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A terror to bad conduct

El Salvador’s strongman and the essence of government


El Salvador President Nayib Bukele and his wife Gabriela Rodriguez celebrate at the presidential palace in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Sunday. Associated Press/Photo by Moises Castillo

A terror to bad conduct
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In El Salvador, the rule has been that a president is not permitted to run for consecutive terms. However, the millennial leader of the nation, Nayib Bukele, cruised to a landslide victory over the weekend to win a second term. While it is true that he managed to use the country’s judiciary to circumvent the prohibition on consecutive terms, he will have won another stint in office with the overwhelming support of his people.

Americans from Gen X and the Baby Boomer generation will remember El Salvador as one of the nations that seemed to constantly have the attention of the United States and the Soviet Union when the two empires waged a chess match for strategic advantage across much of the globe. Left-wing guerrillas and right-wing military groups traded power during the ’70s and ’80s. Since the conclusion of the Cold War, conflict in the region has taken on a more domestic flavor as the peace has often been threatened by extensive gang violence of the kind that may displace civil authority and makes life a waking nightmare for citizens.

So, when does a people willingly dismantle some of the limits they have placed on political leaders? The answer is that they do it when peace can no longer be taken for granted and strong measures must be put in place. The fact that Salvadorans are enthusiastically granting power to their young president demonstrates that their situation has become so dire that they must turn to the greatest earthly power, which is government, to restore order.

One of the things we don’t think about often enough is the kind of thing government is. We think of government and can come up with a panoply of options for what it might look like. We might think about food stamps or universal pre-K programs or plans to reduce the amount of carbon fuels we burn. While all of those things fly under the banner of government, they are somewhat divorced from the essence of the institution. If we ask ourselves what government really is and what actually makes it different from every other organization in our society, the answer is somewhat startling. The distinctive quality of government is that it is the social body that possesses a legal monopoly on the use of coercive force.

Leaders are human and sinful, just like the rest of us. The abuse of power can be as great a threat as lawlessness.

Government represents an awesome power that can be used for good or ill. Martin Luther saw it as a gift of God designed to restrain and punish those who would prey upon the innocent in a world infected with sin.

El Salvador’s Bukele responded to rampant gang violence with a radical and sweeping action. He put in motion an operation to take over 70,000 gang members into custody, thus nearly doubling the nation’s prison population. Not content to let his actions speak for themselves, he has allowed film footage to be taken (and much posted on social media) that showed large numbers of accused gang members herded into rows and stacked behind one another in complete submission. In the wake of Bukele’s radical action, the murder rate in the country has declined by 70 percent.

American reactions may vary. We have been through a decade or more in which our law enforcement and prison institutions have been viewed with increasing skepticism. At the same time, political action on the left has focused on using the offices of district attorneys to reduce penalties and to lower barriers to obtaining bail. The result has been a tide of increasing lawlessness in some of the biggest cities in the United States. Regardless, Americans have not endured the rampage of gang violence that beset El Salvador before Bukele.

Romans 13 tells us explicitly that rulers are a terror to bad conduct and that they carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer as they act on his authority. When we see the kinds of actions Bukele has carried out in El Salvador and the tremendous enthusiasm a super majority has shown for what he has done, it is hard not to conclude that he is working within the very heart of government authority. A great sickness calls for a powerful remedy.

Nevertheless, neither the people of El Salvador nor we should too easily accept strong arm actions by the government without employing discernment. Leaders are human and sinful, just like the rest of us. The abuse of power can be as great a threat as lawlessness. What made Cincinnatus and his American heir George Washington great was their willingness to wield the sword and power when necessary, and then to retire from the scene when the job was done. We should pray that El Salvador is able to establish peace and keep it with a government still in check.


Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the dean of the faculty and provost of North Greenville University.


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