"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ten Commandments Taken Down in Giles, Va

I've previously blogged about the situation in Giles County, Va, concerning hanging the Ten Commandments in the school. There's been a new development in the case that I wanted to state here. According to the Roanoke Times:
The board voted unanimously to replace the commandments with a copy of a page from a history textbook that mentions the Ten Commandments in conjunction with American government and morality. The commandments themselves do not appear on the page; they are represented by a drawing of two tablets.
I've read a photocopy of the  new document. It does detail that our system of government was influenced by Enlightenment thought and by Greco-Roman systems of government. I applaud both of those features, commonly denied by the Christian Right. Strangely, when discussing the Enlightenment influences, the document only references John Locke and Montesquieu. There are several others that would likely be worthwhile to mention -- Voltaire and Rousseau being perhaps obvious examples. Nonetheless, not everyone could be covered in the small space and perhaps this omission could be excused.

What I do object to is the way that the Ten Commandments are presented on the document. The associated text reads:
The values found in the Bible, including the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus, inspired American ideas about government and morality.
The first obvious problem is the politically correct use of the phrase "Judeo-Christian". That's a phrase that came into popularity sometime after World War 2 primarily in an effort to re-write Christian history; despite the hundreds of years of Christian anti-semitism, it was suddenly very popular to show solidarity between Christians and Jews. This newly awakened interest in ecumenical multiculturalism, in the face of the horrors of the Holocaust, is largely responsible for an ever increasing revisionist view of history. Christians were suddenly cast as being the friends of the Jews, despite the fact that it was after Mass when Jews had needed to hide for centuries prior, in fear of the mobs seeking out those they identified as Christ killers. The terror of Passion Plays is all too conveniently forgotten by modern day religious conservatives.

Yet if our country could be said to have religious origins at all, those origins are distinctly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. When the country was founded, there was a tremendous amount of anti-Catholic rhetoric being thrown about in the public discourse; it's only been very recently that anti-papist propaganda essentially disappeared amongst American protestants. Anyone who is either old enough to remember Kennedy's presidency, or who has read up on the subject, will know that one that one of the major accusations thrown at him was that he was a "papist".

At the country's founding, Jews were an almost non-existent minority. Even today, Jews only comprise 1.9% of the country. By some estimates, atheists far outnumber Jews; yet atheists do not yet have a considerable pull in the political sphere. The fact that Jews do reflects a certain kind of guilt uniquely felt by the descendants of oppressors.

And it needn't surprise most of my readers that the Founding Fathers endorsed a view of religion popular in the Enlightenment, but decidedly antithetical to any understanding of religion endorsed by modern American Christians. While it may be true that most of the Founding Fathers (with the possible exception of Thomas Paine) were believers in a god, they were not Christians (at least not in the modern sense.) They were largely deists, Freemasons, or other kind of heterodox believers. They stressed reason over faith and devalued the ideas of miracles or revealed truths. They would not have said that they believed on the basis of faith; they thought they had strong reasons which compelled them to hold various kinds of positions.

By and large, the Founding Fathers believed in "Natural Religion", an Enlightenment era invention created to capture what they felt was religion as revealed by nature and not by revelation or scripture. Describing the concept in the 17th century, deist author Matthew Tindal wrote:
By natural religion, I understand the belief of the existence of a God, and the sense and practice of those duties which result from the knowledge we, by our reason, have of him and his perfections; and of ourselves, and our own imperfections, and of the relationship we stand in to him, and to our fellow-creatures; so that the religion of nature takes in everything that is founded on the reason and nature of things. I suppose you will allow that it is evident by the light of nature that there is a God, or in other words, a being absolutely perfect, and infinitely happy in himself, who is the source of all other beings....
When we are told that "all men are created equal" or that they are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights", we are reading text typical of Enlightenment era deists. The vocabulary has been framed in that particular religious context, with the pre-text of the philosophical developments of the 16th through 18th centuries.

But this brings us to the other problem with the text. Not only is the phrase "Judeo-Christian" an essentially meaningless, politically correct modern construction, but there is no clear sense in which the Framers of the Constitution utilised either Jewish or Christian concepts in any of the founding documents.

In fact, fearing an outbreak of religious war, it was signed into the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797 that:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen [Muslims]; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
The language here concerning Islam may be archaic, but the point is clear. This document, agreed to by the Senate, Congress, and by then-president John Adams, makes a very clear statement. It's important to point out that the treaty does not grant the protection of religious liberties to American citizens; the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent act in that capacity. However, the treaty does reflect the position of the founding representatives of our country. In fact, when the treaty was approved by the Senate, John Adams stated:
Now be it known, That I John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said Treaty do, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof. And to the End that the said Treaty may be observed and performed with good Faith on the part of the United States, I have ordered the premises to be made public; And I do hereby enjoin and require all persons bearing office civil or military within the United States, and all other citizens or inhabitants thereof, faithfully to observe and fulfill the said Treaty and every clause and article thereof.
But in case it isn't clear, let us actually examine the Ten Commandments.

The first four commandments -- not worshipping any other gods, not making idols, not taking the Lord's name in vain, and keeping the Sabbath day holy -- have never been codified into American law and are explicitly religious in character.

In fact, the US government has occasionally worked against these commandments. For example, the US post office delivered mail every day of the week until 1912, when, to keep the Sabbath, several religious groups demanded that mail not be delivered on Sundays. The Supreme Court has since ruled that, for pragmatic reasons, the postal service needs to be closed one day of the week. For historical reasons, it was found to be most convenient to keep that day on Sundays. Therefore, they have since identified an entirely secular reason for no mail delivery on Sundays.

Freedom of speech, one of our most prized freedoms, directly contravenes any law prohibiting the taking of the Lord's name in vain. Blasphemy laws are deemed a direct violation of the Constitution.

The other six commandments -- honouring one's parents, prohibiting murder, against adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting -- are more secular. But prohibitions on murder exist in nearly all cultures and pre-date Judaism. Ditto for stealing. Adultery is legal in the United States, though (perhaps rightfully) seen as immoral. And one can covet whatever one would like.

In fact, our modern moral sense should make us shudder at the blatant sexism in the tenth commandment:
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
 Notice two things:

1. There is no prohibition against coveting your neighbor's husband;
2. Women are listed second after your neighbor's house and in a list of your neighbor's property.

That's right -- the tenth commandment makes women out to be property, to be owned by men. Worse, the commandments assume a male audience. Morality is seen as the province of the man, and women, being simply property to be owned by men, are not taken into consideration. The laws concerning rape in the 22nd chapter of Deuteronomy make this abundantly clear as well; a man raping a woman was perceived as mere vandalism. Women were viewed as highly prized objects that fathers could trade for a hefty price.

Not only is this sickening, but it cannot be the basis for our culture's moral zeitgeist.

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