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
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
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
Loconte, a commentator for National Public Radio and
author of "Seducing the Samaritan," is a fellow in religion at The
Reprinted with permission of The Chicago Tribune