Columnists > Voices

Tender toughness

It's the kind of authority you've wanted ever since you were a kid

Issue: "Unto the breach," July 22, 2006

The sentence still jumps out at me from the middle of an editorial in The Wall Street Journal. It's been a decade and a half since I read it, but it was one of those electric expressions that you can't forget: "People want to be lightly governed," the writer said, "by strong governments."

Yes, I thought then and have reflected on here from time to time. That's exactly what people want.

It's what you've wanted since you were a small child. You wanted your dad to be big and strong and able to do anything you could think of-except that when he dealt with you, it had to be with gentleness and tenderness.

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You wanted that with every authority figure who was part of your life, both when you were little and ever since. You wanted your junior high teacher to know everything there was to be known and to be able to solve every problem of every kind, but never to embarrass you in front of your classmates.

You wanted a policeman on the corner tough enough to handle any neighborhood bully, but who would also hoist you to his shoulders to help you find your parents when you got lost in the crowd.

Almost certainly, even if you haven't thought about it just this way, you want a church that knows exactly what it believes, defends that truth vigorously, ferrets out and opposes error-and deals with you just as a shepherd deals with a baby lamb.

Lots of muscle; lots of restraint.

There's an innate yearning in almost all of us for that rare combination not just in our personal lives but also in civil government. When evil people rise up, within our borders and without, we want a government with the clout to back them down. Yet we never want that clout turned on us.

It's why we cheer when Uncle Sam shows himself able to track down a terrorist in a remote Iraqi village, or to trace the financial dealings of his colleagues anywhere in the world-but wince when we learn that the same intelligence agencies have the capacity to follow our own most miniscule cell phone habits.

It's why you can go as a summer visitor to Washington, as I did last week, and revel in all the powerful grandeur of that city's design-and then almost immediately groan when you read again how all that fiscal power has been mismanaged again in the administration of this year's federal budget.

It's also why the U.S. Constitution, by any measure still the most effective man-made charter of government ever devised and tested over almost two and a half centuries, is so slender a document that it wouldn't fill two pages of a normal newspaper-but why that Constitution, and especially its amendments, major in what that government shouldn't do, and only minor in what it should do. Phrases like "Congress shall make no law . . ." are basic to its assumptions.

"People want to be lightly governed by strong governments."

The evidence piles up on every side. In a way, it's so obvious it hardly needs to be argued. You know it almost by intuition.

But ultimately, that's not how you know it. In the end, even though it came from a Wall Street Journal editorial, it's a theological truth.

In the final analysis, people want to be lightly governed by strong governments because that's how God governs. The omnipotent ruler of the universe is also the one who invites us tenderly: "Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

If the framers of the U.S. Constitution, the editors of a newspaper, and the common person on the street find it sensible to agree on all this, it's only because God himself put that important truth in their hearts in the first place. We may be rebels against Him, but somehow we still long for His kind of rule.

And any government that thinks it can do it better than God can do it is simply in for big trouble.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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