11/23/2010 12:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Political Dysfunction as Spiritual Failing

On the Wednesday after the mid-term elections, I tuned into my local NPR station to hear Steve Inskeep interview Toby Walker of the Waco Tea Party. Here is part of their conversation:

TOBY MARIE WALKER (Waco Tea Party): It was a sweep. Everyone who was in office that had not been, I think, on the side of the people is now on the outside of politics.

INSKEEP: Your congressman is, for a couple more months, Chet Edwards, who is a conservative Democrat. What happened to him?

WALKER: He didn't listen to the people of the district. It was the stimulus, it was the TARP. It was a myriad of other bills. We have things that needed to be done like I-35 expansion, and making sure that we are responsibly spending money. And so he just lost touch with the people.

Perhaps we are so used to this type of talk that we no longer even realize how bizarre it is: Walker is simultaneously complaining about government spending AND the failure of the government to expand the road near her home. She wants road building, but not the stimulus spending that builds roads.

In a nutshell, this conversation captures the essence of our current political dysfunction -- that we want government services without paying for a government.

A primary message of the mid-term election was that people think the federal government is too large and spends too much money.

I agree with that.

However, that is not the whole story. We want, it seems, to have a smaller, cheaper government that still fully funds everything that benefits us personally. Other than perfunctory appreciations for soldiers, there is no sense of shared sacrifice in everyday America. Politicians around the country and in both parties are committed to the self-impeaching platform of a robust military, no changes in social security or medicare, stronger border protection, and a smaller, cheaper federal government.

This desire represents a profound and national spiritual failing that cuts across party lines and religious groupings at the same time. One unifying element of most faiths is an element of self-sacrifice. From the Buddha's central teachings to the example of Christ, our faiths consistently teach an ethic of self-sacrifice. Yet, somehow, our political culture not only features a shocking collective greed, but a collective greed for government services and benefits combined with the contradictory insistence that government fade away.

Jesus told the rich man to sell all he had and give it to the poor, and chose a life of sacrifice and poverty. The Buddha taught that happiness comes from not wanting what we do not have. Moses led the chosen people through the desert in destitution. How is it that we Americans feel entitled to project our power through endless foreign wars, to have our roads widened, to cast a stout net at the border, and to be taken care of in our old age by a government that is not very good at any of these things?

"To Caesar what is Caesar's," Jesus said, holding a coin bearing the Roman's likeness. Christ himself suggested we not begrudge paying taxes. In time, too, it was to the benefit of Christ's message that those taxes were paid. Paul, a Roman citizen, spread the gospel far and wide using the infrastructure the Romans built.

If we want the roads (or the world's largest military, or expansive medicare), we must pay to Caesar what is his. Conversely, if we don't want to be taxed as much, we must have the humility to expect fewer of our desires to be fulfilled by the government.

Our faith, if it is faith, extends outward to every part of our lives. It should be there when we work, when we shop, when we greet one another, and when we talk about our nation. If we did that, honestly, it might all be different -- and those of us who desire a smaller government would accept as a part of that desire the bare fact that, if we succeed, we will not get all we want from that now-smaller government.