The "Government Equals Society" fallacy views government as the means by which society acts.
Frequently we hear that society has a responsibility to the poor. Most Christians of all stripes would agree. But listen to the sentence that often follows such a declaration. It goes something like this, “Therefore, ‘society’ should raise the minimum wage, grant universal healthcare, and redistribute wealth through taxation.” Notice the common theme. They are all government imposed solutions. Why not respond, “Therefore, ‘society’ should find ways to create stable families, get churches and volunteer organizations involved in the lives of the poor, and lend money to the poor through microenterprise funds.” This isn’t an “either/or” proposition. Rather it highlights that the default solutions for too many Christians: Government. Non-governmental non-bureaucratic solutions are an afterthought, secondary in importance, if they come to mind at all. This is the functional equivalent of saying “government” is “society.”
In reality, government is only one institution of society. Society includes individuals. It includes other institutions like the family, churches, volunteer organizations, businesses, and a variety of local governments. It includes countless informal networks. Society is much broader than government.
At the core of the Old Testament notion of justice and care in society was the family. The family was encompassed by a clan, then by a tribe, and then by the nation. Each succeeding level of distance from the family played ever more limited roles in the daily operations of the family.
This was in contrast to Greco-Roman views of the family where the family existed at the pleasure of the state to serve the state. Judeo-Christian ethics came to define the family as an inviolable institution apart from the state. The institution of the family is the only institution established by God prior to humanity’s rebellion. According to the biblical narrative:
“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24
There is a union of two different but complementary individuals. Physically they become one through the act of sexual intercourse but there is a process of becoming intimate at other levels as well. “Two becoming one” has both physical and non-physical expressions inextricably tied together. Marriage is a covenant that makes the establishment of this unity possible. One frequent consequence of this covenantal unity is the birth of children. The institution of the family, established by the covenant of marriage, creates boundaries for unity to develop and it provides a stable nurturing environment for childrearing by those who know each child the best and are committed to the child’s personal welfare.
Roman Catholicism has framed this family centric understanding of societal institutions in terms of subsidiarity. Sudsidarity, first articulated by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, teaches that problems should be addressed at the most localized level possible. The most local and immediate institution to an individual is the family. Intermediate institutions like the church, voluntary organizations, and local government have a subsidiary function serving individuals and families in ways families can’t serve themselves. Beyond these intermediate institutions are marco-institutions like national governments and international bodies. These fulfill a subsidiary function to individuals, families, and intermediate institutions. Rather than families existing at the pleasure of the state, the state exists in support of the families and the individuals within them.
Within Reformed circles, a similar conception has emerged called sphere sovereignty, articulated by Dutch leader Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). Kuyper talked in terms of societal spheres that were distinct but interconnected. Government, economics, education and the family are a few examples societal spheres. No sphere is sovereign over the others and each must be respected. He thereby rejected the ideas of popular sovereignty (rights arise from individuals) and state-sovereignty (rights are derived from the state.) Thus, when we look at societal problems we must investigate what the problem means for each sphere of life and strategize accordingly.
Christian thinking in America has too often drifted toward the two types of sovereignty Kuyper found so dangerous. One the one hand there is an attachment to libertarian strain of thinking that emphasizes personal freedom to the point disdaining all tradition and values. The family and subsidiary institutions at all levels are obstacles to personal freedom. On the other hand, there is state sovereignty where the state is viewed as paramount with all other institutions playing a supporting role to the state. The state is the default option and the lead player in addressing problems. The Family, as well as subsidiary institutions at the intermediate and macro level, are obstacles to state sovereignty.
The debate over same-sex marriage is an illustrative display of the outworking of these two Modernist views on sovereignty over the last century. Miroslav Volf notes in Exclusion and Embrace, that a covenant is an indefeasible commitment that contemplates perseverance through open-ended and diverse circumstances. A contract is performance oriented with limited commitment related to performance. (148-150)
The family has been understood as an inviolable institution apart from the state, founded in a covenant between to complementary human beings (male and female.) But marriage and family have gone from being a covenantal social institution established by God to being a contractual arrangement for personal fulfillment. Rather than being in a covenantal institution to which one conforms, marriage and family has become a contractual arrangement made to conform to the performance wishes of parties involved.
For the first time in human history we are divorcing sexual intercourse and its procreation implications from the concept of marriage. Sexual intercourse is being replaced by any form of mutual sexual stimulation by consenting adults or no sexual relationship at all. The marriage of a husband and wife, potentially procreating to form a family, is on the verge of no longer being an inviolable institution but a contractual option that exists at the pleasure of the state to be defined by the state however it suits the state’s purposes.
This is good news for many libertarians because we are less constrained by the restrictions marriage and family place on personal freedom. It is good news for the state sovereignty folks because it gives the state greater power to shape and direct the lives of individuals, especially children, without interference from the family. Ultimately the path leads to a condition where families, by whatever contractual arrangement is devised by the state, become nannies for the state’s children.
Many Christians today recoil from excessive individualism and believe we need to look at things from a societal perspective. But when we resist libertarian individualism with a mindset that functionally equates “government” with “society,” we merely exchange one poison for another. Biblical reflection on social issues, including economic questions, requires us to think holistically and organically with an eye toward addressing problems at the right level within the right sphere. “Government” is not a synonym for “society.”