Long Live the Law
Much of Cheney's perspective was summed up in a confidential memo written by former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo. He argued that the President's wartime powers give him, the cia, and the military the discretion to do whatever he thinks is necessary, including coercive interrogation techniques that most experts consider to be torture. The President has a completely free hand, Yoo argued, simply by claiming national self-defense. Congress and the courts should have no say. The executive branch is not accountable.
This expansion of presidential power at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches has worried conservatives every bit as much as it has worried liberals. After all, it is a core conservative principle to mistrust concentrations of government power, especially at the federal level.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a friendly critic and senior editor of the neoconservative magazine Commentary, defended the counterterrorism actions of the Bush administration, but uttered warnings against the "rickety legal arguments" employed "without regard to political costs." He approvingly cited the judgments of Jack Goldsmith, former head attorney at the OLC, that "by failing to put its counterterrorism policies on a sound legal footing, and therefore on a sound political footing, the administration … not only committed serious errors in interpreting the law but sacrificed key objectives (fighting al Qaeda) to a subsidiary one (asserting executive power)."
A Christian Concern
All this is more than a matter of constitutional or political theory. It is a Christian concern.
Calvin understood the need to adjust old laws in new circumstances. No one should argue that the law is inflexible in times of emergency. People of goodwill disagree about many of the presidential examples above, as to whether the assertion of executive power was justified given the circumstances. Only time can give us the perspective that leads us to approve of Lincoln suspending habeas corpus while frowning at Franklin Delano Roosevelt herding Japanese Americans into detention camps.
Nevertheless, the principles of Calvin, Rutherford, and their spiritual heirs must ground how we govern. It's not a matter of abstract political theory. It is about the protection of our fundamental liberties. The expansion of the executive branch's power, like the expansion of government in general, is something Christians must be wary of. If history shows anything, it demonstrates that people flourish most when they enjoy their God-given liberties. This is especially true of the church in free societies. This is why we, among all citizens, champion these principles: mutual accountability among the branches of government; rule by law, not by the raw assertion of power; and government actions limited by the nature of the liberties government is called to protect.
We are grateful that the new administration seems to understand this. But power has a way of corrupting. It shouldn't surprise us if this or future administrations are also tempted to expand their powers unreasonably. Regardless of who is in power, American Christians do well to guard jealously the biblically based principles of liberty and limited government. As Calvin wrote: "Those who desire that every individual should preserve his rights, and that all men may live free from injury, must defend the political order [against tyranny] to the utmost of their ability."
David Neff is editor in chief of the Christianity Today Media Group and moderator of the Christian History blog at christianitytodayblogs.com/history.
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