The Decalogue And The Demagogue

Lessons From Alabama

Now that the media circus created by Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and his Ten Commandments display has died down, it's a good time to step back and debunk some oft-repeated Religious Right assertions about this case:

 Moore's display of the Ten Commandments was a courageous act.

It wasn't. It was the act of an aspiring theocrat and religious zealot. This country does not have religious courts or anything like them. When you come before a judge, your age, sex, race and religion should be irrelevant. What you believe or don't believe about God should be of absolutely no relevance to the state.

Moore's display made religion not just relevant but paramount. It sent a message that the Alabama Supreme Court operates from a religious perspective. The state's highest court had a favorite religious code, carved on a two-ton rock in the rotunda. Courts like that might exist in Iran; they ought to be alien to the United States.

 Moore just wanted to "acknowledge God."

Moore is free to pray and read the Bible on his own in his private office whenever he feels the need. But he does not have the right to endorse any religious code in his official capacity or imply that Alabama courts have even a quasi-official religion.

Moore told a Promise Keepers rally in Atlanta recently that church-state separation is "a fable." That's a strong clue revealing what this crusade was really all about: furthering Religious Right attacks on that important constitutional principle and paving the way for fundamentalist government in the United States. Moore's goal was to advance the Religious Right's repressive agenda, not acknowledge God.

 The Ten Commandments are the foundation of U.S. law.

Wrong. The Ten Commandments are an important moral code to millions of believers, but they are not the foundation of American law. U.S. law does not require citizens to worship only one god, and it does not ban the production of graven images. We do not require citizens to keep the Sabbath holy, force people to honor their parents or punish coveting. We don't even punish lying, unless it's in a court proceeding or in some other venue where criminal conduct is involved. (Two of the Commandments ban killing and theft. These prohibitions have been adopted by societies of many religious hues throughout history as common-sense rules for peaceful living.)

Most of the Commandments deal with humankind's relationship to God. The state has no business regulating this relationship. Who would want to live in a country that mandated worship of God in certain ways? Who would want to live in a nation where people were fined or imprisoned for not going to services on the Sabbath (which day is it anyway?) or for saying something a cleric deemed blasphemous? Moore's actions not only violate church-state separation, they mislead Americans about the ultimate source of our law. That source is the Consti­tution not the Bible or any other religious book.

 The Ten Commandments are displayed in the U.S. Supreme Court.

No display anything like the one in Alabama appears in the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court's main chamber contains a frieze that depicts great lawgivers throughout history. Moses is part of this frieze. He is depicted holding two tablets, one of which contains some Hebrew letters. The frieze also depicts Hammurabi, Solomon, Confucius, Mohammad, Augustus, Charlemagne, Napoleon and others. The point of this display is educational and artistic, not an endorsement of one religious tradition.

A second high court frieze includes a single tablet with the Roman numerals one through 10 on it. Some Religious Right activists have assumed that this is intended to represent the Ten Command­ments. In fact, Adolph Weinman, the sculptor who designed the frieze, stated publicly that the tablet symbolizes the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution our Bill of Rights.

The Montgomery showdown was telling and disturbing for many reasons. It exposed, for example, just how extreme some leaders of the Religious Right are these days. James Dobson of Focus on the Family was not alone in backing Moore's defiance of the federal courts. Despite all of their "I love America" rhetoric, many in the Religious Right have nothing but contempt for America's secular democratic government and our system of law.

The imbroglio also underscored that defenders of church-state separation have some work to do. One poll that came out during the showdown indicated that 77 percent of Americans support displaying the Ten Commandments in government buildings. This is a strong warning that our educational efforts have not been as persuasive as they need to be. We ignore that message at our own peril.

Courts are an important line of defense in the battle to maintain church-state separation. But we cannot rely on them to do all of the heavy lifting for us. If the American people do not truly value the wisdom of the founders and appreciate why they demanded that religion and government be separate, eventually Moore and his Religious Right allies will start to win. They could begin remaking this nation to their liking, discarding the legacy of religious freedom.

We all got a glimpse of what a Religious Right-dominated America would look like in Montgomery recently. Our challenge is to make sure it never comes to pass.