“You Didn’t Build That”

Controversy has swirled over President Obama’s statement about business owners, “You didn’t build that!” The statements that followed implied that the business owner had an obligation of some kind to the civil government for the ”help” it had provided that allowed the business to flourish. But the President didn’t take his line of thinking far enough. It might have served us well if he had. That he didn’t — or didn’t think he could — is its own commentary about him and our nation.

As we consider the President’s statement, we should bear in mind that deception is a distortion of the truth. It is born out of a kernel of truth. Therefore deception will contain a nugget of truth.

If there were not some “nugget” of truth, then we would not be deceived. Arguments are not persuasive that don’t contain something in them that seems to “ring true.”

So, it is true that a business would not flourish if the civil government did not enforce justice by protecting property from theft, upholding contracts, and doing a host of other things. That’s true as far as it goes. But it’s not the whole truth. The rest of the truth is that business owners, by paying their taxes in accordance with what the law requires, have paid for those “items.” Payment having been made, justice is done and no further obligation or duty is owed the civil government.

But the principle that the President announced could have been taken a step further and it would have been true. What he could have said — but didn’t — could best be pictured as one of those billboards that attributes statements to God, such as “’Why don’t you come to my house for a visit’  -God.” But this billboard would have said: “You didn’t build it.  -God.”

In Deuteronomy, Chapter 8, as Israel is about to enter the Promised Land, God says through Moses that the nation should “beware” that they “not forget the Lord your God” once the nation had become wealthy. He warned them not to begin to “say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’” If they forget, God says he will destroy them, even as He was destroying through Israel the other nations that had not acknowledged God.

One President, remembering God’s universal warning through Moses, went further. In 1863, President Lincoln, by official proclamation, called our nation to repentance, prayer, and fasting, saying:

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven.… But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!

President Obama, had he gone far enough, would have moved beyond a half-truth to the bottom line truth. Perhaps it’s because civil government now is our god that he stopped where he did. But if that is what Americans and our leaders truly think today, then Heaven help us.