Hexalogue

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.

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57 thoughts on “Hexalogue

  1. I remember the Kentucky case well — mostly because one of my synagogue’s rabbis took a very prominent, very vocal role in opposing the state SC display. I don’t know how well his major point holds up in terms of Constitutional Law, but I think it’s worth tacking on to your “danger from the perspective of the religious person” — whose/which Decalogue are we displaying? Protestants (though I don’t think there’s unanimity even here), Catholics, and Jews all number and divide them differently. These divisions aren’t just organizational, but can hold theological implications — particularly the Jewish inclusion of “I am the Lord your God” as the first, a statement absent from the Christian ten, except (in some, but not all) cases as prologue. So you do run into the question of which sectarian version with its implications do you want to endorse.

    And you are right — I’m bothered, for reasons I’m not quite certain of at the moment, by a judge cutting from 10 to 6 and posting what remains. In part, I suppose because it defeats any purpose of posting the 10 Commandments as part of a legal tradition/history — OF COURSE we shouldn’t go around killing people! And also, I suppose, from the religious perspective that it seems to endorse a version that’s too “easy” — understanding/incorporating 1 through 4 are the truly difficult parts of the decalogue.

    Finally, +1 for –> “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.” I plan on trying to put myself into situations where I need to use this comparison. Or at least stealing the Chinese food/chocolate part for other uses — unless that’s too much like taking God out of the Ten Commandments…

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  2. Burt,

    Interesting post. Reminds me of a conversation I had with a hard core Objectivist in law school. He objected to the entirety of the Ten Commandments: not because some of them are religious, but because they all are. That is, the very notion of a “commandment” is inherently religious, suggesting a God standing over our own reason, which ought to be supreme over all human relations and conduct.

    I’d be curious to know how many other atheists or hard core secularists would share that approach.

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    • i can see the argument, though i know not how ‘ardkore my secularism is, as a commandment does indicate some kind of commander/commandee relationship. on the other hand, as a law student he was presumably aware that power flows from somewhere to shape punishment, and so commanders/punishers/torturers are unavoidable roles?

      “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.”

      i like this idea in theory, being not terrible fond of either, but aren’t such blends ultimately impossible to prevent?

      my theory, which may be silly, is that outside of principled/strident folk like the baptists above, and the aclu, for the most part people object to religious language in pursuit of policies they don’t like, and are less inclined to believe it a terrible thing when jesus tells the president to go to war/give people free cat scans/whatever.

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    • Sabbath laws are still with us in states like Minnesota, where you can’t get a beer on Sunday. Sabbath law advocates shut down a surprisingly large portion of Israel every week. The impact of Friday prayers shuts down Cairo every week. Where such things are tolerated, nothing good comes of it.

      Religion is mostly culture, once you’ve abstracted away the useful bits which imply we ought to love our neighbours in the spirit of God’s love for us. But that’s exactly the problem: who is my neighbour? That’s where Culture steps into the debate and sucks the oxygen out of the room. If my neighbour is a Jew and his definition of the Sabbath is Saturday, which day shall we keep holy and who gets to say?

      Though Religion would tell us of the brotherhood of man, it is inherently tribal, appealing to mankind’s worst instincts when it is. Anyone who wants the Ten Commandments in a courthouse wants the justice of the tribe, not equal justice under law, a law which must apply to all, independently of any one tribe’s preference.

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          • And it shall come to pass that many years hence shalt you discover new lands far beyond the seas. Thine children’s children’s children shall settle there and make new homes for themselves there. Teacheth them that the game played of ball and foot, which in those lands shall be played with a ball that is not round and with nearly no use of the feet save to run, may be played on the Sabbath, and the day after the Sabbath, and one game on the day after the day after the Sabbath, and for the younger players the day before the Sabbath and for select games the day before the day before the Sabbath, but on all other days shalt thou practice only and also you may revieweth film. For play on those other two days shall be an abomination in my sight; behold, I am the LORD.

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    • Tim,

      I’m not an atheist (although I’m close), and I don’t know if I’m a “hardcore” secularist (although I’m pretty strongly secularist), and my take is that while the guy has a decent semantic argument it just doesn’t go very far. Not stealing or killing are good rules, regardless of source, and not coveting is just darned good advice, again whatever the source. To get hung up on the particular word “commandment,” in rejection of the whole seems a bit silly to me.

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  3. Burt,

    I won’t argue it here, but I have trouble with the “it’s ok if it’s old, but we must never replace it if destroyed” argument. My approach is more ecumenically focused–I would oppose the Supreme Court frieze if it had only Moses or only Muhammed, but I’m cool with it because it has both plus a bunch of other lawgivers, too. In a sense, I’m for treating religion secularly whenever possible, no different from any actual ideology…allow all of them or none of them, either way is good, but the only allow favored ones approach is anathema.

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    • I pretty much like this approach. I’m one of those atheists who finds it tough to distinguish between “religious speech” and “speech”.

      I also tend to worry that in our efforts to make sure that religion is not established, we’re swinging the pendulum back too far and doing a good job of stepping on free exercise.

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      • Hmm, we come to the same place through different reasons. I’m just pretty live and let live, and I think if we allow the Ten Commandments to go right between the Church of Satan’s upside-down cross and an atheist’s manifesto, it’s pretty clear government isn’t actually promoting religion much at all, much less any specific one.

        Plus, I want to see how long Christians hold out for religious displays on public land when the Church of Satan gets theirs in place. They claim to be just about religious freedom, but we’ll see about that.

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  4. 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.

    Melt milk chocolate, break hard, crispy, Chinese noodles in, allow to solidify. It’s delicious.

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  5. Religion is part of society and history. Ergo anything depiciting society and history is, you know, fairly likely to have some religious themes.

    That doesn’t bother me.

    What bothers me is the court actually accepting, with a straight face, some of the BS excuses for what amounts to pro-Christian posturing by elected officials.

    No, dude, you did NOT want to paste the ten commandments on the school walls to show off “founding documents” or whatever your fake reason was. We know it, you know it, the judges know it — everyone knows it. You want it up on the wall for religious reasons. You just know if you say it out loud, it’ll get taken down.

    So you pretend it’s meaningless. Good job there, bucko. You’ve flat out said to the world that core concepts from your religion are just meaningless little bits of history that have nothing to do with your faith…as part of a plan to promote your faith.

    Same with prayer in schools. Teaching Creationism. The US would be a heck of a lot better off if everyone would just be honest about things — some people want the government to push religion (always, of course, their religion. If they bother to to think about that at all. Most people just assume that of course it’d be their religion. It’s the right one, after all).

    In courts, in schools — wherever. Hey, I get it. America is comprised mainly of Christians and one of your tenets is pretty big on the whole “making more Christian” thing. (Pity polling indicates you’re losing your young, mostly through abject homophobia. Probably why you’re screaming about secularism again).

    But it’s annoying to watch you both push AND cheapen your religion. Either whatever bloody document or prayer you want to paste all over the place is IMPORTANT TO YOU or it’s NOT. If it’s NOT important, why are you pushing it so hard? And if it IS important to you, well — I ain’t a member of your church, and neither is the government.

    Save it for Sunday. Post it in your front yard. I’m at the courthouse to pay a ticket, not save my soul. Besides, you worship the wrong God anyways. The real one has tentacles.

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    • +1

      Back in the red scare, McCarthy era, Congress in it’s ultimate wisdom decided we needed to distinguish ourselves from the “godless Communists”. So that’s why we have “In God We Trust” on all our money. Flash-forward about 10-15 years you have a lawsuit by that renowned atheist O’Hare challenging the situation. It makes its way to the Supreme Court and the suit is rejected.

      But this is where it gets interesting. The way I understand it is the Court found that the motto didn’t amount to a Constitutional infringement on the First Amendment because the phrase “In God We Trust” was so bland and generic that it didn’t actually mean anything!

      See the irony? The Court says it’s okay to have these kinds of religious displays as long as they’re functionally meaningless. But doesn’t that pretty much void the motivation for putting them up in the first place?

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  6. The problem I have with that is this:
    If showing off a book (or an excerpt from that book) amounts to “the establishment” of a religion, then what of other books which I might show off?

    I took a look at a stack of books at random. Paramahansa Yogananda’s The Science of Religion was the one laying on top of the stack I had taken from the shelf.
    So, if I open this book at some random point and proceed to carve a dozen sentences into a public building, would that be sufficient to establish a religion?

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  7. Solomonlike, the Supreme Court ruled both for and against the 10 Commandments on the same day.

    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.</blockquote.

    Friend Likko fairly nails it here—to destroy the traces of Christianity would be itself an act of governmental hostility, and contrary to the First Amendment. The "normativity of law": Whatever the gov't does overtly is a normative statement—tear down the 10 Commandments or a cross, or put one up. Let what is in place remain as part of history—we are not an Orwellian regime afterall, where we find history itself revised with each sunup.

    "Laus Deo"—Glory Be to God—is etched into the top of the Washington Monument. To scratch it off would be an act of war.

    Likko might agree with the eminent historian Gordon Wood that times have indeed changed, and our post-Everson

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Everson_v._Board_of_Education

    America is a necessary "neutrality," or as Wood as an historian is obliged to put it, necessary in our time and age, but admittedly a "legal fiction." Our Constitution does not and has never [even after the Fourteenth Amendment] prohibited posting the Ten Commandments anywhere, even at government expense.

    On the details, Likko gets many things way solid: the "natural law" part of the Ten Suggestions is called the Second Tablet, don't murder or steal or lie or fer crissakes pls don't bang my wife while I'm at work. The First Tablet, with the "No Other Gods Before Me" stuff, poses a bigger problem.

    Also on the Baptists in America: They were always the separation of church and state dudes, back to Roger Williams—partly for theological reasons, partly because the the Calvinists/Presbyterians and the Anglican/Episcopalians could gang up on them and legally define them out of Christianity.

    http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2008/09/scholarly-malpractice-and-founding.html

    It was the Baptists all along, not the Enlightenmentists.

    ;-)

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  8. i wholeheartedly agree (not just because im wiccan). Separating religion and government is progress, no matter how unpopular. I truly think that our society would only benifit from the removal of religion from any and all forms of government. History proves a religious theocracy has always ended in bloodshed, the crusades, the salem witch trails, I could go on and on. Morality is a human creation, and should be advertised as such. Millions of years went into what we think is “evil”, the ten commandments (sans the religious ones) were just telling everyone what they already knew.

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      • i meant what i said. i would accept the removal of wiccan worship spaces, if every other religion would be removed as well. Also to be clear (from what i gathered from the hateful comments of the aforementioned link, Wiccans do not have a animosity toward the people of Christianity (parents are christian and they are the nicest people i know) we have issues with the history of said religion. We are wary because history repeats, and will be ready to hide in the shadows once again when it happens. As the wiccan rede says “An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will”…… The link you posted had many hateful comments, so im sorry if i got carried away.

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        • i would accept the removal of wiccan worship spaces, if every other religion would be removed as well.

          Why ruin everything for everyone? Fairness? Better to curse all the other candles and bless the darkness?

          This isn’t what they meant with the First Amendment.

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          • not what i meant (perhaps i worded it wrong), churches and the like are fine with me, what i meant was that no matter your religion, the government job (or duty if your military) comes first, and you may pratice religion in your own time. I am not happy with schools that force/hold prayer over the intercom and the like. what im getting at is what i said before, religion is privite, or held in a privite group. I am estatic that the government is allowing religiously diverse worship areas though (areas not related to christianity I mean) however this is only my opinion, and would never try to sway someone to my own, id rather them research and come to their own conclusions, as i did when i (or any wiccan) joined wicca.

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            • Religion isn’t private at all, never has been. That’s what the First Amendment was about. In fact, some of the biggest blows for religious freedom in man’s history were on behalf of the exquisitely annoying Jehovah’s Witnesses.

              http://www.adherents.com/largecom/jw_freedom.html

              This is what it’s all about, man.

              USA Today
              May 2000
              By Tony Mauro:

              If you have a front door, a Jehovah’s Witness probably has knocked on it.

              With well-dressed politeness and practiced persistence, they offer literature, biblical advice and a path to God’s kingdom as they see it.

              As often as not, they knock at the wrong time, when we’re too busy to listen or not particularly interested in shopping for another faith.

              But before you shut the door on a Jehovah’s Witness the next time, pause to consider the shameful persecution they suffered not too long ago, as well as the rich contribution they have made to the First Amendment freedoms we all enjoy.

              The legal clashes Jehovah’s Witnesses had with government authorities over their proselytizing and practices led to an astonishing total of 23 separate Supreme Court rulings between 1938 and 1946 — surely more than any other single religious organization engendered before or since. So frequently did Witnesses raise core First Amendment issues that Justice Harlan Fiske Stone wrote, “The Jehovah’s Witnesses ought to have an endowment in view of the aid which they give in solving the legal problems of civil liberties.”

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              • Acutally i dont believe that most people shut the door on jehovah’s witnesses because they were busy or didnt have the time, its because they didnt want to have another religious view forced upon them. Many wiccans believe that you should find your religion, not that you should be “converted”.

                “The establishment clause is “[t]he First Amendment provision that prohibits the federal and state governments from establishing an official religion, or from favoring or disfavoring one view of religion over another.”[1]”-Wikipedia

                yet everywhere you go you see the government’s preference in Christianity such as “in god we trust” on all the money, or christian monuments upon various memorials, even state flags (though ive seen some change because of this). Im all for the first amendment, free speech is what is allowing us to have this conversation.
                I will be the first to admit im not the MOST educated man, or even the most qualified to be debating this with you, i merely state that my view on religion is that it is private. My view may be infulenced by the fact that wiccans have historically had to hide in the “shadows” so to speak, which caused religion to become a private matter for us. ill also be the first to admit that my view on Christianity is somewhat tainted by historical religious wars, or even some current conflicts. i dont blame the average christian (you cant as most are wonderful people) i blame the fanatics.

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              • I’ve always wanted to spot them coming up the walk, then strip down and greet them at the door naked as a jaybird. Maybe invite them in to talk while I sit there on the couch casually scratching my nuts.

                My wife thinks I’m weird that way.

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  9. My thoughts on this are mixed. On the one hand, I agree with the inappropriateness of posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings. On the other hand, I don’t have a problem, per se, with editing the commandments for some display or other. After all, Jesus set the precedent himself when asked about the most important commandments: he replied, “Love one another. Duh.” (rough translation).

    Seems to me that if people want public places to feature images of our legal history, there are more than enough pithy statements by instrumental political and philosophical figures from which to choose, and plenty of these “secular” quotes would imply a religious influence to anyone who knows a thing or two about the histories of legal and ethical/political theory.

    Funny thing is, not a few of the self-knighted champions of God’s Will are ignorant of this history. Stephen Colbert once interviewed some politician who wanted to display the Ten Commandments in a court house, and when Stephen casually asked his guest to name the Ten Commandments, the guest, supposed defender of America’s debt to God, could name, if my memory serves, only a couple.

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    • “On the other hand, I don’t have a problem, per se, with editing the commandments for some display or other.”

      This was my initial reaction as well, but after further thought I decided I was against. Not because it infringes on anything; I agree with both you and Burt that they are fine in and of themselves. But it seems like doing so puts them up for… well, people like me, that don’t really feel the need for them to be up at all. I think for the people this is trying to placate, having these up in edited form is probably grossly insulting, and (in my experience) leaves out the parts that are most cherished anyways.

      In short, while I agree with Burt that what is being done is an interesting exercise, it seems a way to make people like me feel better about denying people that disagree what they truly want, at the expense of making those people feel worse.

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      • I should been clearer: I’m against posting the Ten Commandments in public places either in total or in part. I don’t have a problem with editing them for non public place displays. And I don’t have an issue with the ethical principles conveyed by the commandments to be displayed in public places via quotes by figures who have contributed to our country’s legal and political history.

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  10. I have no problem with this. Erect a big statue of Moses receiving the laws and annotate it with

    Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

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