To Reform Government, Reform the Culture First

Can all of America’s political problems be solved by returning to constitutional, limited government? The answer given by many conservatives and libertarians is a resounding yes. Reading the Founding Fathers, the answer would generate a more complex answer.


In the Federalist Papers, the authors dedicate considerable space to history’s failed experiments in self-government. John Adams wrote in 1798, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

What Adams suggests is the people’s character impacts our government’s character. The early generations of Americans were independent-minded folks. Help for those in need came from the church, the family, or the community. Citizens expected only a few limited functions to be performed by the state.

In 21st century America, we expect the government to provide Social Security retirement and disability, unemployment insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, student loans, and Pell Grants. Parents expect their children to have a free public education through thirteen years of school.

Two tactics for dealing with this are popular. The first, the rationalistic approach, tries to challenge people with a debate about numbers and the effectiveness of government solutions. The second, the pragmatic approach, avoids taking on any popular program, other than fleeting attempts to reform Social Security. The last administration chose the latter tactic.

The pragmatic approach fails because the areas most in need of the reform are politically difficult to address. The rationalistic approach fails because it doesn’t address the culture. For example, many elderly Americans rely on Medicaid to take care of their long-term-care expenses once their net worth has dropped to nothing. The key problem here, however, is the culture that considers it acceptable for us to allow our parents to go into poverty so the government can step in.


Conservatives talk about the church and the community returning to its proper role of caring for the poor, but this effort is easier said than done. Pastors complain about the poor viewing churches as welfare agencies. Judging by donation reports, churches would be overwhelmed if they had to take on all the people dependent on the government. We cannot effect a permanent reduction in the size and scope of government, or meaningful government reform, unless we change our culture’s demand for the government to provide our every need.

Conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly identified how cultural issues impact voting with her politically incorrect declaration: “Seventy percent of unmarried women voted for Obama. And this is because, when you kick your husband out, you’ve got to have Big Brother government to be your provider.”

The statement angered liberals and embarrassed some conservatives, but CNN’s 2008 exit poll does show that 74% of unmarried women with children, and 69% of unmarried women without children, voted for Obama. In fairness, however, 68% of unmarried men with children also voted for Obama. And 56% of unmarried men without children voted for Obama; compare that to the 53% of married men who voted for McCain.

The poll also showed those who attended religious services at least weekly voted for McCain, while those who attended less frequently or not at all voted for Obama. A more religious, more marriage-minded America would have voted quite differently.


In the end, the majority of the world has little in common with the libertarian archetypes of Howard Roark or John Galt. We will either have strong families, strong houses of worship, and strong communities, or we will have strong government to take the place of all three.

This isn’t to say government must or can solve our culture’s problems. However, those on the right who think conservative goals for limited government can be achieved through passing economic legislation are spitting in the wind. We will never have a limited government until we have a culture that allows for one.

To change our culture, we must take a more holistic approach to the issues America faces. Even more than conservative candidates and activists, we have a great need for conservative writers, artists, schoolteachers, Boy Scout and American Heritage Girls troop leaders, ministers, and volunteers in organizations that seek to strengthen marriages.

The public policy side of addressing cultural issues should center around removing harmful barriers, such as unnecessary regulations that discourage charitable organizations, and eliminating and reforming programs that encourage illegitimacy and dependency. There should also be strong opposition to the efforts of many school boards to use the public schools to undermine parental authority and values.

Benjamin Franklin provides a good model for irreligious conservatives and libertarians who don’t think too much of cultural conservative concerns. Himself a deist and great individualist, Benjamin Franklin urged the author of an anti-religious screed to not publish his work, writing, “think how great a Proportion of Mankind … have need of the Motives of Religion to restrain them from Vice, to support their Virtue. … If Men are so wicked as we now see them with Religion what would they be if without it?”


Franklin understood what might work for him wouldn’t work for society. We desperately need this mature understanding in the age of New Atheism. At a minimum, those concerned with liberty should not undermine efforts to renew culture. The future of American culture will determine the future of American liberty.


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