ON TUESDAY JANUARY 30, 1649, in London, an event occurred that changed the course of history. Charles I, King of England, was tried and executed by his subjects. The crime? Treason! As Charles climbed the steps to the scaffold, a crowd, estimated at 10,000, gathered to watch. The King spoke quietly to his chaplain, Bishop Juxon. Charles last words were “a subject and a sovereign are clean different things.” He forgave the executioner, turned his thoughts to God, knelt and laid his head on the chopping block. The axe fell, and following the tradition of the time, the executioner lifted the bloody head by its hair and proclaimed, “Behold the head of a traitor!” The crowd did not respond with the usual raucous cheer. Instead, “up from the people went a great deep groan, a groan, said an eye-witness, ‘as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again.'” Antonia Fraser sums up the King’s attitude this way. “A sovereign went to his death at the hands of his subjects, proud and unrepentant on that interpretation of government whose inflexibility had brought about his downfall.” (Cromwell, pg 291).
The rule of law is the foundation of our freedoms. It replaces the ancient concept known as the Divine Right of Kings. The two are incompatible. A nation not ruled by laws will be ruled by kings. (Think President, Dictator, Fuhrer, Prime Minister, etc. The title is irrelevant). Therefore, protecting the rule of law is vital. But, we are not doing that. The rule of law is collapsing, and to the degree that it does, we will revert to the Divine Right of Kings, the conviction about how government works for which Charles died. The Divine Right of Kings exalts the king above the law. Under this system, everyone must obey the law except the King. His accounting is to God, not the people. Needless to say, this privilege is usually abused. For example, the king might impose a new tax which everyone must pay except the King. He might create a law against land theft, which applies to everyone except himself. According to “the Divine Right” the king is above the law.
This concept began to die with the beheading of Charles in 1649. It was a great historical turning point, and like most historical turning points, no one understood what was happening at the time.
Charles sincerely believed in the Divine Right of Kings. The Puritans, impacted by the Bible, sincerely believed in the Rule of Law. The Puritans and Charles fought a Civil War to decide this issue. The Puritans and the Rule of Law emerged victorious. Their conquest cost Charles his head.
Inspired by this Puritan precedent, our founding fathers revolted against Britain in 1776. They wanted a nation ruled by laws, not kings.
To the degree that men are ruled by laws, they are free. Our founders understood this. That is why the United States is a nation of laws. Everyone, homeless or president, must obey the law. No one can agree with Charles that “a sovereign and his subject are clean different things.” No one is free to disobey or ignore a law because they don’t like or believe in it. Instead, we obey the law, even laws like Rowe V. Wade that we abhor. In the meantime, we work to change them through the legal mechanism provided by the Constitution.
In recent years the Rule of Law has been increasingly ignored. President Biden, acting like Charles I, has placed himself above the law. This is a prescription for tyranny. For example, President Obama refused to enforce laws because he didn’t agree with them. He refused to enforce RFRA, (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act), because it conflicted with his drive for same sex marriage. The States of Washington and Colorado recently passed laws legalizing Marijuana, despite the fact that it contradicts Federal Statutes criminalizing Marijuana usage. Now California refuses to enforce federal laws restricting Hispanic immigration. The examples are numerous and ominous.
Unlike Charles, humility confesses that the political leader and his subjects are not different things. They are both human, both fallible, and both subject to God’s law and God’s final judgment. Therefore, humility submits to the law whether it likes it or not. By contrast, arrogance ignores laws it doesn’t like. It lifts itself up above the law.
This should concern us because the general thrust of the left is lawlessness. Although it would never confess it, it is sympathetic with the “Diving Right” of some (uniquely gifted) to coerce others. It tends to ignore the constitution and the laws it produces. (Think of the leftist courts willingness to usurp the judicial and legislative functions). The general thrust of the right is to honor the constitution and the laws it has produced. It is not unfair to say that political pride characterizes liberalism, whereas political humility characterizes conservatism.
We are engaged in a great war of ideas, a war of World Views. Who will win, the Rule of Law or the Divine Right of Kings? That is the crucial question. Upon the culmination of this contest our freedoms rest.
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