On the Ten Commandments and the United States
Acton Institute Powerblog

On the Ten Commandments and the United States

The Supreme Court of the state of Oklahoma has approved to bring down the Ten-Commandment monument. Such decision entails an opportunity for us to ponder once again on the relation between Christianity and classical Liberalism.

We have repeatedly claimed that individual rights from the Anglo-Saxon tradition are of a Judeo-Christian, origin and that due to this, the US Declaration of Independence is fully coherent when asserting that God has endowed all men with the certain unalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. To safeguard these rights, the 1787 US Constitution was later ordained and established.

Secularists –and not Christian healthy secularity- intend to sweep all the religious influence from the public square, when confusing “public” with “state”. That a nation such as the United States should acknowledge God as the origin of individual rights, far from being a sign of intolerance towards non-believers, grants the latter their utmost liberty, by grounding religious liberty not on the whim of the ruler, but on the recognition of natural law stemming from God through human nature. The Ten Commandments are precisely those explicitly proclaimed by God in rough times, to remind men about the elemental rules of justice and the notion of the individual person, almost impossible to have risen out in the West without God’s special intervention.

Yet, contrary to what would appear to be, this did not imply in Christian thinkers, as to Law, any kind of clericalism. Benedict XVI, whom obviously the Oklahoma judges have not read, heard or understood, clearly says so:

…How do we recognize what is right? In history, systems of law have almost always been based on religion: decisions regarding what was to be lawful among men were taken with reference to the divinity. Unlike other great religions, Christianity has never proposed a revealed law to the State and to society, that is to say a juridical order derived from revelation. Instead, it has pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law – and to the harmony of objective and subjective reason, which naturally presupposes that both spheres are rooted in the creative reason of God.

And then:

Christian theologians thereby aligned themselves with a philosophical and juridical movement that began to take shape in the second century B.C. In the first half of that century, the social natural law developed by the Stoic philosophers came into contact with leading teachers of Roman Law.[2] Through this encounter, the juridical culture of the West was born, which was and is of key significance for the juridical culture of mankind. This pre-Christian marriage between law and philosophy opened up the path that led via the Christian Middle Ages and the juridical developments of the Age of Enlightenment all the way to the Declaration of Human Rights and to our German Basic Law of 1949, with which our nation committed itself to “inviolable and inalienable human rights as the foundation of every human community, and of peace and justice in the world.”

Which means that the Christian Faith does not explicitly dictate what is just. Rather, Faith influences human reason so that –assisted by Faith, yet through its own course–, it may recognize what is just:

At this point Europe’s cultural heritage ought to come to our assistance. The conviction that there is a Creator God is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all people before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions. Our cultural memory is shaped by these rational insights. To ignore it or dismiss it as a thing of the past would be to dismember our culture totally and to rob it of its completeness. The culture of Europe arose from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law. This three-way encounter has shaped the inner identity of Europe. In the awareness of man’s responsibility before God and in the acknowledgment of the inviolable dignity of every single human person, it has established criteria of law: it is these criteria that we are called to defend at this moment in our history.

This is in line with what Benedict XVI has called Christian public reason. Accepting from Rawls that reasons given in public life must be acceptable to believers and non-believers alike, he nonetheless corrects Rawls when claiming that believers may assert from their own horizons questions that non-believers may understand, and in this case, something that concerns the rights of others –believers or non-believers- as persons: religious liberty and a healthy secularity by the state, that is, a healthy distinction between state and religious spheres, the latter nevertheless influencing the legislators’ conscience through their recognition of what is natural to the person.

The Oklahoma judges have not only publicly shown their ignorance of all this, but have once again evidenced a point to which, paradoxically, some Catholic traditionalists would agree: that the United States have NOTHING to do with Christianity. This places the latter against a special paradox. If they disagree with this decision, they are acknowledging that the United States – and thus the classical liberalism to which they owe their origin –– had much more to do with Christianity than they claim…

This problem is alien to Benedict XVI:

From the dawn of the Republic, America has been, as you noted, a nation which values the role of religious belief in ensuring a vibrant and ethically sound democratic order. Your nation’s example of uniting people of good will, regardless of race, nationality or creed, in a shared vision and a disciplined pursuit of the common good has encouraged many younger nations in their efforts to create a harmonious, free and just social order. Today this task of reconciling unity and diversity, of forging a common vision and summoning the moral energy to accomplish it, has become an urgent priority for the whole human family, which is increasingly aware of its interdependence and the need for effective solidarity in meeting global challenges and building a future of peace for coming generations.

Secularists on the one side, and anti-liberal traditional Catholics on the other seem to converge on the notion that the United States have nothing to do with Catholicism. They are both mistaken.

Gabriel Zanotti

GABRIEL J. ZANOTTI earned his degree in Philosophy from the Universidad del Norte Santo Tomás de Aquino (UNSTA) in 1984, and his Ph.D in Philosophy from the Universidad Católica Argentina (UCA) in1990. He is full-time professor at the Universidad Austral and professor at the Centro de Estudios Macroeconómicos de Argentina (CEMA), as well as visitant professor at the Universidad Francisco Marroquín. He is Academic Director and Co-Founder of Instituto Acton. Mr. Zanotti has authored several books, including Economía de Mercado y Doctrina Social de la Iglesia (Ed. de Belgrano, Buenos Aires, 1985; second edition, Ediciones Cooperativas, Buenos Aires, 2005); El humanismo del futuro (Ed. de Belgrano, Buenos Aires, 1989; second edition, Ediciones Cooperativas, Buenos Aires, 2007); Popper: búsqueda con esperanza (Ed. de Belgrano, Buenos Aires, 1993); Epistemología da economía (Pontificia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, 1997), published in Spanish under the title El método de la economía política (Ediciones Cooperativas, Buenos Aires, 2004); Introducción filosófica a Hayek (Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Unión Editorial, Guatemala/Madrid, 2003); Filosofía para filósofos(Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Unión Editorial, Guatemala/Madrid, 2003); Fundamentos filosóficos y epistemológicos de la praxeología (Unsta, Tucumán, 20049; Hacia una hermenéutica realista (Austral, Buenos Aires, 2005); La economía de la Acción Humana (Unión Editorial, Madrid, 2009); Antropología cristiana y economía de mercado (Unión Editorial, Madrid, 2011). Mr. Zanotti has further written several essays and articles, has taught courses and seminars at universities in Argentina and abroad, and has participated in conferences and congresses in the country and abroad. Gabriel J. Zanotti es Profesor y Licenciado en Filosofía por la Universidad del Norte Santo Tomás de Aquino (UNSTA), 1984, y Doctor en Filosofía, Universidad Católica Argentina (UCA), 1990. Es profesor full time en la Universidad Austral y profesor con dedicación simple en el CEMA, además de profesor visitante en la Universidad Francisco Marroquín. Es Director Académico del Instituto Acton. Ha publicado, entre muchos otros libros, Economía de Mercado y Doctrina Social de la Iglesia (Ed. de Belgrano, Buenos Aires, 1985). Segunda ediciòn: Ediciones Cooperativas, Buenos Aires, 2005. El humanismo del futuro (Ed. de Belgrano, Buenos Aires, 1989). Segunda edición, Ediciones Cooperativas, Buenos Aires, 2007; Popper: búsqueda con esperanza (Ed. de Belgrano, Buenos Aires, 1993); Epistemología da economía (Pontificia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, 1997). En castellano: El método de la economía política, Ediciones Cooperativas, Buenos Aires, 2004; Introducción filosófica a Hayek (Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Unión Editorial, Guatemala/Madrid, 2003); Filosofía para filósofos (Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Unión Editorial, Guatemala/Madrid, 2003); Fundamentos filosóficos y epistemológicos de la praxeología, Unsta, Tucumán, 2004; Hacia una hermenèutica realista (Austral, Buenos Aires, 2005); La economía de la Acción Humana; Unión Editorial, Madrid, 2009; Antropología cristiana y economía de mercado, Unión Editorial, Madrid, 2011. También ha escrito gran cantidad de ensayos y artículos. Ha dictado cursos y seminarios en universidades de Argentina y del exterior y ha participado en jornadas y congresos tanto en el país como en el exterior.