Earlier today, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of taking down a 6-foot-tall stone monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Oklahoma state capitol. The reason? Because it violates their state’s constitution, which stipulates that it’s not okay to use state property to privilege one religion over another.
In this particular case we’re not even talking about “those Federalies” nosing into state business. No, in this case the state of Oklahoma, consistently among the top ten most religious (read: evangelical Christian) states in the union, expressly forbids the favoring of one sectarian religious system over another. Why? Because that’s a well-established principle rooted in the very founding documents of our country, the U.S. Constitution. In the beginning, the First Amendment prohibited only the Federal government from favoring one religion over another, but the 14th Amendment extended that limitation to the states as well.
But Christians all over the Midwest and in the Deep South feel called of God to fight this nonsense. From their point of view, they answer to a higher power than the governments of men, and they take great pride in brandishing their loyalty to their particular version of the Christian faith above all other obligations (the original versions didn’t seem to feel entitled to running the show). Somehow their churches have even convinced them this is a patriotic move, which is a real trick if you’ve had any decent education in American civics and government. That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
When my friends and relatives beat their chests about reclaiming America for Jesus, their arguments typically center around two basic assertions, both of which are faulty. I’ll take just a second to explain what they are, and why they’re bad arguments for publicly displaying verses from the holy book of one particular religion (okay, make that two, but still) on government property in a country founded on the U.S. Constitution.
Argument One: Our Legal System is Based on the Ten Commandments
The legal system of the United States of America is based on the U.S. Constitution, which includes its own Ten Commandments, if you will. It starts off with ten rules which ensure the freedoms we have come to know and love in this modern democracy. The very first one—in fact the very first line of the Bill of Rights—says that government shouldn’t be in the business of favoring one set of religious beliefs over another. Religious liberty is something Americans have historically taken very seriously, and we have always tried to remember that the only way one person can be free to worship as she pleases is if everyone else is free to worship as they please (or by extension free not to worship at all).
In short, it stipulates that one God cannot be placed above all the others. That’s bedrock for religious liberty in this country. No favoritism.
Now let’s look at the Ten Commandments of the Bible. That set of rules begins with the exact opposite assertion: That there is only one true God—ostensibly that would be the God of the Hebrews, Yahweh—and all others are illegitimate. “You shall have no other gods before me,” it says as clear as day.
So right out of the gate, we’ve got a fundamental conflict between these two sets of rules. One is fundamentally pluralistic and “secular” in the sense that it resolves to be nonsectarian, free from entanglement with any one denominational belief set. The other is just the opposite–it prohibits any other commitments and places this One True Faith above all over belief systems. These two ideologies are diametrically opposed to each other. I don’t see how anyone who’s thinking very hard about this can escape the conclusion that you have to choose which of these two ideologies should govern our local, state, and federal governments.
What you do in your own houses of worship is another story. According to the way our government is set up, in the private sphere an individual, a family, or a religious community is free to worship (or not worship) as they see fit. But in a nation founded on the principle of nonsectarian pluralism, you simply cannot say that our legal system is based on the dictates of one religion or another, least of all one that starts out the way the Ten Commandments does.
Incidentally I could go on and cover other things that don’t sit right as well. For example, the notion of observing a Sabbath (that’s on Saturdays, btw) isn’t exactly carried over into the New Testament, and simply saying that you worship on Sundays isn’t the same thing, strictly speaking. We don’t have laws about making graven images either (which is a good thing considering this monument is literally a graven image), nor can we possibly legislate coveting.
Come to think of it, can you imagine how the arch-capitalists among the GOP would howl if we began to write laws about coveting? Good heavens. Are you really sure you want to say the Ten Commandments should be the basis for American legal system? But I digress…
Those things which you can extract from the Ten Commandments which made their way into our legal code like lying, stealing, and murder predated the Hebrew religion by many centuries and are nearly universal among belief systems the world over. So it’s not really accurate to talk as if the Ten Commandments are the sole proprietary basis for those things, either.
On to the second (bad) argument I keep hearing.
Argument Two: Our Laws Should Be Based on What the Majority Wants
Let me just cut to the chase: Why should we have a constitution at all if we really want to base our laws on majority rule? Do we really believe that justice is determined by whatever is most popular among a group of people? Is that how our government was conceived?
No, we are not a pure democracy, and there’s good reason for that. Besides the fact that in a nation of this size the general public doesn’t have the time of day to sit and discuss and vote on every conceivable law, we also are painfully aware from our own study of history that the majority can often be wrong. The original European settlers of this country (less one native people who had zero say in the matter) came here to escape the tyranny of the majority. They knew that the only way to ensure that the few aren’t dominated by the many was to have a constitution which sets up parameters within which each group can fashion its own way.
Without those limitations put in place, a nation cannot be free. I’m sure the Baptists here wouldn’t like it if the Catholics had been picked to make all the rules for the rest of us. And the Pentecostals wouldn’t appreciate the Episcopalians telling them how to do their thing, either. And that’s just within one single religion. Can you imagine if it were decided tomorrow that Muslims should begin writing all of our laws in this country in order to ensure that the prophet Muhammad were properly honored in American life?
“But most of us aren’t Muslims. Most of us are Christians, and the early settlers were…”
Stop. Let me just stop you right there. You’re missing my point. It wouldn’t matter what the founders of our country were. They determined in their wisdom (clearly they were better thinkers than the ones we’ve got leading us these days) that even their own religion shouldn’t rule them all because that’s not freedom.
Nor would it matter if 95% of the United States population were Christian, because this isn’t about majority rule. Greater numbers don’t determine what’s just and what’s not. That’s why we have laws in the first place—because we recognize that people can err, and people in large numbers can err in really big ways. Christians of all people should know that, what with their deep-seated belief in the fallenness of the human race.
So there you have two terrible arguments for public displays of the Ten Commandments deconstructed in short order. Our legal system most certainly isn’t founded on one single religion or religious document. Furthermore, Christians outnumbering other religious groups doesn’t mean everyone else has to go along with what Christians want. That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
[Top image: Wikimedia]