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The Spirit and the Letter of the Law

A Little Context

As I sit to write this column, Independence Day approaches.  Frankly, what is on my mind is some of the visceral reactions (both good and bad) to my last article on what ‘The fear of God’ means coupled with this impending celebration of the birth of this exceptional nation; and more, how we today have lost some of our understanding of the founding of this extraordinary nation while we yet live on the capital of the Founders’ and subsequent generations’ work.

What follows is not my attempt to ‘convert’ anyone to my religious and spiritual proclivity – it’s not a sermon; but, food for thought.  How does the Chaplain and/or Peace Officer live out his convictions in this contemporary age of cynicism?  And yes, I admit, I have often pondered as a peace officer and now as a chaplain, how do I live my Christian convictions in the face of the stereotypes from the so-called ‘main-stream-media’ ... how do I do it with elegance and an eye toward being the servant (Romans 13:4) I am called to be? 

Thus, I desire to celebrate the birth of this nation by acknowledging what Bernard of Chartes once said about theology and applying it to the good life I have in the greatest nation on this planet:  “We are like dwarfs, seated on the shoulders of giants.  We see more things than the Ancients, things more distant, but it is due neither to the sharpness of our sight nor the greatness of our stature.  It is simply because they have lent us their own.”

What is the ‘character’ that they – the Founding Fathers – have lent us?  The celebrations on July 4th across this nation are about our declaring our independence from what the Founders perceived as the tyrannical rule of King George III and his onerous taxation of the colonies in America.  In the face of the might of the British Empire, the Founders rejected the idea of ‘might makes right.’ 

This is the context in which the Founders of this country set forth the idea, in the Declaration of Independence, that governments, in order to be legitimate, have to be based upon the consent of the governed; when they, by adopting that principle, put in place the basis for what has become our system of self-government, they did so declaring quite explicitly that the reason that this idea of legitimacy was correct had to do with a principle that acknowledged that there is a ground for justice in human affairs that goes beyond human will, beyond human success, beyond human rationality, beyond human strength, and that establishes a principle by which justice can be understood and determined, and through which even those who have no strength and no prospect of success can nevertheless assert to be respected in their basic dignity - can seek justice; can declare grievance, even against their well-armed oppressors. 

Created Equal

In the Declaration this principle was stated simply:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

This is well known.  Each of us in one fashion or another is willing to hear and acknowledge it.  Yet, despite our seat upon the shoulders of these giants, our society, more and more wants to leave out the ‘created’ part.  (And more we can’t say ‘men’ anymore can we – because we have become so uninformed that the generic use of the word escapes us, so we have to use the word, ‘people.’)

The Founders articulated the principle ‘all men are created equal,’ but they also went on to say something about the source of that equality: “and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

For now I’ll put aside the cavils that are bound to be raised by those who adhere to the current malformed understanding of the so-called ‘separation of church and state.’  For today, I’ll simply point to the fact that what that means, if it means nothing else, is that our rights are not the result of any human determination.  Even in the midst of the varied opinion on what the word ‘Creator’ conveys, even if we are unwilling to speak positive regarding what might be the attributes of this Creator, we can safely say that if what the Declaration says is true than by negative inference our rights do not have their source in any human determination or will.  

It is not then a stretch to see the logic of the Declaration – that it goes from that recognition of a transcendent grounding for the claim to human rights to the understanding that in order to be legitimate – lawful in the larger sense, or just – government must be based upon a principle that respects the existence of those basic rights – which is the principle of ‘consent.’  Thus, we now live day-to-day in the stream of these ideas and the consequences of self-government. 

From Declaration to Constitution

July 4th is the celebration of the Declaration made official in 1776, the birth of the nation.  The Constitution would be adopted on September 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and ratified by conventions in eleven states. It went into effect on March 4, 1789 – some 13 years after the laying of the foundation stated in the Declaration.

There is not enough space in this column to cover the Constitution.  In light of the celebration of our Independence as a nation, here, I am more interested in the connection between the two founding documents.

The Supreme Court in Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. Ellis, 165 U.S. 150 (1897) said: 

“‘When we consider the nature and the theory of our institutions of government, the principles upon which they are supposed to rest, and review the history of their development, we are constrained to conclude that they do not mean to leave room for the play and action of purely personal and arbitrary power. 

The first official action of this nation declared the foundation of government in these words:  ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’

While such declaration of principles may not have the force of organic law, or be made the basis of judicial decision as to the limits of right and duty, and while in all cases reference must be had to the organic law of the nation for such limits, yet the latter is but the body and the letter of which the former is the thought and the spirit, and it is always safe to read the letter of the Constitution in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. No duty rests more imperatively upon the courts than the enforcement of those constitutional provisions intended to secure that equality of rights which is the foundation of free government.”

This is an affirmation that the Constitution carries out the principles averred in the Declaration.  In other words, while the Declaration is the basis for reading the Constitution – our Founders have given us the spirit and the letter of the law.

Patrick Henry put it this way:  “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government - lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.”

Chaplains and Peace Officers

St. Paul, who before his career as a Christian theologian led a warrant squad picking up and jailing those who professed their Christian faith (cf. Acts 8:3, 9:1-2, 22:3-5, 26:9-11), wrote this after his change of heart: 

“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity to indulge the sinful nature, but through love serve one another.  For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-14)

When I was a peace officer I had and still have no desire to live in a police state.  I wanted to serve those who sought justice – the victims of crimes, and protect, as much as humanly possible, people from becoming victims of crime.  As tedious as it could be, I am glad that I had to ‘cross the t’s and dot the i’s’ in search and arrest warrants (see Patrick Henry quote above.)  It was a reminder that the maxim ‘might makes right’ is not the foundation of our great republic. 

Again, from Patrick Henry:  “That religion, or duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.”

As a Chaplain, I want to encourage peace officers to research what our education system has failed to deliver in regards to teaching civics – it puts a fresh light on our job of peace making (cf. Matthew 5:9; Romans 13:4) and advancing freedom (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:17; Galatians 5:1) – to understand that you are ‘The barbed wire that keeps the wolves from the sheep.’  And we want to ensure that the government doesn’t become that wolf. 

Enjoy the gift of Freedom and watch your six!


Frank C. Ruffatto

Executive Director, Peace Officer Ministries, Inc.


Rev. Frank C. Ruffatto is a Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) pastor (Point of Grace Lutheran, Cornelius, NC) and retired police detective (Prince George’s County, Md. PD) He is also the Executive Director and Chaplain for Peace Officer Ministries, Inc. (POM) a 501(c)3 non-profit, international law enforcement chaplaincy ministry whose mission is to “Serve Those Who Protect and Serve Us.”

Chaplain Ruffatto has an A.A. in Liberal Arts from St Leo College, a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies (Behavioral Science/Theology) from Concordia College, Bronxville, NY and a M.Div. from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri.

Chaplain Ruffatto has performed “boots on the ground” ministry for P.O.M. in Nicaragua, Alabama, and assisted with the LCMS relief efforts in American Samoa. Locally, with Point of Grace, he has worked with the Cornelius Police Department’s Christmas-adopt-a-family projects, National Night Out events, and other ad hoc activities. Additionally, his combination of police/ministry education and experience provides a practical application to the POM police and chaplaincy training at Concordia Seminary.