The strange tales of Julia, Linda, and Leo
Daniel Darling | Government is no replacement for civil society
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You might remember the infamous political ad from the 2012 Obama campaign featuring a fictional character named “Julia.” Julia’s life, from start to finish, was defined by a battery of government programs that enabled dependency on it, rather than, say, a family. It was derided then by conservatives as an example of government dependency cloaked as beneficence.
Well, she’s back, but with a new name and the same reliance upon faceless bureaucracies.
Last week, President Biden’s team launched their own version of policy-as-storytelling with an updated version of the Life of Julia. Today she’s Linda, and it’s Linda and her son Leo whose life story is nudged along toward success by the power of the state.
In the administration’s narrative, a single mother is first buoyed by the Child Tax credit, which enables her to buy groceries and other essentials. Then, when it comes time for Leo to attend daycare, some of those costs are covered by the government, giving way to free pre-kindergarten. Eventually, we see Leo graduate from high school and enroll in community college, made more accessible, of course, because of extended Pell Grants. His training, as the story goes, helps him secure a good-paying job as a wind-turbine operator in a new field filled with thousands of jobs promised by champions of climate legislation. Later in life, as Linda grows older, Leo can care for her hearing issues and afford home care for her, thanks to new government subsidies.
The storyboarding is, admittedly, well done. It describes a government there for Linda and Leo at every step of their journey. Though faithful Christians might come to differing conclusions on the exact size, scope, and effectiveness of government programs, we can agree that there can be an effective role for the government in creating environments for family stability and human flourishing. But that role is not central.
What is most dispiriting about the life of Julia and now the Life of Linda and Leo is that their story is not told through the eyes of their communities or the mediating institutions that help shape them, such as church or piano recitals. Instead, it is told through the prism of the state, with the state serving the roles of father and church and community.
If an atomized individualism is harmful to the family, we should also fear a philosophy that sees the state as the savior, benefactor, and guiding hand. Governments have their place, but imagine how Linda’s life and Leo’s life would be enriched in this story if there were images of a loving church community, selfless neighbors, and a loose network of private social institutions? The government might offer a necessary safety net, but a faceless bureaucracy cannot play catch with Leo in the backyard, it cannot drive Leo to Sunday school, it cannot console Leo in those lonely moments when he wishes his father was in his life.
Something is missing in this storyboard from the White House. But sadly, it is also missing from the reality on the ground in too many of our communities. The state is often expected to prop up, in its clumsy way, what communities fail to provide. Conservatives need not only to oppose a philosophy that sees the state as savior; we must also roll up our sleeves to build up healthy mediating institutions, what Edmund Burke described as “little platoons.” Winning elections is important, but it is the work we do to renew existing local organizations and starting new institutions that will have the most effective impact. In doing so, humanity thrives and government is consigned to its proper place.
Ultimately, Christians believe that it is the church—that venerable body that has endured for 2,000 years—that has the greatest power to change society. You might not think you are doing much when you attend your local church every week and give a portion of your income toward the church’s work, but when it comes to genuine transformation, the state is no match for the Spirit of God working through ordinary Christians. Those Christians are changing the world simply by being faithful in their ordinary stations that God has given them.
Millions of Americans believe that rescue will come by some form of government program, but no government can change souls. For that, look not to Washington, but to your church.
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