Law or Leaders?

Originally written in 2010 for a local newspaper in Savage, MN.

Eight-year-old David Morales of Coventry, Rhode Island, finished his second grade year at Tiogue Elementary School the spring of 2010. His year did not end so well. His teacher telephoned his mother, Christan Morales, to inform her that little David was in big trouble. David’s teacher explained to the boy’s incredulous mother that her son’s cap violated the school’s zero-tolerance policy against weapons.

It seems that in fulfillment of a class assignment, David had chosen a patriotic theme, took a camouflage cap which bore an American flag patch, and creatively affixed several of his plastic toy soldiers to the cap. He intended his artistry to honor our nation’s armed forces. But to the horror of his vigilant teacher, those tiny toy soldiers were actually armed! And that, David’s mom was informed, breached school policy against inappropriate behavior.

Tiogue’s principal weighed in, allowing David to wear his cap to the school program for which it was originally designed, if he promised to adorn it with only unarmed soldiers. David found one such soldier in his collection, but the prospect of decorating his cap with a single commando holding a pair of binoculars was off-putting to the lad. With dutiful resignation to his school’s unflinching policy against weapons, David wore the cap sans soldiers.

Entering the fray with a fresh burst of common sense, Lt. Gen. Reginald Centracchio of the Rhode Island National Guard countered the Coventry School District’s position that David’s patriotic expression could be made without violating his school’s anti-weapons policy. “The American solider is armed; that’s why they’re called the armed forces,” Centracchio observed. “If you’re going to portray it any other way, you miss the point.” As other swashbuckling champions of common sense have further noted, a toothpick-sized plastic shaft molded to a toy soldier is not a weapon and presents no physical threat to anyone. This is real life, not Toy Story.

This account illustrates the acute lack of common sense that seems to manifest itself with alarming regularity in our culture these days. It also spotlights one particular source of that decline. The problem with the Coventry School District is not that it is unpatriotic or that its officials are dullards. Rather, the district is yet another victim of our nation’s crisis of cultural authority. We have become a society petrified by the mere thought of granting leaders the freedom to lead.

The war against authority

As attorney Philip Howard demonstrates in his excellent book, Life without Lawyers, “No idea is more unpalatable to the modern mind than giving someone authority to make choices that affect other people” (p 179). Howard demonstrates that, deeply infected with a distrust of authority figures, and desperate to order a risk-free world bubble-wrapped against mishaps of any sort, we have become dangerously dependent upon law to order our world. With “ruthless objectivity” we labor to create policies and enact laws that will protect every individual concern and assure that no one in authority is given even a modicum of space to make a judgment call that may appear unfair or even disappoint someone.

Howard demonstrates that the stranglehold of 1960’s individualism on American culture has resulted in our virtually hamstringing societal leaders from making every-day, common sense decisions.

Freedom could not be defined merely as protection against government authority. People needed protection from business too. Instead of facing up to the link between authority and freedom, we created structures that further eroded authority. As the twentieth century progressed, and especially after the rights revolution of the 1960s, freedom was redefined as protections against all authority public or private. (p. 61)

In consequence we are becoming a society that no longer looks forward with creative energies to see possibilities. We now look over our shoulders in fear that we may be violating someone’s perceived rights. This fear, as we know, has little or nothing to do with any honest concern that we might actually harm someone. Rather, it is generated by the growing potential that we may be sued and thus find ourselves standing before a judge—yet another societal leader with little perceived freedom to exercise common sense. When leaders (school officials, teachers, judges, police, doctors, etc.) are not permitted to make decisions based on their intuitive wisdom and the relatively free exercise of authority, they operate defensively. Their orientation is debilitated by fear of breaking some rule or other. In such an environment, common sense is easily lost at the bottom of leaders’ inter-relational toolboxes and defensive paralysis sets in.

The Creator’s better idea

This societal aversion to letting leaders lead is woefully out of sync with our Creator’s wisdom. The Bible’s vision of society is one in which authority is granted to leaders who are held accountable to exercise wise and fair leadership in deference to those they oversee. Children are to obey their parents (Eph. 6:2). Citizens are to submit to governing officials and police (Rom. 13:1-7). God’s chosen nation of Israel was structured such that the tribes selected charactered, God-fearing leaders who were commissioned to judge the people fairly (Exod. 18:18-27, Num. 11:16-17). The church of Jesus Christ is similarly structured to include the communal selection of qualified leaders who are authorized to lead the assembly with integrity and authority (1 Tim. 3:1-7, 2 Heb. 13:17).

In the government of both ancient Israel and the church, biblical leaders were not held accountable by a massive body of nit-picky rules that addressed every eventuality. Rather, they were held accountable by the assembly that chose them to render fair and wise leadership. When such integrity is lacking in a leader, the body is responsible to remove that person from a position of authority (1 Tim. 5:17-22). Operating within such governmental structures, genuine leaders are to be driven by the positive motivation of gaining and retaining the respect and appreciation of the people they serve, not by the negative motivation of avoiding lawsuits.

I do not believe the Bible prescribes a specific form of human government all nations today must necessarily follow. The kingdom of the reigning Christ can operate within any governmental structure on earth until Jesus returns to rule the globe as the ultimate benevolent monarch (Rev. 11:15). The Bible does, however, reveal the Creator’s wisdom: broad laws that provide a framework of operation, and charactered, accountable leaders granted the freedom to render common sense, on-the-spot decisions.

In the end, the crisis of common sense that plagues American culture will not be alleviated by placing greater dependence upon increasingly narrow strictures of law to order our daily lives. This crisis will be alleviated—whether consciously or not—only as we come to trust the common grace of our Lawgiver to empower people to lead. And should we make progress in that direction as a society, there will happily be fewer David Morales type stories and more outbreaks of common sense. Freer leaders, not more restrictive laws, are what we need until the King of heaven returns to set everything right.

[node:bio/pastor-dan-miller body]

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There are 4 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


This piece raises interesting questions... especially in light of what's been coming to light at Penn State.
I think Dan is on to something here, as is Philip Howard.
But I question whether they've quite put their finger on either the problem or the solution... and here's the Penn State connection.
While the 60s did indeed witness a reinvention of the idea of freedom and rights in America--one that identified authority as the enemy of all freedom--it did so partly in response to conspicuous failures on the part of authority figures (Nixon and Watergate come to mind.)

So what if the leaders are evil or just untrustworthy or incompetent?

The movement that began in the 60's (and is now a runaway train) is an effort to use law to compensate for lack of virtue and sound judgment on the part of leaders. It's true that this can never work, but then how do we solve the real problem? It isn't solved simply by reining in law and giving leaders more discretionary authority.

Ultimately there is no substitute for virtue in both citizens and their leaders.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Steve Newman's picture

For example, if you look at the recall effort against Gov. Walker in Wisconsin, or Occupy Wall Street. It is not that the competence or lack of sound judgment is being protested. These protests are plain and simple, people not getting what they want. It comes down to selfishness in the sense that people just believe they can hire a lawyer to get what they want (divorce, anyone?) in their personal lives; or "engineer" protests or even elections to get what they want.

Susan R's picture


those toy guns are pointy. Someone could lose an eye. ][img ][/img ]

We've become accustomed to being controlled by fear, and those who use extortion to manipulate the system. There is evidence that zero tolerance policies actually do more harm than good.

Quote: ]zero tolerance policies may negatively
affect the relationship of education with juvenile justice
and appear to conflict to some degree with current best
knowledge concerning adolescent development.

People seem to think that if there are enough laws, and we take enough precautions, that we will be able to keep anyone from experiencing discomfort, grief, or harm. When people discuss various forms of invasive legislation, I often see "But if it saves one child, it's worth it" as a rationale. No one should be poor, no one should be sick, no one should be injured...

[img ][/img ]

Really? We have to include a warning label like this so a chainsaw manufacturer is not held liable if someone decides to hold the moving end of a chainsaw? There is more wrong here than a skewed view of authority. It's more like an epidemic of stupidity.

Aaron Blumer's picture


It really is a complex mess.

There are at least three levels of confusion about what law is for:
One level: it's a way make personal virtue and competence less and less necessary (because laws will narrow choices so much that leaders--and everyone else--have to choose to do good.)
Two: law is a way to remove all discomfort and danger and unhappiness from life. Society acting collectively through law will solve all practical problems.
Three: law is just a way to get what I think I deserve (Steve's "what I want," nuanced a bit)

Closely related to all that are the changes in how people define "rights" and what these rights include... so now everybody has a "right" to healthcare, freedom from fear, a comfortable living, a "share" of what "the rich" have... on and on it goes.

But since we cut the legs out from under ourselves as a nation when we rejected traditional judeo-Christian worldview and morality, more and more law is needed to rein in the bad behavior of poeple who have no personal ethics.
Yet, the more we use law to compensate for lack of personal character and responsibility, the less we demand personal character and responsibility from citizens. It's a vicious cycle.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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