One of the unheralded successes of the novel coronavirus pandemic is that, despite calls from big-government elites and The New York Times editorial board, the United States government has not taken over everything. Such restraint should be applauded and encouraged.

To be sure, the federal government has done a great deal. Congress has spent $4 trillion. Aid, from hospital ships and ventilators to personal protective equipment and testing supplies, had been provided to states and cities across the country.

Much good has been accomplished, and many missteps have occurred in government efforts to help citizens. However, the magic of America remains not in the greatness of its government but in the goodness of its people and the power of civil society. 

We should continue to be cautious that we do not allow the current crisis to shred the strength of societal fabric through government expansion, unnecessary intervention and permanent programs.

A look at history reveals that the overexpansion of government solutions in challenging times results in ineffective programs and bloated bureaucracies. In many cases it has extended suffering and increased dependence on government for the very people that were supposed to be served and lifted. The excuse rendered for such failures is usually that, “The government program simply wasn’t big enough,” or “It would have succeeded if only we spent more money”

Elder Neal A. Maxwell wisely observed, “I fear that, as conditions worsen, many will react to the failures of too much government by calling for even more government. Then there will be more and more lifeboats launched because fewer and fewer citizens know how to swim.”

Government programs are important, especially in a pandemic, but they cannot replace the people within civil society — especially those who know how to swim and are willing to help others learn.

I recently interviewed former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who has been watching the impact of the coronavirus from a unique perch in Rome, Italy, where his wife, Callista, is serving as the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. Regardless of what you think of his political views, Gingrich is an astute observer of history and a fascinating thinker. 

When I asked what he thought the path forward out of the pandemic was and what the proper role of federal and state government in dealing with the challenges should be, he replied: “I think an important part of what makes America so unique is something that the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about in the 1830s. He said, America is not just government and it’s not just business. It is a country where people organize themselves voluntarily to help their own communities in a way that virtually no other country in the world does. He was very passionate about this. He thought it was one of the things that made us such a unique country.”

Newt Gingrich, who’s spent the past 10 weeks in Rome, says ‘we’ve overreacted’ to COVID-19 (+podcast)

Gingrich summed up the net product of the American people who willingly work together and voluntarily come together saying, “I think as a result, we have been in a position to organize ourselves to do things that other countries have found very, very hard.”

Coming together in community and as civil society is the essence of the American experience.

I worry that the secularist, who continues to push faith further and further from the public square, will find success in convincing national governments and the general public that charity will be best managed by big government and its partnering NGOs. They will make a compelling case with great emphasis on the need for the separation of church and state. Their cry is a familiar one. Those who favor a “central planning” approach to governing declare with confidence that we should just let the smart people, government experts and professionals take care of the poor and the needy.

I am also concerned that citizens, of all faiths and of no faith, will abdicate their personal responsibility to lift and help a neighbor in need. Those in poverty, those trapped in addiction and the most vulnerable among us are not the government’s neighbors or sisters or brothers — they are ours!

NGOs do good work, as do other nonprofits. Some, however, are beginning to look more and more like government agencies. When such organizations, in order to obtain funding, rely on armies of lawyers and lobbyists with close ties to government appropriators and politicians, trouble is ahead.

If, on one hand, an NGO becomes the government, or if, on the other, an NGO becomes the church or faith-based organization, the result is neither charitable, sustainable nor desirable. It isn’t necessarily the NGO’s fault; it falls at the feet of government’s excess in the first instance and the lack of unselfish service from individuals of faith on the other.

Brad Miner, the senior editor of The Catholic Thing and a senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, describes a cautionary sermon to all people of faith that he heard from an Italian priest: “When you take out awe and reverence and the quest for holiness and heaven, focusing instead on ostensibly Utopian solutions to problems in the here and now, ‘religious’ people become merely opinionated — engaged in debates about public policy.”

In other words, if you take faith out of faith-based service organizations, the result is one more version of a government program.

“If you take faith out of faith-based service organizations, the result is one more version of a government program.” — Boyd Matheson

An example from the pioneer history of Utah is instructive. In October 1856, a group of handcart pioneers were stuck on the plains of what is now Wyoming. The company’s late start and limited provisions combined with an early winter to create a perfect and deadly storm that left them stranded in the cold and snow. 

In what is now Salt Lake City, Brigham Young stood to open a general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The saints gathered, as they still do each October and April, to hear inspiring speeches and insightful sermons from leaders of the church.

President Young began the conference not with a great oration, but by reading the report sent to Salt Lake City by the leaders of the handcart groups. They described the horrible circumstances and plight of the pioneers on the plains:

“Between five and six hundred men, women, and children, worn by drawing handcarts through the snow and mud; fainting by the wayside; falling, chilled by the cold; children crying, their limbs stiffened by cold; their feet bleeding and some of them bare to snow and frost.”

Brigham Young then called the people to action with this simple message: “Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts … and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them.”

He said he would not wait until tomorrow or the next day. He called for 40 young men, 65 teams of mules or horses, and wagons loaded with 24,000 pounds of flour to leave immediately to rescue those stranded pioneers out in the wilderness of Wyoming.

“I will tell you all,” Young said, “that your faith … and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you … unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching. ... Go and bring in those people now on the plains.”

A group was quickly assembled and set out to “bring in” the handcart pioneers.

The rescue party found the weak and weary travelers and provided them with needed nourishment, warm blankets, supplies and renewed courage to continue the journey. The survivors were then carried, some literally on the backs of their rescuers, to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. On Nov. 30, 1853, the beleaguered bunch of handcart pioneers arrived home at last.

Yes, it actually was home; it just happened to be in a city they had never seen. But they were welcomed into a community where each of the survivors felt they belonged.

Across America today, there are many among us who are still out on the plains of addiction, homelessness, depression, illness, loneliness, poverty and despair. The tempest of the COVID-19 pandemic will push out and punish many Americans in the months ahead. But it is individuals and communities in a civil society — not an overexpansion of government solutions — that can help them. It is actually up to each of us to go bring them in.