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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Muscle and restraint

People want from government what even kids want from authority

Muscle and restraint

(Krieg Barrie)

“People want to be lightly governed by strong governments.”

It was a fine point first brought to my attention in the middle of a long editorial in The Wall Street Journal. That was 25 years ago—and the observation made such good sense that I was compelled to enlarge on it in this column. Now it’s time to reflect on that wisdom again.

“People want to be lightly governed by strong governments.”

It’s what you’ve yearned for since you were a small child. You wanted your dad to be big and strong and able to do anything he wanted—except that when he dealt with you, it had to be with tenderness.

You wanted that, I think, with every authority figure who was part of your life, both when you were little and ever since. You wanted your junior high teacher to know everything there was to be known and to be able to solve any problem, but never ever to embarrass you in front of your classmates.

‘People want to be lightly governed by strong governments.’

You wanted a policeman on the corner with the heft to stop a neighborhood bully, but who would also hoist you on his shoulders to help you find your parents when you lost them in the crowd at the county fair.

You’ve also wanted a church that knows in some detail what it believes, defends that truth vigorously, ferrets out error before it does serious damage—and deals with you like a shepherd deals with a lamb.

Lots of muscle, lots of restraint.

There’s an innate yearning in almost all of us for that rare combination in civil government. When evil leaders rise up, within our borders and without, we want a government with the clout to back them down. Yet we never want that clout turned on us.

So we cheer when President Trump seeks—and gets—a defense budget for next year with a staggering price tag of $840 billion. That’s a lot of muscle. But we like it so much better when the strongman of North Korea backs off without a shot being fired and suggests a peace treaty might be better. And we puzzle over whether it was all that muscle that produced the concessions.

It’s also why the U.S. Constitution, by any measure still the most effective man-made charter of government ever devised and tested now for almost 2½ centuries, is so slender a document that if you spread its words in newspaper format it wouldn’t fill two pages of USA Today. And it’s why that Constitution—and especially its amendments—majors in what the federal government shouldn’t do, and only minors in what it should do. Phrases like “Congress shall make no law …” are basic to its assumptions.

I think it’s partly why American tourists used to love to go to Washington and feel proud of what that city stood for, barely regretting the cost of building so magnificent a city. But it’s also why those same small-business people throw up their hands in dismay while trying to understand the newest environmental regulations and hiring laws. It’s why all of us get disdainful of government while trying to figure our taxes, and why no three IRS agents can ordinarily figure those same taxes so that they come out with the same answers.

“People want to be lightly governed by strong governments.”

The evidence piles up on every side. In a way, it’s so obvious it hardly needs to be argued. You know it by intuition.

But ultimately, that’s not how you know it. In the end, it’s a theological truth: People want to be lightly governed by strong governments because that’s how God governs. The omnipotent governor of the universe is also the one who invites us so tenderly: “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in spirit, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

If the framers of the U.S. Constitution, the editors of The Wall Street Journal, and the common citizen agree on these basic truths, even that is because God Himself quietly implanted such truth in our hearts in the first place.


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  • Jim Venable
    Posted: Sat, 09/01/2018 11:39 pm

    Sounds like the definition of "meekness" I once heard; great power under absolute control .