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Does Captain America’s New Movie Get Government, Law and Liberty RIGHT?

Ya gotta give hefty, even super–powered, props to any super-hero movie that doesn’t content itself with getting action scenes right, nailing CGI or managing cool-looking heroes’ costumes; one that, instead, also plunges headlong — think Spiderman leaping off a skyscraper — into profound themes; questions, perhaps, involving government, law and liberty which have vexed humankind for ages.

Preee-senting! Captain America: Civil War.

The crux of the film’s storyline is: a debate over whether the Avengers super-group should submit to oversight from a United Nations Intergovernmental committee generates a rift — actually, “rift” is a slam-bang understatement — within their ranks. On one side, Captain America and like-minded teammates raise a resounding, jut-jawed “No way”. On the other? Tony Stark’s Iron Man and his more government-friendly colleagues argue some kind of formal accountability is not only inevitable, but reasonable.

Cue two-plus churning hours of acrobatic fisticuffs, laser beams, high-tech gadgetry, explosions and witty battle banter. And a few unexpectedly contemplative segments along the way.

Some reviews imply Civil War lands unequivocally in the pro-liberty camp. PJ Media‘s Walter Hudson opines, “[T]here is no ambiguity regarding who was right or who was wrong … Iron Man … admits that he was misguided.” But, I’m not sure I agree. Advocates for both sides acquit themselves persuasively at different points in the flick. The icily logical android Vision, for instance, offers a particularly compelling and sensible case in favor of some kind of governmental control.

Cap’s intransigence, if taken to ill-considered ends, could wind up in anarchy — liberty morphing into lawlessness. That’s something America’s Founders hardly countenanced; they conspicuously dreaded it, actually. The possibility of pure, unqualified democracy was an affront to them, never mind unvarnished mob-rule.

On the other hand, Team Iron Man’s insistence on official, outside monitoring could easily enough metastasize into paralyzing subservience; obsessively tugging-the-forelock toward “the State”, soliciting permission for … well, everything. That-a-way lurketh tyranny.

Again, the collision of these conflicting ideals? Nothing new. Disagreements over their respective risks have ignited men’s passions — sometimes violently so — long before Steve Rogers hoisted that red-white-and-blue shield. They sparked England’s “Glorious Revolution” (1688). Then there was America’s own version two-hundred-forty years ago. Need I mention the guillotine-haunted upheaval which blasted France roughly a decade after that?

More contemporaneously, Judge Roy Moore — until this month Chief Justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court — has been living out this dynamic; in a lower-key way, admittedly, but living it out nonetheless. The sixty-nine-year-old jurist has been squaring off against the federal government for years, doggedly informing Washington, DC functionaries they need butt out of certain “Cotton State” business over which he’s determined they possesses no constitutional jurisdiction. He was booted from his Chief Justice first term in 2003 when he defied a federal judge, refusing to remove from the Alabama Judicial Building a monument of the Ten Commandments. Re-elected to his state’s CJ berth in November 2012, Moore’s latest dust-up involves his ordering probate judges and state employees to disregard the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling which allegedly legalized counterfeit (“same-sex”) marriage; directing them to honor Alabama’s ban on same. So, once again, Moore’s been suspended from his slot behind the bench.

Particularly striking in this context is Alabama’s motto: Audemus jura nostra defendere (“We dare defend our rights”). Devout Christian Justice Moore, evidently, embraces that slogan as a sacred charge, upholding it in the teeth of DC’s increasingly rogue, coercive, and godless big guns. It’s a mission he’s appropriated — with constitutionally informed relish.

The central issue is not: Does society need law, order and agencies to enforce them? Nor is it: Should government exert authority and influence over men’s lives? Rather, it’s: How does this look – should it look — when carried out properly?

The establishment of these United States was predicated upon principles of federalism and subsidiarity: Local, state and national/general governments wielding power only within the spheres to which America’s founding charter assigns and restricts them. It’s a proposition at which multiplied millions can only stare with blank-eyed cluelessness. Yet, the discrete application of these same, barely-any-longer-acknowledged notions has provoked long-standing squabbles, struggles; sometimes bloody horrors (see: America’s own mid-nineteenth-century “Civil War”; aka: “The War Between the States”).

Neither Moore’s obstinate rebuffing of what he deems unauthorized, meddling Feds nor Captain America’s refusal to buckle to UN ultimatums should be interpreted as a comprehensive anti-government stance. It’s doubtful the real-life Alabaman or fictional Avenger would want to see every trace of The State, per se, eliminated. Cautions raised against excessive or illegitimate government? They don’t necessarily have to translate into hostility toward all things governmental.

Conveniently, it’s Justice Moore himself who emphasizes in a 2008 WND piece,

[M]any … who yearn for a return to ‘small government’ … are tempted to agree with founding-era patriot Thomas Paine who said that “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.”

Paine was half right: Government is necessary, but as a gift of God to man it cannot be evil … According to Romans 13: … [O]ur leaders are ordained as “ministers of God to thee for good” and as a punisher of those who do evil. Civil government, therefore, is a necessary good, not a necessary evil.

…[W]hy is it necessary? Because man is a fallen creature in need of a personal savior and external forces to deal with “him that doeth evil.” … James Madison explained in Federalist 51: [“W]hat is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels no government would be necessary.[“]

… In … “Advice to My Country” … Madison wrote:

It has been said that all Government is an evil. It would be more proper to say that the necessity of any Government is a misfortune. This necessity however exists; and the problem to be solved is, not what form of Government is perfect, but which of the forms is least imperfect.

Back to Civil War, Movieguide’s Ben Kayser remarks:

The major disagreement between [Iron Man and Captain America] comes down to the tension between law and liberty … [B]oth are gifts from God and … incredibly important … [O]ur human nature tends to ruin both law and liberty … Government oversteps its God-ordained limits …[C]ivilians take advantage of liberty and trade moral personal responsibility for lawless hedonism.

Hat tip to Lord Acton.

The tension between freedom and restraint, individual liberty and government-backed limits has surfaced for millennia. It’s crackling in our day and will continue indefinitely; a balancing act each new generation must puzzle out. Get used to it. Tomes of human history illustrate it’s the soberingly ineluctable status quo.

Some among “earth’s mightiest heroes” are even throwing punches over it.

Image: screen grab:

Share if you agree these ideas are worth debating — even if they’re addressed in a comic book movie.

Steve Pauwels

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.