By David Hegg
One of the most known statements regarding the use and abuse of power comes from John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, whose lengthy name caused history to remember him as Lord Acton. This 19th century historian was particularly interested in the relationships of power to politics, and of political liberty and power to religious liberty. Considered the most learned man in England in his day, he is most remembered for this passage found in a letter to Mandell Creighton in 1887:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases …Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely … There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
And why am I retreating back to some old Brit in this little column? Simply because a raging concern in my mind is the seemingly unharnessed power we see all around us in the actions and mandates of those in positions of power. It appears we are living out Acton’s dictum that, as power increases so also does the risk of abuse of that power. And in no sense should we assume that “the office sanctifies the holder of it.” In plain speech, just because someone holds a position doesn’t mean they’re wise, trustworthy, or honest.
With the stroke of a pen in March 2020, our governor signed an emergency powers order giving him “complete authority over all agencies of the state government and the right to exercise within the area designated all police power vested in the state by the Constitution and laws of the State of California.” Friends, that was 21 months ago! Given that he has now extended his power to March 2022, either his actions haven’t quelled the emergency, or I am mistaken as to the definition of an emergency. And my question is this: Who governs the governor?
We’ve seen other examples as well. With another pen President Joe Biden closed down the Keystone pipeline, leaving us with gas prices surging toward all-time highs. I could go on and on, and you could, too.
Here’s the deal: We the people have every right to be concerned. If we’re honest, we’re feeling more and more helpless in the face of power being held by those over whom we have no control. Yes, we still have the ballot box but I greatly fear too many of us have given up hope that our votes matter. Spoiler alert: They do! And yes, we still have the jury box, but again it is clear that the legal system takes years to right the wrongs, and this only exacerbates our suspicions that the system itself may be eroding.
In my mind, it all began falling apart in 1859 when Charles Darwin published his monumental book “Origin of the Species,” which laid the foundation for the evolutionary theory that has shaped all of society since then in this way: Darwin convinced the world he could explain reality without God.
But, by taking God out of the way, he effectively left mankind to hold itself accountable, and as history has shown, we’ve not been very good at that. When those in power are only accountable to themselves, Lord Acton’s voice is effectively muted.
Long before Darwin, William Blackstone was considered the foremost legal authority on law and civil society. His commentaries on the laws of England greatly influenced Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, John Jay, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln, and are still frequently cited in Supreme Court decisions.
Blackstone realized that human authority was necessary but could only be trusted when it was accountable to divine authority. He often spoke of “a higher law” that provides an objective standard for discerning right from wrong. Without such an objective standard to hold all power accountable, the state becomes a tyrant. He defined this “higher law” as God’s law. He was adamant that, unless mankind was accountable to God, our lust for personal advancement through power would be unchecked and ultimately lead to personal corruption and societal destruction. He summed it up this way:
“… upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation [God’s written law in the Bible], depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these.”
What began with Darwin has given us legalized abortion, same-sex marriage, the anti-scientific theory of multiple genders, a legal system that coddles criminals, historic levels of drug and alcohol abuse, increased instances of looting, burning, and other forms of unrestrained destruction of property, and a host of other crimes and ideologies that are absolutely ruinous to our sense of integrity and liberty. Something needs to change!
As we enter the Christmas season, we would do well not only to celebrate God the Son Incarnate, but also heed the foundational truths he both embodied and declared.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.