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“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

—John Adams (October 11, 1798)

Over the weekend, AMC aired The Godfather (Part 1 and II). I thought this was appropriate given that one of the worst pieces of legislation in the history of our nation was passed by the House and Senate on Friday, February 13, using fear, intimidation, blackmail, and political thuggery. Even John McCain, who admitted during the 2008 presidential campaign that he knew almost nothing about economics, understands the immoral character of the so-called stimulus bill when he described it as “generational theft,” a phrase coined by Michele Malkin. I have a great fondness for the Godfather saga since it reminds me so much of politics.

When my oldest son was about four, we were at the check-out line at a Blockbuster video store when he noticed a video-tape display promoting The Godfather film. “Dad, are these about God?” he asked. Knowing that he would not care to hear a long retelling of the plot, I summed up the storyline by telling him that The Godfather saga was about an alternate form of government. The man standing behind us in line overheard our conversation and made the following comment. “I never thought of it that way, but you’re right. Don Corleone is a lot like today’s politicians. He’s the man in charge. He grants political favors. He makes and enforces laws. He even collects taxes. The Mafia is run like a government.”

For those not familiar with the storyline, Vito Corleone began his crime-boss career by developing a parallel but counterfeit government. His organization and his governing principles had the five necessary characteristics that make up a functioning governmental structure:

1. Sovereignty: Who’s in charge?

2. Representation: Who represents the sovereign?

3. Law: What are the rules?

4. Positive and Negative Sanctions: What happens if I keep/break the rules?

5. Inheritance: Is there a future?

The government of the Godfather lacked one thing: legitimacy, the most important factor in establishing confidence, continuity, liberty, and justice in government. But even without legal legitimacy, the Godfather’s government worked at various levels because it supplied a service to the community. It dealt with heavy-handed criminal rivals, solved problems for the politically disconnected, and granted favors to the dissatisfied, disillusioned, and disenfranchised. People turned to the Godfather out of hopelessness. For these people, the government of the Godfather was considered salvific. The Don was seen as a benevolent dictator. In reality, the Godfather’s government was the exercise of raw and unregulated power.

In the movie’s opening scene, Amerigo Bonasera, a patriotic and loyal Italian American, tells Don Corleone how he and his wife sat in a New York Criminal Court room and watched as they were denied justice. The judge had described Bonasera’s daughter’s attackers as “the worst kind of degenerates . . . wild beasts.” Amerigo agreed, uttering “animales” under his breath. They had savagely beaten his daughter in their attempt to rape her, nearly killing her. But then he heard the words: “suspended sentence.” The judge had let them go. No punishment. No justice. Denied satisfaction, Bonasera swore vengeance. But how? Mario Puzo describes what happens next:

All his years in America, Amerigo Bonasera had trusted in law and order. And he prospered thereby. Now, though his brain smoked with hatred, though wild visions of buying a gun and killing the two young men jangled the very bones of his skull, Bonasera turned to his still uncomprehending wife and explained to her, “They have made fools of us.” He paused and then made his decision, no longer fearing the cost. “For justice we must go on our knees to Don Corleone.”[1]

Bonasera’s desperation sets the tone for the rest of the movie and encapsulates the meaning of the Godfather’s governmental role (see the opening scene here). “Francis Ford Coppola and Puzo understood the need to show the alternate moral universe of the mafia,”[2] a competing and somewhat competent governmental organization. The goal of the Godfather is for the undertaker to change his loyalty from the government that betrayed him to the only government that can save him (Point 1). Paul Rahe’s comments are significant:****

In his novel, Puzo brings this home to his readers by conferring on the undertaker the name “Amerigo,” that of the Italian after whom America was named, and by giving him the surname “Bonasera,” which is Italian for “Good night.” In agreeing to accept Don Corleone’s “gift” and to become his “friend,” Amerigo Bonasera says “good night” to America. In pondering this even, we may wish to reflect on the fact that in German Gift is the word for poison.[3]

The Don’s government was considered to be good by so many because it granted favors, dispensing what many wanted to believe was justice when it could not be obtained in city courts or in the streets. Legitimacy was not an immediate issue as long as the people received a benefit and general good was being performed—give or take a few broken legs. Those under the counterfeit jurisdiction of the Don’s regime were willing to put up with paying extorted “protection money,” since most people understood the costs involved in running a government. They considered it a tax for promised services.

The Godfather bought off police officers, politicians, and judges to amass power and extend the jurisdiction of his Family’s influence, all for the good of the people. Those holding legitimate governmental positions benefitted as well with financial kickbacks. The Don’s “cabinet officers” were uncompromisingly loyal. His wife was equally loyal and unquestioning of his methods. The Don never directly involved himself in implementing his corrupt but effective policies. He hired “buffers” (Point 2), underlings, to carry out his edicts. An empire was created outside the law but with the protection of the law to enforce his own brand of law (Part 3).

Don Corleone protected his interests by crushing any person or competing crime family that opposed his will (Point 4). It wasn’t personal; it was business. Each recipient of the Don’s favor would carry a lifetime debt that one day might have to be repaid. And there were many people in his debt. Loyalty was rewarded; disloyalty was severely punished. The Godfather was a political predator masquerading as a benevolent governor of the people. The family business had to be protected at all costs. Legacies were important. Power from the Don was passed on to the most competent son, insuring the future of the family (Part 5).

The predatory politics and violent methods of the Godfather are criminal. Everyone understands this. But what is considered criminal when practiced by the Godfather, all of a sudden becomes “government policy” in legislation coming from Washington. Lavish government spending programs and burdensome tax bills are legitimized by describing them as just, benevolent, fair, and good for the people. The rule of law (the Constitution) is often ignored and most often subverted to gain political power at the expense of personal freedom and liberty. Wealth is confiscated from the productive and transferred to the less productive in an attempt to buy votes. Vote buying becomes a means of increasing the scope of governmental power and legitimizes policies that can find no constitutional justification. As long as those in power offer the benefits that come with power, few people complain, except, of course, those who are being fleeced.

Without a proper understanding of the State’s purpose and function, Christians can be trapped into believing that the State ought to promote policies beyond its legitimate role and authority. This can lead people to turn to the State for protection and security. Adolf Hitler studied the policies of Otto Von Bismarck because Bismark understood the German state of mind. Hitler remarks in Mein Kampf: “I studied Bismarck’s socialist legislation in its intention, struggle and success.” William L. Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, observes: “To combat socialism Bismark put through between 1883 and 1889 a program for social security far beyond anything known in other countries. It included compulsory insurance for workers against old age, sickness, accident and incapacity, and though organized by the State it was financed by employers and employees. It cannot be said that it stopped the rise of the Social Democrats or the trade unions, but it did have a profound influence on the working class in that it gradually made them value security over political freedom and caused them to see in the State, however conservative, a benefactor and a protec__tor.”[4] A perfect description of present-day America.

William E. Simon (1927–2000), businessman and Secretary of Treasury under Richard Nixon, wrote the following in his book A Time for Truth:

Stop asking the government for “free” goods and services, however desirable and necessary they may seem to be. They are not free. They are simply extracted from the hide of your neighbors - and can be extracted only by force. If you would not confront your neighbor and demand his money at the point of a gun to solve every new problem that may appear in your life, you should not allow the government to do it for you.[5]

This quotation was sent to me by my 27-year-old son, the one who was with me in the Blockbuster store 24 years ago as asked about The Godfather videos. What should separate Vito Corleone’s government from the government of the United States is legitimacy. But there is nothing legitimate in this current legislation. It is a violation of every contractual principle of the Constitution. Those who voted for it are corrupt, having taken an oath before God and men to uphold the Constitution. They are no different from the Corleone family. Let’s work so one day they will politicallysleep with the fishes,” then we can say “bona sera” to their corrupt ways.

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[1] Mario Puzo, The Godfather (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1969), 12. [2] Jonah Goldberg, “Goodnight America: What Loving the Mob Really Means,” National Review Online (March 5, 2001): www.nationalreview.com/goldberg/goldberg030501.shtml
[3] Paul Rahe, “Don Corleone, Multiculturalist,” The Journal of Business and Professional Ethics, 16:1–3 (1998), 137. An earlier version of this article was published as “Don Vito Corleone, Friendship, and the American Regime” in Reinventing the American People: Unity and Diversity Today, ed. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1995), 115–135. [4] William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1960), 96n.
[5] William E. Simon, A Time for Truth(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978). You can also find the citation at William E. Simon, “Inflation: Made and Manufactured in Washington D.C.,” Imprimis (July 1979) and here in a PDF version of the published article.