By David Hegg
If you were staying awake your junior year of high school, you’ll remember hearing about “the rule of law.” Mrs. Kraft, my favorite history teacher at John Rogers High School in Spokane, made sure we understood the vital importance this founding principle held in setting apart the newly formed United States from all other countries in the world. Unlike those municipalities, states and nations ruled by monarchs and despots, the USA was to be ruled by laws specifically formed to treat everyone equally.
The concepts that made up the rule of law were both simple and complex. On the simple side, this form of governance was blindfolded, demonstrating that nothing about the person could change the way he or she was treated. The law only regarded the person as measured by law. Today we still understand this, or at least that’s what we should champion as Americans.
Everyone is to be treated the same under the law, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, economic or social status, ideology, group alignment, or individual characteristics. From the beginning of our Union, this principle was foundational to the formation and health of the American experiment.
The Founders also recognized that, for the rule of law to be just, a system for creating, applying and enforcing the law had to be established, safeguarded and implemented justly. This was the purpose of our beloved Constitution. The Constitution defines, defends and declares the rule of law, American style.
Again, back to American history class, you’ll remember there are three branches of our government. A simple overview shows the power to create law was granted to the Legislative branch comprised of duly elected officials from among the citizenry. The Executive branch, again elected, was to administrate and apply the law, while the Judicial branch, both elected and appointed, was charged to deal with those cases where the law may have been broken. It was their responsibility through law enforcement to first gather up those suspected of breaking the law, then allow the courts to weigh the evidence and pronounce the appropriate fines or sentences on those found guilty.
The Founders understood that law needed to exist because universal righteousness does not. However, they also understood rightly that, given no one is perfectly righteous, those making, applying and enforcing the laws had to be mutually accountable to one another, and to the citizenry whose servants they became when they entered public service. Remember when “public service” actually meant serving the public interest? But I digress!
They also recognized that human laws need the guarantee of human force for civil society to thrive, and criminal activity to be both deterred and restrained. That’s the penal side of the rule of law.
But, despite the foundational aspects of the rule of law, today all around us we are watching the ethical unraveling of the rule of law. Our national character is collapsing, and this has the potential to severely cripple the doctrine of the rule of law.
Daily we read reports, themselves of dubious consistency, of those in the highest levels of government who openly ignore the rule of law either by their disregard for it personally, or their refusal to allow others to uphold and enforce the law.
Go to almost any large metropolis and you’ll find property rights no longer protected by those whose job it is to deal with those breaking the law. So too you’ll see drug deals going down in plain sight, blatant smash-and-grab robberies, as well as smug thieves who plunder stores and walk away unhindered, knowing that, as long as their thievery doesn’t exceed a certain nonsensical dollar amount, there will be no consequence. They know that, in our society, the rule of law no longer can rule over them.
We also are hearing from many who no longer consider it a necessary principle for justice to be blind. Proposals are everywhere attempting to banish this segment for their race, that segment for their religious views, and still others for their refusal to agree with the latest woke absurdities. And now we’re hearing that having a great credit score could even be punished!
Certainly, we have learned little from Dr. King’s dream that it is character, not color, nor anything else that ought to identify a person in the eyes of society.
That the rule of law is foundational, fundamental and essential American political doctrine cannot be ignored. And even though we have experienced seasons where unrighteousness overwhelmed our best selves, and unjust actions were promulgated, even those admissions and recognitions do not constitute a compelling reason to act contrary to the founding principle of the rule of law.
Prejudice cannot be the remedy for prejudice. Vengeance cannot be the solution to injustice and cruelty cannot create civility. In America, all are created equal. While government is charged to uphold the rule of law, it is also the responsibility of us as citizens, neighbors and fellow travelers on the road of life, to love one another as human beings first, then listen and deal with our differences differently than some have in the past.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.