July 14, 2005
When Alexander the Great was 23 years old, he visited the Temple of the Zeus in Gordium. One hundred years before, the King of Phrygia had tied the staves of his cart to the temple in a complex knot. Legend said that whoever was able to release the knot would conquer the East. Alexander arrived at the sanctuary and, for a few minutes, struggled with the “Gordian Knot.” Impatiently he asked the seer Aristander if it mattered how he did it. Not satisfied with the answer, the impetuous Alexander pulled out his sword and cut through the knot. His solution to a difficult problem. Is the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the public display of the Ten Commandments the sword of Alexander that solves the complex problem of government and religion?
On June 27, 2005, the Supreme Court issued its opinion on whether the Ten Commandments could be publicly displayed. The justices were divided. By a 5-4 vote, in
Van Orden v. Perry, the court permitted a 6-foot granite monument of the Ten Commandments to remain on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol as constitutional. However, by the same one-vote margin, in
ACLU v. McCreary, the Supreme Court decided that the display of framed copies of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses was unconstitutional. At first glance, the decisions appear contradictory. But they are not.
In Texas, the Ten Commandments share 22 acres with 17 displays that pay tribute to events such as the Alamo and the Civil War. In Kentucky, the courthouses originally had only the Ten Commandments on view. The first display did not promote religion. The second display did. So said the court. In fact, the justices had only to look in their own chamber to see Moses holding the tablets of the law. There he stands with 17 other lawgivers. A neutral figure without the glow of divine revelation. A man like any other man. Secular and with no reference to God. As long as religious symbols on public display are devoid of their religious significance, they are constitutional. A crèche next to a candy cane, a menorah, and a Kwanzaa candle can be tolerated. But not a nativity scene alone. The wider context sanitizes and secularizes.
Some applauded the justices’ distinction. Others were disappointed. 138 pages of opinion. A splintered court. And the tangled web of relations of state and religion still remains. The Supreme Court decision is consistent with the principle that the government must remain neutral. Government cannot favor one religion over another religion. Government cannot countenance religion over no-religion, belief over agnosticism or faith over atheism. This thinking has distanced us from our roots.
Not so long ago President Truman clearly affirmed, “The fundamental basis of this nation’s laws was given to Moses on the mount.” From Sinai to Philadelphia, into the halls of the legislatures and the courtrooms of this nation, the moral principles enunciated in the Decalogue had a place. In fact, the very history of this country that has lead to freedom and to tolerance, to accepting those of different faiths and no faith at all began with the Declaration of Independence that did not shy away from God-talk. Our founding fathers said, “
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness -- that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men… ” Governments in any age are subject to a higher authority. Human rights come from the Creator. “When the sense of God is lost, the sense of humanity is lost as well” (
The National Directory for Catechesis, pg 162).
Lurking beneath the surface of the Supreme Court’s arguments about the Ten Commandments seethes a much deeper debate taking place in our society. It is this: What place does religion have in public life? Some hold that religion should be a private matter. Faith and moral principles, religion and God-talk, for some, simply do not belong in the public forum or in the political arena. They argue that moral values based on religion are to be totally private matters. They insist that government has no place supporting them. If the truth be told, the very thrust to privatize religion ultimately banishes it from influencing the political decisions of society. And, in the end, society itself suffers. Once a society, by its own free choice, expels the discussion of moral values taught by religion from its public conversation, it loses a sure criterion for its political and social decisions that touch on life itself; and, it begins an inevitable descent to self-destruction (cf
Veritatis Splendor, 72).
Morality and public life; religion and government: can they be truly disentangled? Has the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Ten Commandments solved the underlying issue facing society? Or has it embroiled us in more discussion and litigation? Will militant secularism force the removal of the Roman numerals one through ten engraved on the doors of the Supreme Court? Perhaps. But only if we permit the gradual erosion of the very principles that made this nation great.