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 a new release of The Godfather. “Dad, is this 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.”

Vito Corleone began his crime-boss career by working outside the political system and the conventions of morality and law by developing a parallel but counterfeit government. The government of the Godfather lacked one thing: legitimacy. 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.

Legitimacy was not an immediate concern for the people as long as they received a benefit. Those under the counterfeit jurisdiction of the Godfather’s regime were willing to put up with paying extorted “protection money.” They considered it a tax for promised services.

The predatory politics and violent methods of the Godfather are criminal. Everyone understands this. But does legitimacy give constitutionally elected governments the right to pay for political favors by using other people’s money? 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 civil government should promote policies beyond its legitimate role and authority as long as some people benefit. This can lead people to turn to the State for protection and security, just like poor immigrants turned to Don Corleone for protection.

Power is most dangerous in the hands of good people because they believe their intentions to help the less fortunate are righteous and just. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the power of the ring is not something to be desired even by good people. The goal is to destroy it. When Boromir fails to avoid the ring’s power, he dies. Even Gandalf and the elves shun the power of the ring. Tolkien is doubtful that any person has the ability to resist the temptation of absolute power promised by the ring, even if that power is used for good.

When President Bush proposed a tax cut for all wage earners in 2003, Alan M. Webber, founding editor of Fast Company magazine, presented the classic plunder-to-satisfy-the-wants-of-the-people worldview. “At the community level,” he writes, “ordinary folks want jobs, they want benefits, and they want reassurance. This is the time, not for tax cuts, but for Democratic-style spending programs: temporary job creation, targeted public works expenditures, extended unemployment benefits.”[1] Webber believes that taking money from wage earners, passing it through a huge bureaucracy, and then distributing a lesser amount of money to the helpless masses is better than allowing wage earners to keep their money, save it, spend it, and invest it. His political script might serve as a screenplay idea for Godfather IV.


[1] Alan M. Webber, “Bush’s proposed tax cuts won’t rescue sinking U.S. economy,” USA Today (January 13, 2003), 13A.