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The legitimate power of government
begins and ends with the people,
while its authority comes from the Creator.
“...they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, ...That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”- The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
“The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government - lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.”- Patrick Henry, attributed
Editor’s Note: To understand the concepts of this principle, the entire explanation below is necessary. Any part of it, taken out of context, could lead to a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of our intent.
The Declaration of Independence reveals the order of authority recognized by the Founders. God gives to individuals the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and individuals delegate to government the power to protect those rights. The power begins with the people. Once delegated, the people should abide by the government’s laws unless those laws conflict with a higher law. But it doesn’t end there. The people also have the right to withdraw power from government if they determine it is being misused. That very idea was the impetus behind the Declaration of Independence. When the people conclude that the government is exceeding its bounds, “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” So, the legitimate power of government also ends with the people.
Does this mean government has the authority to do whatever the people want? Absolutely not! Slavery is perhaps the most blatant example of the people wanting the government to approve something patently immoral. The government had the power to condone it, because the people allowed the government to do so. But it did not have the legitimate authority to allow slavery, because such treatment of humans clearly violated their inalienable rights—rights that were granted by the Creator.
Power and Authority
Why do we make a distinction between power and authority? What is the difference?
Power, as it relates to government, is force—the ability to compel a person to do or not do a certain thing. Authority is the legitimate right to exercise certain powers.
Power exercised beyond authority is tyranny. Authority unaccompanied by a willingness to use power when necessary is impotence, inviting anarchy and corruption.
A common display of this is seen in various parenting styles, running the gamut from dictatorial legalism to unrestrained chaos. The most effective parents are those who establish rules within their legitimate authority and then enforce them judiciously, not arbitrarily. The same is true for the most effective governments—they establish rules within their legitimate authority and then enforce them judiciously, not arbitrarily.
To personalize the contrast of power and authority, consider this analogy. If you steal money from me, I as an individual might have the power to confine you to a small room for several years, but I don’t have the legitimate right, or authority, to do so; if I do confine you, I will be arrested for violating your inalienable rights. However, if I’m on a jury and determine that you have stolen money, it is my right (and my responsibility to others) to order you confined to a small room for several years. In other words, I have the authority as an agent of the state to exercise power I don’t have as an individual. Where does this authority come from? The authority of the juror is derived from the laws of government.
This leads to the other half of this principle: Government’s ultimate
authority comes from God.
This is not about establishing a theocracy; far from it. The Founders acknowledged “the laws of nature and nature’s God,” but they did not propose that all of God’s laws be enacted into civil law. They did, however, believe that government should not ignore His laws. As Thomas Jefferson said, “...Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? ...Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.”
Government does not have the authority to take action that violates God’s law. While it may have the power to do so—as long as the people allow it—it does not have the legitimate authority to do so.
The People Must Keep Watch
After the Constitutional Convention adjourned in 1789, a lady is reported to have asked Benjamin Franklin, “Dr. Franklin, what have you given us, a monarchy or a republic?” Franklin replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
Why would he say, “if you can keep it”? Because he knew that a republic is only as strong as the will of the people to preserve it. Franklin might have been thinking of the words attributed to his Scottish contemporary, Alexander Tyler: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury.” Since Franklin had helped create a democratic (elected by the people) republic (representative government), he knew the republic would fail if too many citizens demand from their representatives money taken from their fellow citizens.
The Constitution, in addition to setting up the basic structure of government, is primarily a statement of limitations on the power of the national government. But no matter how tightly the limitations are worded in a constitution or law, it is unwise to put government on auto-pilot, expecting officials to comply with the limitations you think have been set for them. Your role as a citizen requires you to pay attention to what they are doing, and then give or withhold your consent.
The most common exercise of this responsibility is at the ballot box, but it is perhaps equally important to keep watch on lawmakers’ actions between elections. Because of the volume and complexity of this task, you can now draw on organizations (such as the Mississippi Center for Public Policy) to help you watch and discern what the government is doing, and to represent your viewpoint in the halls of government.
The Bible and Public Policy
Before we leave the topic of power and authority, it’s worth spending a few minutes on the confusion that occurs frequently when people try to apply the Bible to public policy. Much of the confusion comes when biblical commands to individuals are applied as if they were commands given to government.
The Bible makes clear that government has certain responsibilities that are not given to individuals, one of which is to punish those who do evil. Domestically, that’s accomplished with our justice system when it works properly. When we face a foreign adversary, it is our military that wields the sword. In both cases, the actions taken by the government might harm the ones who are doing evil—even harm to the point of death. But the purpose of allowing government to take such action is to protect those who obey the law from those who do not, and to maintain peace and justice in the community, state, and nation.
Let’s apply that to the death penalty. It is legitimate to debate the effectiveness of the death penalty, but it is not legitimate to apply the commandment “Thou shall not kill” to the public policy debate. That commandment applies to individuals and murder; it does not apply to government, to which the Bible expressly gives authority to punish evil, even to the point of “wielding the sword” if necessary. Applying, “Thou shall not kill” to the government would require police and soldiers to disarm, or be prosecuted if they were to kill someone in the line of duty.
Another example is forgiveness. I am commanded as an individual to forgive you if you harm me. However, it would not be inconsistent or unbiblical for me as a member of society to help prosecute you also. Respect for the law and the safety of others compels me to help the government punish the criminal, even if I have forgiven him personally.
On the other hand, there are biblical commands that are given to both individuals and government. One example is judging others. The command, “Judge not, lest you be judged” means that we as individuals are not to condemn another person based on our own, arbitrary rules or guidelines. We are, however, supposed to discern whether the actions of another person are wrong, based on rules or guidelines established by God. (A few verses later, we are told to watch out for “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” which necessarily requires some judgment.)
Likewise, government is commanded not to condemn a person based on arbitrary rules or guidelines. It is to treat all people equally under the law. Let’s return to the jury analogy. If you have been charged with a crime, I, in my role as a juror, am to listen to the evidence and determine (judge) whether your actions violated a law. Even if I think the law is a bad law and have determined to go to the Capitol after the trial to urge its repeal, I am to declare you guilty if you violated the law as it is. When jurors base decisions on their own emotions or their own opinion of the law itself, justice is applied arbitrarily, with no certainty or consistency. Arbitrary justice is not justice at all, and certainly not “equal justice under the law.”
The power of government begins and ends with the people, but the ultimate authority of government comes from the Creator. If government officials acknowledge and heed the source of their power and authority, they will govern with humility and restraint.
"It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favors."- George Washington, 1789
"God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.- Thomas Jefferson, 1781