance to cover a wide-ranging “essential benefits package” for everyone, whether they need it or not: maternity care for retirees, for instance. I assume the purpose of that is to spread the burden equally, but I think there are other ways to do it besides making the young and healthy shoulder some of the costs for the old and sick—especially if we bankrupt ourselves to the point where the funds won’t even be there when today’s young people need it.

I think it’s your phrase “making the young and healthy shoulder some of the costs for the old and sick” that jumped out at me.

First, I believe that shouldering the costs of living together within a society certainly ought to be part of what it means to function as a connected community. Our federal government was tasked from its inception to “promote the general welfare.” Our public schools are expected to educate every student who walks through their doors. Our interstate highway system lies ready for any vehicle to travel with convenience and comfort. Likewise, our health care system ought to be accessible and affordable to everyone who needs care.

So who pays for all of this? We all do. Our tax dollars are our contribution to this broad, complex society we live in – not just to our own advantage, but for the common welfare. Retired Americans who don’t have children or grandchildren in the public school system still pay for the education of our young people through their tax dollars. I’ve never been to Wisconsin but I’m happy to contribute to the highways that allow the dairy farmers there to transport their wonderful cheeses. I’m also quite happy to help pay the costs for contraception for American’s women as well as pre-natal care and safe deliveries for America’s children.

Before the ACA, people who were not able to afford insurance coverage went to emergency rooms whenever they got sick. Who paid for that care? We did. Those of us whose insurance covered our hospital stays paid higher premiums in order to cover unreimbursed hospital expenses. And/Or our tax dollars went to reimburse hospitals for some of that medical care. I would much rather help pay for people to stay well or to get more efficient, affordable care when they are sick.

Insurance companies have always based their business on the concept of insurance pools. Lots of people pay into the system but only a few people have exorbitant medical expenses. Those who stay well help support those who are sick. It’s a gamble companies make, and based on the way they have been jacking up the cost of coverage in the past few years, their gambles are paying off. We regular people are paying more and insurance companies are raking in outrageous profits.

But here’s another thing, Janie. You and I both operate out of our Christian faith with Christian values. Isn’t “carrying one another’s burdens” part of our spiritual ethic? The old support the young and the young serve the old. The strong care for the weak and the weak offer whatever they are able. The privileged stand up for the oppressed and we who have a voice speak out for the silenced.

I don’t think secular governments ought to function as religious societies, but I do believe in the prayer I pray every Sunday: that God’s kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven. The more human societies live into kingdom values of grace and compassion and equity and inclusion the better off we will be. My own journey away from fundamentalism into progressive Christianity changed not only my theology; it also shifted my politics. The answer to the question: Who is my neighbor? is much larger and wider than it ever was before.

Janie: You’re bringing up an important point, and a very basic disagreement between the groups we label “conservative” and “progressive.”

I remember a slogan from the 2012 Democratic convention: Government is another name for what we do together. Hillary Clinton capitalized on that idea in one of her campaign slogans: Better together. Look, I understand that sentiment. But a government is not a community. As a nation, Americans can feel a sense of community when we are attacked, as at Pearl Harbor or 9/11. We can come together when a president is assassinated or a city experiences a natural disaster. To ask a nation to “come together” to provide for each other’s personal needs is a stretch. The preamble to the constitution mentions providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare. Those verbs are not the same and I believe they were carefully chosen.

An army “for the common defense” is something the government has to provide, first because only the government should have that kind of power and second because private armies would be too prone to run amuck. Other big projects, such as an interstate highway system, could be considered a legitimate federal expense, since no one else could finance it. The space program was also thought to be something only the feds could do. (But something very interesting is happening with the space program, as I’ll get to in a minute.)

When it comes to people’s personal choices and commitments, the picture gets cloudier. The ACA was built around the individual mandate, and that’s where it has run into trouble. Younger people don’t want to pay for something they see no immediate need for. Of course I understand your reasoning: young people pay now for something they’ll use later, like social security, and in the meantime they’re contributing to the common good. But they are already burdened more than we were at their age: huge college loans, high mortgages (if they even take out a mortgage), fewer jobs appropriate to their college degrees, an increasing federal debt and deficit that will mean trouble down the road. Why aren’t we more concerned about them?

Of course taxpayers have been supporting Medicare and Medicaid for two generations, but this is different: the ACA is an obvious hand reaching into your pocketbook and pulling out money to pay for people who don’t take care of themselves, or to pay for people who are here illegally, or to pay for older folks who have 401(k)s. I know that’s not an entirely fair judgment; but that’s the way it looks to families whose insurance premiums have doubled over the last year. This kind of “bearing each other’s burdens” does not build community. Instead, it drives people apart by pitting them against each other.

What builds community is freedom and personal relationship. It’s people, organizations, families, even businesses pitching in where they see a need. It’s doctors foregoing insurance and charging a flat rate for basic care.   It’s surgeons forming their own insurance-free surgical centers where you can get a knee replacement for $10,000. It’s Christian cooperatives like Medi-share where each family pays a monthly premium directly to another family who needs help. It’s urgent-care clinics and private arrangements between doctors and patients with no third party in the way. It’s being able to purchase insurance across state lines so you can get exactly what you want or need: low-cost catastrophic coverage, for instance, instead of full-range coverage for stuff you don’t need.

I’m not saying that the federal government has no role to play: Individual HSA’s that are not tied to an employer can “promote the general welfare” while allowing families and individuals to make their own decisions about which doctor to see or what treatment to pursue. Government-supported free clinics can help provide basic care for the truly needy. But a top-down, one-size solution is no long-term solution at all: expensive, inefficient, and more so as time goes on.   We won’t bear the burden; our kids will, and they won’t thank us for it.

(One quick word about the space program, because I think it’s relevant. Since NASA gave up the shuttle program—and I’m really not sure what they’re doing now—entrepreneurs are stepping into that gap. There’s a plan in the works to go back to the moon on the backs of private companies like Space X (headed by Elon Musk) and Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos). That’s what is still so great about America: the space to dream and opportunity to make it happen. I used to hear this a lot about 15 years ago: “If we can send a man to the moon then surely we can . . .” create a world-class education system, eliminate poverty, provide affordable health care for everybody, etc. What strikes me about companies like SpaceX is that they are free to employ the best people and aim straight for a goal without politics and bureaucracy getting in the way. If we can send a man back to the moon without NASA, maybe we could be making better use of the private sector more for health care—and I DON’T mean insurance companies.)

Charlotte: Oh my! This dialog has gotten long and complex. It’s like we’re sitting together in comfortable space with a good cup of coffee letting ourselves go wherever the conversation takes us. I like this. But let’s wrap this one up and start our third effort soon.

So here’s my wrap up: I appreciate you pointing out that we are talking about a very basic disagreement between the groups we label “conservative” and “progressive,” that is, our understanding of the character of America. You say conservatives understand that what builds community is freedom and personal relationship. While I don’t disagree with your premise, I will say progressives understand it is our shared humanity that creates community and thus our governmental policies should foster that sense of care for one another.

You say: This kind of “bearing each other’s burdens” does not build community. Instead, it drives people apart by pitting them against each other. I say it is our human brokenness that pits us one against the other and creates within us a fundamental self-centeredness. I say sometimes the government, like a strong wise parent, must intervene to ensure the weak are not oppressed, the poor are not forgotten and the silenced are able to find a voice.

I have mentioned my own journey from conservative to progressive Christianity and how that has influenced my politics. I would love to hear your understanding of how religious faith ought to intersect politics. Your own personal way of doing that and your take on how public Christians should (and should not) allow religious views to influence public policy. Can that be our next conversation?

Janie:  Sure—but I’d lay some groundwork first.  You compared government (at its best) as a “wise parent.”  How else do you understand the role and function of government, and how does your faith inform your view?  Does that seem like a good place to start?  If so, I can share my ideas first.  I’ll bring the coffee!


Janie B. Cheaney blogs at Gobsmacked by Life … sometimes

Janie has published six novels for teens. Her historical fiction is especially well done with solid research, engaging characters and great writing.  Janie’s J.B.Cheaney Facebook page is a fun and helpful author resource.

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She is national secretary for Coffee Party USA and contributes regularly to the Join the Coffee Party Movement Facebook page.

Charlotte is an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also blogs about Scripture from a progressive Christian approach in her Living in The Story Musings.

When Nature becomes Un-Natural

In North Texas, it’s time to get our gardens ready. We know well the temperamental temperament of our Texas climate so we won’t be putting our tomatoes out for a while yet, but we can risk spinach and lettuce. It was 80 degrees yesterday where I live; we’re expecting a frost tonight. Texas gardeners are used to the swinging cycles of weather and we adjust and adapt.

All of us understand that weather cycles over the years of our lives. Some years are too hot, some are too wet, some are too dry. But many of us are noticing swings that are not typical in nature. Natural rhythms seem un-natural these days.

The questions keep coming and the debates rage: Is the climate changing? Why is the climate changing? What might be the human influences for climate change?

Continue reading When Nature becomes Un-Natural

Charlotte and Janie Talk About Health Care

Janie and Charlotte were best friends in college. They still maintain a good friendship even though they have some different perspectives on politics, culture and theology: Janie grew to the “Right” while Charlotte grew to the “Left.” They have maintained their friendship and now talk about their differences in a shared blog. Charlotte and Janie published four conversations on religious liberty and now they are exploring their different expectations for health care in America.


One of President Obama’s most significant achievements was the Affordable Care Act, which expands medical coverage to several million previously-uninsured Americans. But it’s also one of his most controversial acts, and soon to be much more so when the Republican congress, with the backing of a Republican president, tries to make good on their long-standing promise (or threat!) to “Repeal and Replace.”

Rather than try to parse out the pros and cons of every detail of the ACA and the proposed replacement (whenever we get to see it), we’re going to start with the basics:

Do we agree there is, or should be, a basic right to healthcare?
Continue reading Charlotte and Janie Talk About Health Care

“Change Back”

Psychologist Harriet Lerner describes an interesting dynamic within family systems called the “change back” demand. Whenever any one person takes positive steps to change unhealthy patterns, everyone in the system is also forced to adjust. Lerner points out that even “good” change can be uncomfortable because the behavior patterns of the system become unpredictable and unfamiliar. Thus the demand: “change back.”

What we know is comfortable and what we are used to is predictable. But that which is unfamiliar is disorienting, distressing and distrusted. Continue reading “Change Back”

An Apology from an Embarrassed Christian to my non-Christian Friends

We American Christians are not doing a very good job of “christianing” these days. Maybe you could say we haven’t done a good job for our entire history. That would be fair.

I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.

I say this with all sincerity to you, my non-Christian friends who look at us and roll your eyes or scratch your heads or even curse under your breath. You’re right. We Christians suck at this Christian thing. Continue reading An Apology from an Embarrassed Christian to my non-Christian Friends

A Glass Half Full

The mother-wisdom I used to offer my children is coming back to me: Trouble and Goodness are both always abundant in this world and so the way we engage life depends on how we focus. We can focus our attention and our energy on what is negative and we will live our lives with anxiety, anger and fear. Or we can focus on what is positive and live our lives with gratitude, generosity and hope.

glass-half-full-webWe can say the glass is half empty or we can say the glass is half full. But it’s still the same glass. It’s still the same world. It’s still the same America.

I’ve been struggling to see the good in these days since the election. I’m anxious about the future of our nation. I’m angry that nearly unbridled power is being handed over to mean, ugly men. I’m afraid that our vision of an inclusive, compassionate America will be deeply damaged during the next four years.

I’m struggling to find my balance and to figure out how to focus my attention and energy. If these negative realities take over my vision, then I may become paralyzed; this feeling makes me want to crawl into my shell, pull the covers over my head, put my fingers in my ears and repeat “la-la-la-la…”

But today I will remember that positive realities are also at play. Today I will focus on the good, the healthy and the helpful. I will continue to believe that our collective goodness is greater than the darkness that threatens our nation. Continue reading A Glass Half Full

The Third Day

On the first day, I was in shock. Not because of the gross error of pundits and polls, but because of my overwhelming confusion that my fellow Americans could possibly have voted in favor of a man who embodies such anti-American attitudes and actions.

On the second day, the reality began to settle in. The classic grief cycle was in full swing and my shock and denial moved to anger.

On the third day, I awoke with a glimmer of hope. Continue reading The Third Day


I learned how to spell antidisestablishmentarianism in the sixth grade. I was so proud of myself. I can still spell it today although it is nowhere near the longest word in the dictionary anymore.dictionary-780x439

Of course I had no clue what it meant and I still have to unpack all the prefixes and suffixes when I think about this odd word all these years later. This word has come back to my vocabulary because Election 2016 has turned out to be a very odd turn in our nation’s history and it demands some new vocabulary.

Some of my friends who voted for Trump say they were voting against the establishment. For a variety of reasons, they are anti-establishment, all for the undoing of the Establishment.

Dissing the Establishment.

Disestablishment. Continue reading Antidisestablishmentarianism

America in Process

I pulled into my parking space next to a small pickup truck. I didn’t notice the bumper sticker on the window until I was getting out of my car. “Hillary for Prison 2016” it said. The driver of the truck was just opening his door to get in and our eyes met. A small older man who smiled and nodded and touched his cowboy hat the way country gentlemen do in my small East Texas community. It was a sweet smile, a real smile. I guess he didn’t notice my bumper sticker. Continue reading America in Process