A certain kind of religious activist takes it as a given, and as an imperative, that the Decalogue must be displayed prominently on and in public buildings. Gratefully, these folks are rare; sadly, they have influence because few people want to be seen as opposing them. Which is why there are groups like the ACLU and the FFRF, willing to (among other things) absorb the unpopularity of “opposing the Ten Commandments” so as to stand against the melding of church and state — something done, as I hope this post will demonstrate, for the benefit of both the religious and the secular among us.
Quite possibly the strangest set of cases in the modern era of the Supreme Court comes from efforts to display the Ten C’s on the grounds of the Texas Capitol in monumental statuary, and in a small display case in the entryway of a rural Kentucky county courthouse. Turns out, the big, prominent, expensive display was okay, and the small, nearly obscure display was not — because the big prominent display was found to be, artistically speaking, part of a larger piece of art and display celebrating the role of law in society generally, while the small display had as its primary purpose the endorsement and proselytizing of Christianity.
So one judge, who apparently shares my disquiet with this rule, decided to put that notion to the test.
After all, if you were to edit the Ten C’s, and remove the religious parts, maybe they would be appropriate for government display. After all, more than half of the Ten C’s (six or seven, depending on the version you use) are not particularly religious. “Thou shalt not steal,” for instance. So for those who claim that they wish to post the Decalogue on the walls of courthouses, public schools, and city halls so as to “celebrate the foundational nature of the law that underlies our culture,” Would posting six of the ten be good enough? It would seem to carry out the artistic purpose of demonstrating the heritage of the law.
It seems obvious to me that taking God out of the
Ten Six Commandments is never going to be acceptable to the deeply religious people who want so fervently to see this religious text displayed by the government. So the proposal is certainly useful to flush out the motivation behind the display — endorsement of a particular religion.
Beyond that, though, this atheist thinks it would be a bad idea to edit the Ten C’s. The Ten C’s are supposed to have been handed down to the Hebrews by Jehovah Himself. Part of the point of the Ten C’s is that they come from God — the law comes from God, which means that without God there is no law. The fact that the Hebrews had to get the Decalogue from God means that humans cannot derive a just and moral law on their own. This is a foundational notion to a variety of legal theories and even today a prism through which large numbers of people view the very concept of law — while I disagree with that notion, that doesn’t stop me from understanding that many people disagree with me. They should not have their beliefs edited to the point of changing the meaning of their expressions of belief by a judge.
That doesn’t mean I think the Decalogue should be displayed on public buildings. It should not. I realize that in many places it is, and I can tolerate grandfathering in existing displays left over from times before our jurisprudence evolved to conform to contemporary notions about what it is for the government, at some level, to “Establish” a religion. So I would not take a chisel to the frieze on the Supreme Court to remove Moses (and Mohammed, by the way) from that display. And I’m cool with using public money to maintain what’s in place right now, for the same reason — there is no reason to eschew or blind ourselves to our history, even if those who came before us failed to live up to their, or our, ideals.
But if that frieze were destroyed in some way other than via human agency (say, it fell down in an earthquake or something) then new, different, artwork without religious content ought to be put up in its place. I don’t know what I’d think if some atheist activist blew it up, but that doesn’t seem very likely to happen and we can think about it if it does. But if we could start over again, and we can start over again with our new buildings and our new public art, then we should realize that we’re not living in the 1790’s anymore and conduct ourselves accordingly. What the Founders would have tolerated in many other instances we would not, and that’s a good thing.
We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this issue over the past hundred years and the Founders’ notions of what “Establishment” was and was not were imperfect and cognitively dissonant. Nor would the Founders want for us to be bound by their ideas and notions. They wanted us to solve our problems for ourselves, they wanted us to decide for ourselves what kind of a society we collectively want to live in. We may and should honor their achievements and celebrate their ideals while at the same time remaining unfettered by their dead hands.
So I don’t much care that James Madison authorized church services in the Capitol or that in the 1870’s an explicitly religious plaque was put on the Washington Memorial. As a modern secular American, what I want is for my government to keep its hands off religion to the extent that is possible, and to the extent it isn’t, then it should treat religion, both in denomination and quality, evenhandedly.
To the religious person, particularly the Jew or Christian for whom the Decalogue is an essential and celebrate part of their faith, there is a different danger: that of the government diluting their faith. If trying to shoehorn religion into the secular government results in the Decalogue being reduced to the Hexalogue produces a judge literally editing God out of them, how much clearer an example is needed of why it’s bad for religion to try and commingle church and state? I’ll let some Baptists express this point in their own words:
Proponents of Ten Commandment posting argue the historical legal significance of the document, claiming that keeps the government’s display from being a purely religious one. Now we see one of the potential outcomes of their argument: a court’s suggestion that we take an editing knife to them. And they say those of us who oppose government-sponsored Ten Commandment displays are the ones secularizing America?
The Ten Commandments are sacred text of great religious significance. We should keep it that way. The best way to do that isn’t to post them in government buildings; it’s to resist the temptation to do so.
Religion and government are like Chinese food and chocolate. You can like both of them, but they really aren’t very good when you blend them together.