Discussing
In praise of public service

Alex M.G. Murphy

Alex M.G. Murphy
May 11, 2016

The need is great for selfless public servants, and the church is uniquely positioned to encourage them.

Wally Marshall
May 11, 2016

I'm a bit offended at the comment "But in 2011, I also witnessed the near-shutdown of the United States government at the hands of public servants who prioritized other interests over the public good."

The Republican run House of Representatives hold the purse strings of our government. The Obama administration was not willing to cut any of the subsidies to Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest provider of abortion. In fact they didn't want to cut any spending. Spending our children and grandchildren will have pay.

So am I to understand Alex Murphy believes the budget passed in 2011 was for the public good?

Alex M.G. Murphy
May 11, 2016

In Reply to Wally Marshall (comment #28233)
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Wally, thank you so much for reading and considering this article. In response to your comment, I think the most important takeaway from my example of the 2011 near-shutdown is that it exemplifies the ways in which public servants can misuse their offices, reinforcing the need for people in those offices who genuinely desire to serve others. Regardless of the content of the 2011 budget, it is clear that the near-shutdown was the result of political maneuvering that had less to do with public policy than what I believe we should expect from our elected officials. (Mann and Ornstein's discussion of the event in It's Even Worse Than It Looks (linked in the article) gives an excellent treatment of the topic.) Regardless of our politics, I hope you and I can agree that the public good is best served by public servants who seek to fulfill their duties with joy, dedication, and skill. I don't believe our elected representatives met this standard in the 2011 near-shutdown.

Wally Marshall
May 12, 2016

In Reply to Alex M.G. Murphy (comment #28237)
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I have to disagree with your last statement. I believe they were fulfilling their duty as our elected representatives and they should have shut the government down. Many were elected on the promise to reign in spending.

I agree with you that there are public servants who genuinely desire to serve, even though there are few and far between. Our founding fathers were not paid a salary till they exited public life and then it was in worthless Continental money. Many sacrificed all they had. They were wise when they wrote the Constitution, knowing that "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" They devised checks and balances. That is why they had the House of Representatives hold the purse stings to keep the Executive branch from overreach.

If you remember the shut down of 1995, Congress passed a balanced budget which the President vetoed. The positive impacts of the government shutdown included the balanced-budget deal in 1997 and the first four consecutive balanced budgets since the 1920s. This is the way checks and balances of our republic work.

It is sad that our public servants have become the "ruling class" of our society. There is no sacrifice. They become kings at the public's expense. This has been the nature of man since the beginning. Only when there is a change of heart can a person rule over others as a servant.

Doug Vande Griend
May 16, 2016

I don't agree that public sector employment equals "public service." Nor is it the case that private sector employment cannot be "public service."

In my area (Salem, Oregon), government jobs, including but not limited to public school teachers, are generally the better paying jobs. Why would a public school administrator paid $150,000/year, with great benefits to boot, be doing "public service" while a private school administrator being paid a third of that or even less not be?

Private sector farmers feed the world with their food. Not public service?

I've been a private practice lawyer for about 37 years. I'd estimate 40% or more of my time has been spent doing no pay or low work that served the poor or society in general by advocating important public policy cases or legislation. Not public service? As to the rest of my occupational time, I provide needed legal services competently at a fair price. Not public service?

Just as one does not have to be a pastor or missionary to "do God's work," so one does not have to be a government employee to do "public service." Indeed, based on the anecdotal experience of my life, I find more public "service" comes from those who work in the private sector as opposed to the public sector.

Alex M.G. Murphy
May 18, 2016

In Reply to Doug Vande Griend (comment #28249)
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Hi Doug,

I think you raise a great point here. Certainly, one does not need to be paid by public money to serve a public interest or meet a public need, as you very effectively demonstrated in your comment. Service, particularly Gospel-informed service, is as much about disposition as it is about position, and I have a great deal of respect for those (like yourself) who serve the common good through their careers, regardless of where their salary comes from. Thank you for your service.

However, I do not think we should disregard the need for Christians to pursue careers in government. While private individuals can serve the public, there are systemic problems present in our society that must be addressed systematically (i.e. by the government and its employees). For example, while private attorneys like yourself can excellently serve your clients in ways that have public impact, systemic criminal justice issues, like the long chunks of life defendants lose in the congested judicial system, can only be addressed by an influx of public defendants, prosecutors and judicial support staff, and lawmakers with the presence of mind to fund these critically-needed positions. Christians, whom Christ calls to care for prisoners (Matt. 25:36), should not be willing to accept the status quo in criminal justice (or myriad other issues), and while there are many public and private routes to address it (as you mentioned), the only one in our current context that will address the systemic problem of income-based disparities in adjudication is governmental in nature. The Church, as I argue above, should focus more energy inspiring and supporting its members as they seek to fill these positions and achieve excellence in their work.

Doug Vande Griend
May 18, 2016

In Reply to Alex M.G. Murphy (comment #28260)
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I fully agreed we should "not ... disregard the need for Christians to pursue careers in government." I have more than a few friends (including my wife :-) ) who are State of Oregon employees. My point was, well, my point. I know "public service" people sometimes like to claim that "I'm just a bit special" label, as do some pastors and church employees. I think it is important that such a notion be dispelled, most importantly perhaps so that those who are not "public servants" or "full time ministry" realize they are equally called to account to God for what they do and how they do it.

I would contend that your "congested judicial system" and "lack of public defenders" claims are hyperbole. Maybe New Orleans has problems but they have lots of problems many other places don't. In Oregon, for example, there are plenty of public defender attorneys and they are well paid to be public defenders. I did that work for about 10 years (contracting as a private attorney). In fact, if the state doesn't have an adequate supply of adequately paid public defenders, the federal court will order the state to start releasing defendants (for constitutional reasons of course). It's really about that simple, and just that happened in Oregon a good while back, not because of a lack of attorneys but merely because those attorneys were not, in the mind of the federal court, getting paid enough. The federal judge essentially doubled their pay (just as I stopped doing that work :-) ) -- and they were of course happy about that.

I really don't think the church should focus on encouraging either private or public sector work, but rather teach that, as Kuyper suggests, all of should us approach our lives, including our occupational lives, with the idea that 'all square inches of life are subject to the lordship of Jesus Christ.' All occupational work should be done as if it was "full time ministry" and "public service" because in fact it is just that. Certainly, though, the church ought not disparage public employment.

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