August 26, 2003 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

The public square: Should it be naked or sacred?

The standoff between a federal appeals court and Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore over the public display of the 10 Commandments illustrates two extremes in the ongoing struggle to define America. Unfortunately, neither will serve the cause of religion in public life.

On one side are Judge Moore and his allies, who are contesting a federal court order to remove Moore's 2.5-ton monument from the Alabama judicial building. In their efforts to defend the Constitution, they risk transforming it into a religious document. Moore claims he would be "guilty of treason" if he didn't fight to keep the 10 Commandments in the courthouse rotunda. The Rev. Jerry Falwell agrees that the federal ruling should be ignored. "We believe breaking man's law is needed to preserve God's law," he told thousands of Moore supporters at a rally last week. They're now appealing the court's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The problem with this argument is that America is not a biblical commonwealth, and the Constitution is not the Law of Moses. The American framers, keenly aware of the religious wars that ravaged most of Europe, deliberately kept religious doctrine out of the document. That's why Article VI insists that there be "no religious test" for public office.

It's also a bit curious that Moore, an evangelical Protestant, is so devoted to what amounts to a public symbol of his faith. It was, after all, the medieval obsession with icons and religious legalism that helped ignite the Protestant Reformation. Though revering the 10 Commandments, evangelicals have always emphasized a "religion of the heart"--a personal relationship with Jesus that doesn't confuse a living faith with the trappings of orthodoxy. Even the evangelical magazine Christianity Today has warned that a fixation with posting the 10 Commandments "runs the danger of becoming an idol."

But if Moore is pressing for a sacred public square, his critics want to secularize it. They're ignoring the profound influence of Christianity on the American founding.

That influence was such that even Thomas Jefferson, a critic of organized religion, allowed church services to be conducted in the chambers of the Supreme Court. It's no accident that the central figure in the frieze adorning the east facade of the Supreme Court is Moses, clutching the 10 Commandments, above the words "the guardian of liberty."

The framers drafted a secular Constitution. They insisted that, unlike the European experience, America would have no established church or official creed. But Americans had, and in many ways still have, an unofficial creed: a belief in the God of the Bible.

As the founders conceived it, democracy depends on citizens with virtue, and virtue typically grows out of religious convictions. The early consensus was clear: The rule of law would collapse without the support of religious ideals. Even Ben Franklin, the genial skeptic, wondered: "If men are so wicked as we now see them with religion, what would they be if without it?" French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, reached the same conclusion: "I don't know if all Americans have faith in their religion ... but I am sure they think it necessary for the maintenance of republican institutions."

True, nowhere does the Constitution mention God. Yet the genius of the document is the way it pays homage to a thoroughly biblical idea: the tragedy of human nature. The framers devised a government of "checks and balances," of course, to curb the passions of majority rule and the power of political elites. "What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?" James Madison argued in the Federalist Papers. "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

The 10 Commandments agree with that assessment. No less so than Greek philosophy, Roman law or Enlightenment ideals, these tablets form the bedrock of Western democracy. By declaring that universal moral norms exist--and ought to govern all human relationships--the 10 Commandments affirm the God-given dignity of every person. They remind citizens and rulers alike that they're subject to a divine authority that transcends the secular state.

We don't need a 2.5-ton monument in every courthouse in America to recover that idea. But we could use a few more judges who live by it.

Joseph Loconte, a commentator for National Public Radio and author of "Seducing the Samaritan," is a fellow in religion at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Reprinted with permission of The Chicago Tribune