I have never been a particularly religious person. My inquisitive nature and general obstinacy have always made it difficult for me to follow rigid doctrine or trust in blind faith. Organized religion is often contradictory, archaic and divisive, and those who preach the loudest from the pulpit are often the most hypocritical and corrupt. So I’ve always adhered to a homemade dogma of being a good person and worshiping whatever God(s) exist in my own personal way. I feel that others have the freedom to venerate or not venerate, whatever the case may be, as they deem appropriate.
Because of our nation’s longstanding tradition of separating the church from the state, Americans have been able to practice this “live and let live” mentality for over two centuries. But now a pair of U.S. Supreme Court cases threaten to destroy that very sacred freedom.
In one case, two Kentucky executives posted the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls, while in the other case, Thomas Van Orden filed suit against the placement of a 6-foot-tall monument of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas state capitol building bearing a symbol representing Jesus Christ with the words “I am the Lord thy God.”
The Bush administration and 26 state attorneys general have, to no surprise, filed a brief supporting the Texas and Kentucky Decalogue displays.
The ostensibly landmark cases could rewrite precedent on whether the commandments and similar religious symbols that dot public spheres are a federal endorsement of religion or simply a reflection of the Judeo-Christian influence in U.S. history. There is nothing explicit in our Constitution that demarks a separation between church and state, but pro-Separatists have long read the First Amendment’s “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … ” as a governmental laissez-faire over religion.
Despite federal regulations against overt religious pageantry, the majority of Americans are at least nominally Christian. Consequently, our country has always had a long-standing tradition of civic faith: The proverbial “In God We Trust” monetary seal, holiday songs performed in public schools during Christmas, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Supreme Court fresco of Moses. Furthermore, according to a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 76 percent of Americans support the display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with intermingling devotion into public life, if such action can invoke the betterment of society through tolerance, personal discipline and sacrifice, and kindness toward others. And given the present tenuous state of America’s social fabric — malaises like violence and materialism abound — increased spirituality doesn’t seem all that bad of an idea. If displaying the Ten Commandments could decrease the national divorce rate or mend broken homes, I would wholeheartedly support it. But realistically speaking, little will actually change — religious imagery is meaningless without societal reinforcement, and we are far too over the edge to be salvaged by a few slabs of stone.
What is more detrimental than propagation of the status quo is the invidious distinction that will undoubtedly result between the religious majority and minority. Permitting the Decalogue in public areas theoretically means that opposing devotional material can be publicly viewed too. Yet given the fact that most religions are at odds with one another, what is the likelihood that alternative faiths will be accepted in an overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian country? Most people in this nation do not even acknowledge that anything exists outside the so-called “Big 3” religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (Islam only because of the obsessive fear after Sept. 11). Ignorance is usually not conducive to liberalism, so I wonder how gung ho such individuals would be seeing a picture of Lord Krishna hanging in their post office or a 6-foot bronze statue of a laughing Buddha on the White House lawn.
I have a hunch they would not be too pleased.
Only when, if ever, we get to that point of universal acceptance of every faith, is it feasible to conceive blurring the line between church and the government. Until then, religion should be kept a personal matter away from the public sphere and out of the courts.
Krishnamurthy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.