Just four days after Richard Milhous Nixon became the first American president to resign – in the wake of the Watergate scandal – the newly-inaugurated Gerald R. Ford Jr. stood before a joint session of Congress. It was August 1974 and Americans were deeply disillusioned with their government. While much of Ford’s address focused on the economy, another line remains among the most quoted of his brief presidency.
“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have,” Ford told Congress.
What kind of public sentiment was President Ford expressing? Confidence in the federal government was at an all-time low, with only 40 percent of Americans expressing trust in the office of the president. Was it the unreflective cynicism of a people tired of political debates and who would rather occupy themselves with their private affairs, or was it a healthier reaction to the gradual expansion of the State over the lives of its citizens, taking over what had once been considered the rights of individuals, families and local communities to govern themselves? Your answer probably depends on which side of the ideological spectrum you reside.
Trust in our political leaders increased around the time of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks but has since receded to near-Watergate levels. Serial scandals involving, among other things, the Internet snooping on American citizens and foreign leaders by U.S. intelligence agencies, the politicization of the IRS, and more recently property rights battles in Western states between ranchers and federal agencies call into question the use – and abuse – of government power.
The growth of the modern State and the resulting distrust many have in it speak to a deeper question about the freedoms and responsibilities we have as human beings and citizens. Political and social thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin have spoken of two concepts of liberty, freedom from coercion and freedom for some kind of goal or objective. Advocates of a good society should be looking for ways to bring together these understandings of liberty.
It may come as a surprise to secular liberals that modern Catholic social teaching attempted to do just that. From the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae (1965) to Pope John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus Annus (1991), the Church has developed its teaching to limit but also reinforce the core competencies of the modern State based on a Christian understanding of human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity. Respecting human freedom, the quest for religious and moral truth, and our duty to care for each other are ways of being free from and free for.
The Council Fathers of Vatican II called together by Pope John XXIII sought to limit the State’s role in enforcing religious orthodoxy (something which the Catholic Church itself had sometimes enlisted the State to do), while promoting the free exercise of religion in society. The Fathers did not, however, give in to religious relativism or indifferentism, affirming that “the one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men” (DH, n.1). They believed that, with God’s grace, human beings could and indeed would freely choose the right path if it was presented to them in love and truth.
Similarly, in the realm of economics, Pope John Paul II praised “the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector,” (