"As for our common defense," said Barack Obama in his January 20 inaugural address, "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." The President did not get specific, but his remarks signaled his intentions: He believes that the President is not above the law. He must pursue national security without resorting to extralegal means or violating human rights. He understands that whether the issue is the torture of detainees, due process for American citizens suspected of terrorism, or eavesdropping on our private communications without appropriate judicial warrants, the President of the United States is bound by law.

That view stands in contrast to arguments advanced during the Bush years, mainly by members of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) and Vice President Dick Cheney. This contrast is not a matter of conservatives versus liberals. George Will, Paul Weyrich, John Dean, Mickey Edwards, and other conservative icons joined the chorus of those who warned against putting the presidency above the law.

To put these issues in context, though, we need to go back a few centuries and look at the Christian roots of the rule of law as outlined by Reformer John Calvin.

God's Law Limits God's Rulers

I never thought I'd be writing about Dick Cheney and John Calvin in the same sentence. But both men are political theorists and political agents. Both are controversial. And both addressed the question: How much power should we entrust to a ruler?

People haven't always been able to ask that question. For most of recorded history, power was something that rulers had, not something the people entrusted to them. But at key historical moments, that began to change. Calvin ...

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