July 3, 2005


One of my favorite posters is Rachel, who practices a non-Orthodox but spiritual Judaism. We often disagree, but she is also thoughtful and always courteous in discussion. A discussion where the participants aren't all in the same choir is, of course, more likely to get one to think than is the other kind.

In this post, Rachel contributes three important points the Ten-Commandments-In-Public-Places discussion:
  • Jews, Catholics, and Protestants have consensus neither on which commandments are the Ten, nor on how to divvy them up for counting.

  • In the Jewish tradition, ten laws are not to be favored over all others. All 613 commandments, in the traditional count, are part of a system of good conduct.

  • "The truth of the matter is, excerpts from my holy book shouldn't be hanging on courthouses or state houses or legislative chambers. Nor your holy book. Nor anybody else's. Because we're blessed to live in a nation with a secular government, and our government ought to respect the diversity of American belief by refraining from glorifying one holy text over its fellows.

    "The Torah is important to me and my country is important to me, but that doesn't mean I want them conflated."

There's merit in all three points, but I don't see it quite as Rachel does.

Although there are two versions of the Ten, the texts are the same, whatever the numbering one chooses to adopt. The posting of the text in a frame on the wall or on a stone on the ground or in the lobby, as a manifestation of "civic religion," should hardly shock the conscience of anyone who believes in or respects the Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish traditions.

The existence of various methods of counting, and the very different applications, of, say, the Sabbath commandment, of course, are of greater interest if one takes the text seriously or tries to apply it to daily life.

In that regard, although rabbinic Judaism does focus on both the written and oral law, and regards it as a system, I wonder if today the prohibition of linsey-woolsey or shatnez is really on a par with, say, the prohibition of idolatry. One certainly sees images of the Ten in synagogues and elsewhere quite frequently.

The question is probably more difficult for Christians, for whom the question of what parts of Jewish law are binding on them pending the Second Coming, and which are superseded, is an old and unresolved debate, further complicated by the question of what the Ten really mean. Are icons and images idols? Is remarriage adultery?

These issues are deep and complex, but they are alien to "civic religion." When Americans sing "God Bless America" at baseball games they're not thinking about whether the Godhead is immanent or transcendent, whether there is a Demiurge, or, if they are Christian, whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. Nor are they deciding whether the blessing they seek in the song means material bounty, spiritual wisdom, or peace of soul.

Rachel wants to keep the political order and the religious order separate (chocolate ≠ peanut butter). Most Americans would agree. The question, though, is where to draw the line. Few would compel attendance at religious services or have the state appoint clergy. The live debate tends to be about how much "civic religion" is too much.

The Supreme Court has made a muddle of the Constitutional limits. I don't think the Establishment Clause was designed to protect all who hold minority views of religion from every form embarrassment, but rather to prevent the federal government from instituting a state church or impeding observance by religious minorities. To my mind, that allows a lot more leeway than current case law in the areas suggests. It's judge-made law, and unlike free speech jurisprudence, there's no principled basis that I can find for current reinterpretation of the original text.

Now, if I'm right, and the Constitution, properly interpreted, allows a lot of leeway for civic religion, how much is it wise to have? Even though I'm unchurched and unsynagogued, I do believe that the systematic exiling of religious expression from the public square does, in effect, enshrine anti-religion as a norm and is rightly viewed by many as an attack on religious belief. Given the failure of rationalist ethics, this is more than a problem of offense to certain believers--it's a symptom of a society adrift.

And yet. We need not enact everything that a loosely interpreted Establishment Clause permits. Too much civic religion will, as Rachel's discussion of the Ten Commandments shows, tend to water down everyone's religion. It can so easily become a sterile exercise, largely empty of feeling and content. Established religions everywhere become either corrupt and oppressive, or formalistic and empty. Yes, this country has a basically Protestant history (with a heavy dose of Deism among the Founders) and a Protestant majority. There's no harm in acknowledging that, as long as dissenters are free to dissent.

But to the advocates of more religious expression in the government sphere should be very careful what they wish for. A occasional Reese's peanut butter cup is a treat, but too many will make you sick. I have no problem with modicum of civic religion, and more than the Court allows now--prayers at football games and graduations, Psalms in public schools (which I grew up with), the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls, even vouchers to private schools including religious ones are all fine with me. The further we go, though, the more we risk corrupting religion, emptying it of content, or both.

ADDENDUM: Christopher Hitchens, another writer who makes me think, doesn't like any version of the Ten.

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