August 16, 2003
Thou Shalt Not Proselytize
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I thoroughly agree with the idea that church and state should be as separate as humanly possible. Whatever negative experiences some people may have had, religion has had an overwhelmingly positive effect on countless people in their personal lives. However, whenever religion has mixed with politics, government, and the military, the results have been almost universally and completely disastrous. One can think of many examples of religion and state combining to result in injustices and atrocities, but it is difficult, if not downright impossible, to come up with a single example of the marriage of church and state resulting in a positive outcome.
And yet, there are still a great many people, all over the world, who wish to see such marriages multiply (where only their religion is concerned, of course, and not others). This is particularly so in the United States, where the president himself is trying his best to blur the lines with faith-based and other Christian-friendly programs being funded by the state. This is not to say that these programs are not good, I am certain they are great programs. The problem is that they are the camel's nose under the tent. We have a principle of keeping religion and state separate, and, as any Christian should understand, once you start compromising "a little" on principles, you might as well be "a little" pregnant.
So we come to situations like we have in Alabama, where Chief Justice Roy Moore, supported by a great many religious groups, is defying a federal court order to remove a monument depicting the ten commandments from the state's judicial building.
The reason given by Moore is that the commandments "represent the moral foundation of American law." This reasoning is a bit flawed; first of all, the first four commandments regard religious observance, the fifth requires devotion to a hierarchical system, and the tenth is less a legal foundation than a behavioral one. Really only the remaining commandments, concerning killing, adultery, theft and lying, have any connection with our current legal system. But to say that the ten commandments is the foundation of these four laws laws is to say that these rules did not exist before, which is not exactly correct. These are basic foundations in any and all cultures, no doubt dating back way farther than Moses.
And if the claim is that the ten commandments were an influence to the system in general rather than the direct cause of a few laws central to our legal system, it must be pointed out that our system "is also deeply rooted in the pantheistic cultures of Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia" (Interfaith
Alliance, "Hang Ten Campaign" PDF file), as well as other cultural influences worldwide.
All the excuses seem to me to be a false front--that our legal system is based on the commandments, that they are a historical document and so on. People who give such reasons are, in my opinion, covering for the real reason: it is their religion, they feel it is the most important thing in the world, and they want to proselytize the word of God, and putting up the ten commandments in public places will help to do that. But it is not usually admitted as the rationale for the same reason why people who oppose abortion because of their religion find other secular grounds (which usually make little sense), or why those who oppose cloning for religious reasons turn to the "army of robots" fallacy to make their point. It is because they know that in a society with the principle of separation of church and state, religious arguments are not acceptable. That is the core of what they are trying to change.
I do not see this as some evil conspiracy or the like; to these people, it is right, reasonable and just, and if those who oppose it only saw the light, we'd be thankful. Many people believe that their religion is The Answer to all problems, just as it was The Answer for them in their personal lives. They believe that the laws of God outweigh the laws of man. I can understand this and sympathize with this. However, the problem with this situation is that when one tries to put into effect these beliefs in the form of laws furthering the Christian or any other religion, one violates one of the most important tenets of American society, one that has made us successful as a nation, one that has held this country together. In a multi-belief society, one cannot have a theistic government without disenfranchising members of all other faiths and agnosticism (I count atheism as a belief--but that's just me).
You can't have a school with prayers without opening children of agnostics, atheists, or even faiths that forbid public prayer up to taunting, abuse and ostracism (and you can't ignore the fact that such things are the result). You can't claim that the system of justice will be a Christian system and provide justice for all others. By definition, a system which includes one religion excludes all others, and that is contrary to the foundations upon which our country was built.
That's the big picture, and it drives the necessity to do all the small things. Some people feel outrage that Moore is being ordered to take down the ten commandments. Many criticized the judges who forbade the "under God" part of the pledge of allegiance. People who do so fail to see the big picture--or they see it, and disagree with it.
Finally, my own personal opposition to many of the drives to put up the ten commandments is for the one reason stated in public that is not overly religious and yet is an honest one: people believe that putting the commandments up in yards, schools and state houses will curb the loss of morals and the rise of crime, and will teach the youth of our nation morality so they will be good people. Of course, the problem with that is the unspoken assumption that morals cannot be taught without religion, and therefore people who do not have religion cannot be moral.
If you think that I am going overboard with this claim, read this. Also, I have known several people who come from the evangelical camp, some who actually have to check themselves when they realize they are applying religious viewpoints to others in secular situations (such as a friend who accused me, an agnostic, of "backsliding"), and some who don't check themselves at all. I personally am insulted by this, as I am an agnostic, was not raised on the ten commandments, and yet--I believe--am a moral person. It is more than possible to instill morality and rightness without having to resort to biblical references.
We need an eleventh commandment, specially built for our society, if we wish to retain religious freedom: thou shalt not proselytize on the public's dime.
Posted by: R. Brady at August 16, 2003 09:44 PM
Posted by: william cooper at December 26, 2003 12:08 AM