Friday, March 04, 2005

A Command Performance

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments regarding the public display of the Ten Commandments outside of the Texas capitol. This has a number of people up in arms on both sides of the issue, as we might expect. On the part of the supporters of the monument, there's an only-too-familiar misuderstanding of the opposing viewpoint.

It would certainly be foolish to deny that Judeo-Christian theology has had a profound impact on our civilization. We have found, however, that society in general, and both faith and government in particular, are stronger when religion is separated from the official workings of the state. This is due to the mutually corrupting influence that church and state exert on one another.

This corruption arises principally from ambition and authority. When high religious position is equivalent to high political position, those whose ambition is for power will seek out religious offices. Doctrine is less important to them than their own agendas, and as they rise through the ranks of the church, they begin to bend its policies to their wills. Separation of church and state thus keeps religion more doctrinally pure.

High political position granting religious privilege also has a corrupting influence. Empirically, we have good cause to believe that a representative government best serves the interests not only of the people, but of the state as a whole. This form of government (or this family of forms of government) depends on the ability of the people to expel leaders found not to be serving the interests, needs, and will of those they represent. Mixing religion with politics doesn't necessarily prevent the voters from ousting a poor leader, but the weight of religious authority can make many people reluctant to oppose that leader.

This is, of course, a complex issue and not the main focus of my discussion, so let's return to the case at hand. We have at present a clear separation of church and state; or rather a proscription of government endorsement of religion. The question then becomes where the line is to be drawn in practice.

The U.S. Supreme Court has a display of what might be called the great lawgivers of Western Civilization. These include Hammurabi, Solon, and Moses. These figures provide a fitting historical backdrop for the nation's final arbiter of the law—Hammurabi gave us the first known written code of law, Solon introduced democracy to Athens, and Moses wrote down the laws that governed first Judaism and later Christianity. This is a just tribute to the legal/cultural traditions in which our civilization formed.

The Texas display, in contrast, focuses not on the tradition of the law, but on a specific set of laws. Were it a heavily religious set of laws under which Texas was first governed, this would be defensible as a historical commemoration. It is not, though. It is a patent endorsement of a specific set of religious laws. The additional displays hastily added around it to mollify or nullify critics do neither.

This is not about restricting people's free practice of religion. Nobody's worship will be negatively impacted by this monument's removal. Atheists (including myself) are not forced to accept a particular religion by its past and continued presence. It is, however, an insult.

When a government makes an exclusive declaration or display, it insults those excluded. It highlights those individuals as outsiders, and relegates them to a lesser status in the society. In a country where all are supposedly equal under the law, it introduces a fundamental inequality, and it is anathema to our principles of governance.

The fact is that the Ten Commandments are not a foundational document of our country. Many of the Founders were Deists, not Christians, including Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. Thomas Paine, the Englishman whose Common Sense implored the colonial leaders to declare independence and made him an American by right of affinity, was also a Deist. This is not a Christian nation, but neither is it a Rationalist nation. It is an Inclusivist nation, where room is afforded to all viewpoints.

The Ten Commandments are also not revealed wisdom for creating a functioning and moral society. Four of the commandments pertain solely to religious practice. Of the remainder, one is a general prescription for personal character and another reinforces a particular societal norm. Four commandments remain, which define a fundamentally moral society, and which need no recourse to religion for their motivation.

We are social animals, and as such require certain standards for a well-functioning society. Perhaps most obviously, we cannot live in a society if we are constantly at war with one another, hence the ban against killing. A society is a cooperative endeavor, so impugning the character of those with whom you live and work cannot be tolerated, as it undermines mutual trust. Society moves in large part by its artifacts, so the distribution of property must be respected. Finally, those who instill in us the basic values, rules, and standards of society, our parents, must be paid heed.

As our civilization has evolved, we have continuously re-evaluated the role of religion and law in society. Some of what we have received through the conduit of religion we have kept, some we have not. By creating a haven of religious (and non-religious) tolerance, we have attracted some of the most intelligent, skilled, and hard-working people in the world to our country. Let's not jeopardize that by turning some Americans into second-class citizens.

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