By David Hegg
Before becoming a pastor, I worked as a training officer for a large bank in the Northwest. One of my projects was to develop a program for training branch employees in different states in the area of internal controls. In the heavily regulated banking industry “internal controls” are those self-governing procedures banks put on themselves to keep from breaking the various “external controls” consisting of federal regulations and local statutes.
My job was to show our employees how an attitude of self-control and attention to detail would not only mean better customer service and loyalty, but also limit the number of exceptions a branch would be handed when the dreaded auditors showed up.
In every area of life internal controls are always the preferred way of shaping behavior. Every parent knows the goal is not to produce a child who needs rules to remain good, but to build a child whose character prefers what is good. Character — the ultimate internal control — is that self-governing value system that has always formed the foundation for strong families, companies, teams and nations. Where internal controls are strong, the need for external controls is limited.
But, unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Where internal controls are lacking, the call for external controls will grow louder and more frequent. If a child doesn’t gain a sense of internal right and wrong, the rules will get both stronger and more numerous. As the character of a nation decreases, its need for more and more laws and regulations increases. We have been experiencing just such a phenomenon in America in recent decades, and there are at least three tragic consequences of our growing dependence upon external controls.
First, no society will ever be able to enact enough legislation and regulation to completely control the human spirit with all of its creative abilities. We may as well try to divert a river with a volleyball net. There will always be loopholes and the most aberrant and determined among us will find and exploit them.
Secondly, a growing reliance on external laws and statutes will ultimately undermine the necessity of internal character by altering the standard by which good and evil are determined. We are already seeing this in our day. Any study of human society will show that the pervasive standard by which right and wrong, good and bad were determined was the degree to which the action or attitude aligned with the will of a Deity and promoted the common good. Here in the United States, even though many of our founding fathers were not strict adherents to Christianity, their mutual understanding was that our Creator, acting in Divine Providence (both terms are found in our Declaration of Independence), had set the standard for right and wrong. In fact, our system of laws is regularly described as arising from its “Judeo-Christian” foundation.
My point here is actually not sectarian but simply to show that the way we determine right and wrong has shifted noticeably in response to the massive increase in laws, regulations and statutes enacted every year. Now, “right” is no longer determined by alignment with some divine standard, but simply by the question: “Is it legal?” By becoming a nation more dependent on laws than on character, we are quickly sliding into a sort of legal pragmatism. If it is legal, then it is right. If there is no law against it, then it must be good. In America, ending the life of the unborn is now considered good because it is legal. Those of us who oppose this view are castigated as unloving, uncaring and essentially bad for society. But this is a slippery slope, and we are beginning to pick up speed on the way down.
The third and most costly consequence of the replacement of character with regulations is the loss of freedom. Any group that readily defines “the good” as that which is legal has surrendered up the basis of individual freedom and is becoming easy prey for those in power who, through making laws, can determine what is good. This is the basis for all totalitarian societies. No longer does the shared character of the many determine the standards for the nation. Rather, when character is no longer abundant or shared, it becomes a societal necessity to impose stronger external controls, which abridge the freedoms of all.
As we celebrate our independence, let us also celebrate our dependence upon one another, and more to the point, on one another’s character. Let us return to being a nation of free moral agents whose values are aligned with God, to the betterment of society and preservation of true freedom.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.