It would be considerably easier to live with America's "new righteousness" if it did not evoke a national mood of rancor. Spanish-speaking welfare mothers are hooted down in Miami; the state of Texas finds that all its oil won't buy schooling for 11,000 children of illegal immigrants; and for the last few years the Coast Guard has turned back the "huddled masses yearning to be free." Such narrowing moods and bouts of meanness have been recurrent in our history. We deny our generosity, we constrict what used to be called in church rhetoric the "bowels of compassion," we duck the imperatives of our history. These recurrences have found different names: Nativism, Know-Nothingism, America First, the Ku Klux Klan, McCarthyism. The name doesn't matter, since the new righteousness is really very old, and since, mercifully, it is seldom the majority it claims to be.

Part of our rancor shows in our growling, "get government out of our lives." All of us have said it, and many have indeed known heavy-handed government interference which makes even rational beings overreach and mutter irrational plaints. The government we want "out" has, among other things, sent black and Spanish-speaking kids to school; largely diversified our work force; persuaded, cajoled and at times forced us into being fairer to each other than ever before in our history. These advances in civil rights and voting are serious and important. They change all our lives and most of our works. The effect they have is also spiritual: they call on us for the best of our citizenship.

The other day I was witness to a government working to draw out the best in a lot of people. On a visit to the three-quarters-completed Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown, I put on a hard hat, and in company with Dr. John Potter, the medical director of the center, toured the new building. The main floor has a lobby that leads directly into a blood-test area. Alongside are treatment rooms, and the back end is a set of rooms for chemotherapy. Below are two floors of laboratories, with places for recognizable objects like electron microscopes, and quite unrecognizable ones like electrophoresis machines and cell sorters.

The laboratory areas are sealed off, a reminder that on university campuses, only medical students and their professors face serious risks from the deadly material they handle. The structural shields built into their labs pay tribute to their courage. The top of the building has a familiar layout for offices, files, and computers.

Eleven million dollars of brick, steel and concrete are imposing. But as the director showed me through, "the weather came round" and I began to see how secondary all structures are. The description of the chemotherapy rooms triggered my imagination. I was told they had to be comfortable, since frequently the chemicals were so toxic that hours were needed to get them into the body. Then I realized that everything I was looking at was not the reality. I was staring at corridors, rooms, labs, scaffolds, and all the apparatus of construction. What I should have seen were the days of patient pain and fear and despair and faith that these quiet rooms would hold; the years of skill, compassion, and courage that physicians, students, nurses and technicians would bring to the care they give here. The two weigh equally. I guess I began with the patients because I've been one.

For all my discomfort under the hard hat I was wearing, I knew the building better than its builders do. It began with a government grant, roughly one-third of total cost, from the National Cancer Institute. That grant was like 20 others throughout the nation, enough to get us started. Dr. Potter and dozens of others had to seek three times as much from foundations and corporations, and from the generosity of individuals, so that the blueprints could be turned into a building and the building into the promise of care and cure it is.

A start-up grant from the government spurred giving by institutions; called out the generosity of donors; enabled a brilliant physician to put together a team of researchers and clinicians and build around them the roof and tools to make their work thrive. The patients who suffer from the dread disease, alas, need no government to find them. More important than the block of the building and the terrible mass of the disease are the spiritual gifts of suffering and compassion that patients and physicians will make to each other, pain by pain and care by care. To these we must add our researchers' hunger for understanding and discovery.

Seen that way, the deal of spiritual good on the ground is greater than any building is or ever could be. When government enters our lives to draw from us our best of generosity and courage and compassion, to want it "out" may not be the total good our new righteousness makes it seem.