Radio talk-show host and former Washington Times columnist John Lofton wrote for Chalcedon for 11 years, 1985-96. In December 2005, he appeared on national television, C-SPAN, to debate “The Morality of the Federal Budget” with James Winkler of the United Methodist Church.(A link to the show is available via the Chalcedon Blog at www.chalcedon.edu.) Mr. Winkler never answered Lofton’s oft-repeated question: “Where in the Bible, or in the Constitution, do you find a warrant for all these federal spending programs?”Today Lofton is the editor of The American View, the website of the Constitution Party (TheAmericanView.com), and co-host, with Michael Peroutka, of The American View’s hour-long weekly radio show. Lofton, who describes himself as “a recovering Republican,” formerly edited the Conservative Digest magazine and the American Conservative Union’s Battleline newsletter. He has worked for former President George H.W. Bush and former Sen. Bob Dole at the Republican National Committee, and was an adviser to the presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Michael Peroutka of The Constitution Party. Lofton granted this interview some weeks after he appeared on C-SPAN.
As the federal government grows and grows, consuming more and more of America’s wealth, few think to challenge its basic assumptions. John Lofton is one of those few.
“It’s hard to realize how much we’ve changed as a nation,” Lofton said, looking back on his televised clash with James Winkler of the UMC a few weeks earlier. “For the overwhelming majority of our country’s history, all these things — health, education, welfare — were provided privately, by the people themselves. When the Mayflower drew near to Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims didn’t see the Department of Health and Human Services waiting for them.”
The Way We Were
Throughout the 19th century, America grew — economically, industrially, technologically, and culturally, all with little or no intervention by the federal government. Towns, hospitals, schools and colleges, libraries, railroads, and factories were built across a continent, all without federal funds.
In 1900, a catastrophic hurricane — unannounced by the nascent National Weather Service — struck the Texas port of Galveston, killing at least 6,000 people (and maybe as many as 10,000) and wiping a major portion of the city off the map.
“That disaster was much, much worse than what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans last summer,” Lofton said. “But in Galveston you didn’t see the people screaming for manna from FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency]. The people of Galveston rebuilt their city by themselves.”
There was no federal fund for disaster relief in 1900, or in 1906, the year an earthquake devastated San Francisco. Killer floods along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, a major earthquake in Charleston, South Carolina, the Great Chicago Fire — none of these famous disasters was cleaned up with federal money.
“There was no FEMA fund, or anything like it, in the federal budget,” Lofton said. “Any proposal to create such a fund would have received no Congressional support.
“We were a very different people then. Our elected officials took seriously their oaths of office, to preserve and defend the Constitution, as oaths made to God. In 1887, President Grover Cleveland vetoed veterans’ benefits. Today, that would be political suicide. But Cleveland saw the veto as his constitutional responsibility.”
Was it hard-hearted stinginess 100 years ago that motivated presidents and congresses to refuse to spend federal tax dollars for humanitarian purposes?
Certainly not, Lofton said: “Congress can only spend money on things that benefit the entire country. That’s what the ‘general welfare’ clause in the Constitution means.
“There is no Constitutional warrant for the government to do what it does today. The Constitution strictly limits the powers of the central government, and reserves many powers to the states and to the people.
“Today the Constitution is a dead letter. It has expired,” he said. “There used to be stiff Congressional debates over ‘internal improvements.’ Our national legislators realized they didn’t have the authority to spend the whole country’s money on projects that benefited one particular congressional district.
“Today it’s just one big pork barrel. They tack on thousands of local projects to an ‘omnibus bill’ every year, and nobody thinks twice about it. Each congressman tries to get as much as he can for his home district. I actually printed out the omnibus bill one year, and it was about a foot thick! Don’t tell me anyone in Congress who voted on it actually read the whole thing.
“They don’t even debate these projects anymore, and the president doesn’t use his veto power.”
In the 1930s, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the whole picture changed. America was wallowing in the Great Depression, and Roosevelt’s remedy was to try to spend his way out of it.
“Franklin Roosevelt tremendously increased the size of the state,” Lofton said. “The Supreme Court did overturn some of his programs [for instance, the National Recovery Act, NRA — editor], but for the most part, there was no turning back.”
The Theological Angle
“The Bible limits the role of the civil government to securing and administering justice,” Lofton said. “Everything else, we are supposed to do. The Bible puts that responsibility on us, the Christian community.”
Lofton made that point again and again in his debate with Winkler, only to be accused of being hard-hearted and selfish. The Methodist spokesman insisted that charity begins in Washington, D. C., and rejected any attempts to curtail federal spending for “humanitarian” purposes.
Lofton stood on Scripture, but as James Winkler demonstrated in his argument, America’s mainline churches, and “progressive Christians” in general, don’t see it that way. In fact, they support and campaign for massive federal spending to achieve vague goals like “social justice” and “equality.”
In his portion of the C-SPAN debate, Winkler said, “I think what is moral and just is that we demand of those who have more, what they can provide... [T]he government ought to address evil; and I think when you have a situation where you have, in a nation as wealthy as ours, so many poor, so many without health care, so many in need, that’s an evil, that’s a form of evil.”
“Such an attitude reveals an ignorance of Scripture,” Lofton said, looking back on the exchange. “You can be a feel-good, fuzzy kind of guy, and think you’re doing good things for people, without understanding what the Bible says — or just ignoring what the Bible says.
“All of those scriptures that ‘progressives’ like Winkler quote, all those Bible verses and commandments — thousands of them — to treat the poor justly, to be merciful and generous, condemning the oppression and exploitation of the poor and the powerless: they’re not speaking to the civil government, but to us as individuals. We are to provide the charity, not the government. We are responsible for seeing that our neighbor doesn’t go hungry, or homeless, or abused.”
It is as if there were two versions of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Lord’s version and the “progressive” version. In the Lord’s version, the Samaritan finds the crime victim left for dead on the roadside, administers first aid on his own initiative, and puts him up at an inn at his own expense. In the progressive version, the Samaritan sees the victim and just keeps on walking, confident that the Roman government will provide emergency health care at a publicly funded clinic. If the Roman ambulance — four slaves carrying a litter — doesn’t get there in time to save the victim’s life, well, the Samaritan pays his taxes, and it’s not his problem.
Filling the Vacuum
If Christians are to leave the administration of justice to the civil government, and voluntarily feed, clothe, house, and doctor those who cannot take care of themselves, why don’t they?
“Very simply, God’s people have abdicated the role assigned to them by God,” Lofton said. “The government is partly to blame for that. If people are already paying high taxes to fund all these anti-poverty programs, they wind up thinking, ‘Well, why should we donate anything? The government’s already taking care of all those things, and doing it with our money.’ That’s a major reason why so many Christians don’t tithe anymore.
“And yet if every Christian tithed, that would raise many times more money than the government has ever raised through taxation.”
How could that be? For one thing, tax laws provide loopholes which allow the very rich to pay much less than 10%; meanwhile, persons in the lowest income groups are exempt. But the tithe applies evenly to all: no exemptions, no reduced rates.
As R.J. Rushdoony and Edward Powell observed in Tithing and Dominion, “If every true Christian tithed today, we could build vast numbers of new and truly Christian churches, Christian schools, and colleges... creating Christian institutions and a growing area of Christian independence.”
By contrast, government spending is often wasteful. “A recent account of how much money reaches the needy reported that in one case appropriations equivalent to about $8,000 per person amounted to $300 when they reached their destination,” Rushdoony wrote in 1999. The government spends vast amounts of tax money to set up and maintain bureaucracies intended to distribute goods and services. This is why per-pupil costs at public schools are running from $10,000 to $20,000 a year while Christian schools and homeschooling families are providing children with a superior education at a fraction of the cost.
But Christians, Lofton said, bear some of the blame for the expansion of the government and the incessant growth of the federal budget.
“States and governments may come and go,” Lofton said, “but the people’s needs remain the same. They’ll always need the basic necessities of life — food, clothing, shelter, health care, education — and there will always be those who are unable to provide for themselves. If God’s people default, and fail to meet those needs, someone else will have to do it. So the government expands to fill the vacuum left by defaulting Christians.”
All too often, the unwieldy bureaucracies created by the central government fail to achieve their purposes. Welfare, intended to lift people out of poverty, fostered a whole lifestyle of dependence on the state, extending from generation to generation. Public education, intended to meet the educational needs of the entire population, has devolved into a national scandal: an overall decline in the national literacy rate, student test scores that drop every year unless the tests are made correspondingly easier, school buildings that deteriorate physically even as the annual per-pupil cost to the school district increases every year — all to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.
“When things are not done the way God says to do them,” Lofton said, “when officials ignore what the Constitution says they can or cannot do, the programs simply don’t work.
“Can’t the pragmatists see that these programs aren’t working? They always say they’re not into ideology, they’re just into problem solving. Can’t they see that they’re not solving the problems? If they’re so practical, why don’t they get rid of these programs that don’t work?”
The progressives’ answer (see the Wallis book review) is always to spend even more money on failed programs. The reason they have failed, of course, is that we haven’t spent enough. It never occurs to the progressives to ask why anti-poverty programs seem to create a permanent under-class, some of whom have been mired in poverty for several generations.
The Way We Are
Although America’s economy continues to grow faster than the economies of other industrialized nations, Lofton is not impressed.
“We as a nation have fallen so far, so fast,” he said. “I once asked Dr. [Rousas] Rushdoony if he could think of any other nation in history that’s fallen as fast as America, and he just answered with a flat ‘no.’
“In our formative years, going back to before the War for Independence, America was a Christian country. But we are not a Christian people anymore.”
In his portion of the C-SPAN debate, Lofton warned that the federal budget cannot continue to expand without jeopardizing America’s future. Our grandchildren, he said, will be saddled with national debts that they won’t be able to pay. He repeated his warnings during this interview.
“Where will it end?” he said. “Where will it take us? Economic collapse, political revolution, civil war? I just don’t know.
“As professor Henry Van Til always said, culture is religion externalized. Washington, D. C., is part of that culture which we all live in, and that culture is determined by the people’s religion. What forms it takes, how it conducts its business, what kind of government it has, all stem from the people’s religion. That religion, today, is not Christianity. It’s secular humanism.”
America today, Lofton said, is more like some of the extinct societies of the ancient world than the America of 100 years ago.
“In ancient societies, like Rome or Babylon, the state did everything — erected the temples, built the roads, the stadiums, and the irrigation projects,” he said. “The state owned the people, and there wasn’t even a hint of liberty. How many of those Roman roads were lined with crucifixes, hung with thousands of victims — all people who’d gotten in the state’s way? How many populations were deported or sold into slavery?
“We can only appreciate how bright was the light of Jesus Christ in those days by measuring it against how dark the ancient world was.”
But Lofton rejects political solutions to the problem of America’s fall from grace. As a former political activist, he has described both major political parties as “alike as two atheistic peas in a pod, in the eyes of God.” Both parties, he says, are thoroughly secular, non-Christian enterprises. Even the conservative movement — described by Lofton as “secular, Christless conservatism” — can play little or no role in America recovering its lost standing as a Christian nation,
Many persons active in the conservative movement, of course, are Christians, and polls show that most “evangelicals” vote for conservative candidates and support conservative policies — in preference to liberal candidates and liberal policies. In the same polls, most persons who describe themselves as having “no religion” also identify themselves as “liberal.” Christianity and conservatism are not the same thing: so there are those, like Mr. Winkler, who identify themselves as “Christian and liberal,” and “fiscal conservatives” who claim to be “socially libertarian” or “secular.” Chalcedon recognizes that the conservative movement is not religiously monolithic.
“I don’t see us getting back to where we were,” Lofton said “ Certainly neither of the political parties is going to lead us there. National recovery will only happen when the American people are Christian again — if and when God decides to revive and reform us. It’s all in God’s hands, not ours.”
Nevertheless, Lofton keeps plugging on. If the Constitution Party cannot aspire to the election of its presidential candidate, it can still serve a prophetic function — reminding the American people that the Bible, not the politicians, has the answers, and that the United States Constitution, as written, stands as a powerful witness against the actions of the federal government today.
Meanwhile, Lofton hasn’t finished taking on “progressives” head-to-head in public debate. He said he welcomed the C-Span appearance as a rare opportunity: “You rarely see our point of view on national television. Most people never get to hear the Biblical view of civil government.