December 19, 2011

December 19, 2011 | Commentary on

Hidden Strengths of Civil Society

Christmas is a time of gratitude, as we reflect on the blessings we enjoy not only on Dec. 25 but year-round. But how often do we give thanks for our unique and extraordinary country? Do we truly know how special it is?

Just how exceptional America really can be is seen in the contrasting reactions to the fiscal crises sweeping the industrialized world. In every nation but ours, the popular response to out-of-control spending and mounting debt was a demand for greater government intervention.

In this country, however, the Tea Party’s response to the massive expansion of big government and the explosive growth of the national debt was a demand for less government intervention in the economy.

The Tea Party reflects traditional American values: self-reliance, distrust of big government and an abiding faith in the American dream. These values did not appear out of thin air. They are nurtured and sustained in the families, churches and communities that make up our civil society. A vigorous and independent civil society is one of America’s most precious treasures, and must be preserved at all costs.

Unfortunately, instead of celebrating the values and institutions that make America unique, prominent liberals seek to make America more like the failed welfare states of Western Europe. And instead of welcoming movements that truly reflect the values of our civil society, they have denounced Tea Party members as “terrorists,” “racists” and “Nazis” who deserve to be “taken out.”

The depth of hostility toward the Tea Party movement is startling, especially when contrasted with the welcoming attitude shown toward Occupy Wall Street. It has also reinforced my conviction that strengthening civil society is more urgent today than ever before. We need to regain a sense of awe and wonder at the power, ingenuity and creativity of civil society.

It’s in every state and community. There, neighbors are helping neighbors - not because a government program tells them to, but because it’s the right thing to do. Many are motivated by faith, but all are driven by compassion to assist the less fortunate.

Take Step 13, a ministry in Denver located close to Coors Field. It’s a nonprofit living program that helps homeless drug addicts transition to a better life. Founder and president Bob Cote has devoted his life to helping these men get back on their feet and improve their lot.

But what about government-run shelters? Yes, many of the people who run them work hard and try their best, but government programs are by nature impersonal. To someone like Mr. Cote, it’s a mission. He sets a high standard for the men to meet if they want to remain in the program.

“I tried those shelters over and over again, but they didn’t force me to give up my drugs,” one participant says. “I knew I needed the kick in the pants that Step 13 gives. I needed the random urine tests.”

That comes from a level of care and concern that no government program can deliver. And because they’re run and staffed by people who know personally the folks they’re helping, groups such as Step 13 are better equipped to diagnose the root problems of poverty and social breakdown.

That’s what civil society is all about. It’s what the American people are.

We need to remember that we are not helpless, ignorant masses desperately clinging to our “guns or religion,” as then-Sen. Barack Obama mischaracterized us. Nor are we anxiously awaiting the arrival of a messiah-president to deliver us from what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the trouble of thinking and the cares of living.”

No, we are strong and resourceful. Instead of looking to big government to solve our problems, we know we must do something harder but more rewarding: We must open our minds to the untapped potential of faith and freedom, to the hidden strengths of civil society, and to the awesome power of the American spirit.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

First appeared in The Washington Times