[Ed. Note: This editorial, published in The Elkhart Truth's "Point Of View" column on Sunday, September 26, 1999, concerned a controversy surrounding a monument on the grounds of the Elkhart City Courts building which displayed the Ten Commandments. The ACLU had sued the city to have the monument removed or relocated, and naturally, the conservative Christians were livid and mobilized tremendous support against the measure, though their efforts inevitably failed to pass constitutional muster.]
Many will recall a classic scene from the motion picture The Blues Brothers. The eclectic blues band has made its way to a backwoods tavern known as "Bob's Country Bunker," masquerading as the evening's entertainment. After surveying the obviously hostile clientele, the boys ask a waitress what kind of music they normally have. "Oh, we got both kinds," she happily explains. "We got Country and Western!"
Such a statement speaks volumes about the mindset of the waitress. It's not that she was so naïve as to be unaware that other genres of music exist. To her, they were irrelevant. They weren't a part of her worldview; therefore, they weren't worthy of consideration.
Unlike Bob's Country Bunker, the United States of America is a melting pot of cultures and worldviews. Our foundations are pluralistic and tolerant, especially with regard to religion. Our own private religious convictions may be unshakeable, and we are free to express them in any way that does not impinge upon the freedoms of others; yet, as citizens of a free and equal society, we are obligated to accept—and even appreciate—the views of those who choose to believe differently… or perhaps, to not believe at all.
In view of this, it seems strange that those who so vigorously defend the placement of the Ten Commandments monument in front of the Elkhart Municipal building seem to believe, quite sincerely, that the verses engraved upon it epitomize the ethical foundation of our entire society. Such a claim might best be phrased thusly: "We got both kinds of religions here—we got Jewish and Christian!"
A majority of U.S. citizens would indeed classify their beliefs as Judeo-Christian; and perhaps in a true democracy, the majority would be permitted to rule. But as Rush Limbaugh and others have often passionately testified, the U.S. is a republic, not a democracy, and is therefore not governed by the majority. Instead, the government is chartered to protect the rights of individuals according to the terms of a written constitution. Ours unquestionably prohibits an establishment of religion—not simply through the First Amendment, but through the express absence of such enumerated power of government.
The First Amendment was added to implicitly prevent the Congress from later using the "elastic clause" to circumvent the intent of the framers. Thomas Jefferson later affirmed that this effectively built "a wall of separation between church and state." (No, these words do not literally exist within the Constitution. Get over it.) The Supreme Court has affirmed this "wall of separation" at every opportunity, and unless you wish for the government to delineate your spiritual beliefs for you, it remains a very shrewd policy.
Many attempt to argue that the founding fathers intended for these articles to be interpreted within the context of a "Christian" society, whatever that means. Aside from the complete lack of evidence for such intent, this seems highly unlikely given that few of the founders were Christian, at least in the traditional sense.
Jefferson was a Deist who quite clearly rejected Christian doctrine in his writings. Washington was a Freemason—an organization that has publicly butted heads with the church on many occasions. John Adams, a Unitarian, signed the Treaty of Tripoli, which states, "The government of the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion." And James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," had no religious beliefs and wrote that, "Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together."
The founders understood the meaning of religious freedom. Historically, many Christians have had a very hard time with it, believing that such "freedom" includes the right to impose one's beliefs upon others as long as some moral justification exists for doing so. As such, the controversy surrounding the monument has been inaccurately and unfairly framed as an attack upon Christians, and therefore a rejection of all that is moral and good.
This is not to say that the Ten Commandments aren't fine moral guidelines; they certainly are. I'd even go as far as to say that anyone who chooses not to follow the last six commandments might well represent a legitimate threat to society. This is not the point. The point is that the verses carved out on the stone (particularly the first four) are unquestionably the components of a particular religious doctrine, and the monument which imparts them sits prominently upon the grounds of a government building where justice is purportedly meted out without any religiously derived biases.
Ultimately, we are faced with a choice. We can hold fast to the constitutional ideals that have served us well for over two centuries. Or, we can compromise those ideals to appease the majority, without regard as to the effects upon those of a minority faith and the rights (and yes, values) they most certainly possess. Sadly, such decisions will often be made out of selfish passions rather than reason.
It is time for the faithful to begin accepting the fact that a whole world exists outside the four walls of their own sanctuary—a world where indeed morals do prevail despite a sometimes drastically variant theological perspective. It's time to understand why the canons and creeds of a specific religion—any religion—have no place on the grounds of a court of law in a free society. Otherwise, if your vision is simply too narrow to consider the liberties of all those whom our diverse culture encompasses, you might as well join the folks at Bob's Country Bunker and throw bottles at the band when they play unfamiliar songs.
Geoff Trowbridge, 9/22/1999
[Ed. Note: The following is a follow-up article I had written which the newspaper did not select for publication, believing (naively, IMHO) that the issue had run its course.]
Imagine for a moment that you are on trial in an unfamiliar place. As you approach the chamber where your fate shall be decided, your gaze falls upon a monument proudly depicting core tenets from the Koran. How does this make you feel? How confident are you that you will receive a fair trial, free from the inherent prejudices of Islamic doctrine?
In case you were wondering, all religions have inherent prejudices. The uniqueness of Christian prejudice is that a majority of American citizens find it to be acceptable. In a culture dominated by Christian tradition, many view morality as inextricably intertwined with the Christian church, unable to consider the possibility that certain ideals may be flawed, or that those of alternate faiths may have merit.
The fight over the Ten Commandments is not a battle of good versus evil, though many cannot see beyond this simplistic view. It is about the extent to which we are willing to let the laws of our democratic republic be influenced by those of an ancient theocracy.
Let us for the moment consider the Constitutional amendments necessary to fully integrate the Decalogue into the laws of the land:
· It must be forbidden to worship any god other than the God of Judeo-Christian tradition. All Hindu and Sikh temples and their assets must be immediately seized by the government.
· Graven images in Buddhist temples and other places of worship must be immediately removed and destroyed. A special exception will be made for Catholic churches.
· No one must ever utter the name of the Lord unless in an appropriate state of worship. (Contrary to popular belief, the third commandment has nothing whatsoever to do with swearing. It specifically prohibits using the name of God—"Yahweh," or the Latinized "Jehovah"—for one's own interests.)
· Working on Sunday must be explicitly prohibited. All retail establishments shall close their doors on Sunday. No one will be permitted to tend gardens, repair automobiles, clean homes or even cook food. All television stations will be off the air or running prerecorded infomercials… which is just as well, since NFL football players will be forbidden to work.
I believe you get the idea.
While most readers will undoubtedly find these examples absurd, the Reconstructionists in the political arena would like nothing more than to implement such abuses of freedom. One need only read the popular works of Gary North or David Chilton to experience the frightening reality. This is why the First Amendment exists, and why pious attempts to undermine the separation of church and state are so potentially dangerous.
In his recent Point Of View column, Jim Bontrager argues that the signers of the Constitution attended Christian churches and/or universities—a fact that is of no relevance to the issue of religious freedom and the legislation of Christian doctrine. Most amusing is his concluding quote, which for years has been falsely attributed to James Madison by the Religious Right. Even ultra-conservative Rush Limbaugh has admitted this error.
As citizens of a republic, the rights of the individual are of utmost importance. Yet whenever minority religions attempt to defend their own rights, some Christians manage to twist the facts to claim that they are the ones being attacked. Televangelist and one-time presidential candidate Pat Robertson went so far as to claim that the "Wholesale abuse and discrimination [toward Christians is] more terrible than anything suffered by any minority in our history." Never mind that Christians are clearly not a minority; this comment is disgusting. When were the Christians interred in concentration camps? When were Christians made to use separate restrooms or drinking fountains, or dragged to their deaths behind a pickup truck?
Not long ago in the Truth editorials, Ken White made the alarmingly uninformed claim that this sort of "intolerance" toward Christians is no different than Serbian nationalism. How ironic it is that the Christian Serbs were the ones imposing their religious doctrine upon a minority—specifically, the Bosnian and Albanian Muslims.
Bosnia was hardly an isolated incident. Hitler's Third Reich was profoundly Christian, as were the Crusades of the Middle Ages and the atrocities associated with them. Historically, governments based upon Christianity have a rather embarrassing track record. Yet inexplicably, a fair percentage of American citizens still believe that a theocratic Christian government would somehow solve all of society's ills. Some of history's lessons will simply never be learned.
By now, I have little doubt that many readers will have pegged this author as an anti-Christian zealot with some kind of score to settle. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a Christian, which means I affirm the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, though not necessarily the dogma that has been constructed around him for two millennia. At the same time, I celebrate the diversity of those around me. My acquaintances cover the spectrum of religious belief: Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic, and yes, atheist. In fact, I find my atheist friends to be some of the kindest, most morally upright citizens you'll meet. They act this way because they know they should, not because they believe that they will be rewarded for it in the afterlife. Too many Christians are charitable only because they believe God is watching them.
The debate over state use of the Commandments will never be resolved as long as we continually fail to understand that religion is a private, personal matter. The more an individual demands that others conform to his or her own beliefs, the more shallow that person's faith is revealed to be. A true religion does not need the support of the state to flourish. Truth will endure whether carved into granite or imprinted upon the hearts of the faithful.
Geoff Trowbridge, 11/8/1999
"It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself." — Thomas Jefferson
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