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The Rule of Law: Symbols of Power - The Keating Center

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The Rule of Law: Symbols of Power

By Peter Johnston April 12, 2013

The rule of law is considered a bedrock principle of our nation and central to ordered liberty.This post is the second in a series intended to explore the unique nature and significance of the American rule of law to the moral, political, and economic well-being of our nation

The Liberty Bell has long been recognized as a symbol our land – both prior to independence and since.  Ordered in 1751 to be placed in the State House of the State of Pennsylvania, the Speaker of the Assembly directed for a scripture from the Old Testament to be inscribed on the bell:  “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land Unto all the inhabitants  thereof – Leviticus 25:10”. While most Americans to this day recognize that bell as an unofficial symbol of liberty and our nation, many fail to recognize another unofficial, but strategically significant national symbol: the fasces.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines fasces as “a bundle of rods and among them an ax with projecting blade borne before ancient Roman magistrates as a badge of authority.”  It symbolized the process of binding many into one under the power of the state.  It was a symbol not of liberty but of state power both to bring order and to punish. The fasces is found in numerous places throughout Washington, D.C.  For instance two fasces are found flanking the American flag on the Speaker’s Rostrum in the U.S. House of Representatives.

One symbol makes overt reference to a higher law than man’s law for the source of authority leading to liberty.  Its reference is to an Old Testament passage in one of the five books comprising the Torah, Leviticus.  It is a reminder of the Judeo-Christian influence on the founding of our nation.

The Roman fasces on the other hand, symbolic of Roman law, does not.   Richard Maybury writes in Ancient Rome: How it Affects You Today that “the essence of Roman law is that there is no law higher than the government’s law, and the government should do whatever appears necessary to serve its interests.”  It has been used as a reminder of the Roman influence upon the founding of our nation.

Both influences contributed to the flight of the American eagle as Templeton prize winning author Michael Novak explains in On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding. The problem, as he points out, is that in “one key respect, the way the story of the United States has been told for the past one hundred years is wrong.  It has cut off one of the two wings by which the American eagle flies” – the Judeo-Christian wing.

As mentioned in my previous post, there are consequences of abandoning the American rule of law with its roots in a higher law and moving toward another form of rule of law based purely on civil authority.  One consequence is an abandonment of principle for pragmatism and subsequent increased arbitrary nature of decisions large and small.  One egregious example in the financial realm came to light in March when Attorney General Eric Holder justified the lack of prosecution of financial giant HSBC.

In Taking Note, the New York Times editorial page editor’s blog, Juliet Lapidos captured this exact problem in a March 7th post, “Banks Above the Law”. According to Lapidos, HSBC acknowledged “laundering money for Mexican drug cartels, helping rogue states avoid international sanctions and working closely with Saudi Arabian banks linked to terrorist organizations.” When asked in Congressional testimony before  a judiciary committee why HSBC had not been indicted, Mr. Holder responded, “I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.”

According to the rule of law of our founders, no man, no branch of government and no institution is to be above the law. Today, according to the top law enforcement officer in our nation, apparently banks can be.

Peter Johnston

Peter H. Johnston owns his own business providing research and consulting services in the fields of law, education and public policy. He received his B.A. in history from Cornell University and his law degree from Oak Brook College of Law and Public Policy. He is a graduate of Chuck Colson’s biblical worldview mentoring program through the Wilberforce Forum and is currently working on his MBA through Oklahoma Wesleyan University. He has spoken and/or written on topics such as religious freedom, education, the rule of law, constructive contributions of Christianity to culture, sanctity of life, and restorative justice. Peter has testified before Texas legislative committees and the Texas State Board of Education, was interviewed on CNN Sunday Night while serving as President of Texas Center for Family Rights, and ran for Texas State Board of Education in 2008. He lives in southeast Texas with his wife, Nanette, and daughter Karen, one of four children and four grandchildren.

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