The Camel’s Nose
As I expected, I got a comment on the Ten Commandments post regarding why I think it’s so important, and I think the issue is significant enough to post on here. Much of this text is the same as in my response to the comment in the last post, but I’ve edited it to take the form of an entry by itself.
The question might be, why should we abandon religion? But that is the farthest thing from what I am suggesting. Religion is just about everywhere in America. Religion is in the society, the culture, the media, the community, the church, the family, the individual… and a thousand other places. The single place–not all places, but just the one and only place–where it cannot be is in the government. For the express reason, taught to us endlessly in history, that when a state endorses a religion, that religion dominates to the pain and suffering of all other religions and beliefs. Why did the first European colonists come to the U.S.? Because states in Europe had endorsed a single church, and other denominations and religions were persecuted as a direct result. The founders didn’t put the separation of church and state in the constitution for no reason, after all. We have become complacent to that history, and are in grave danger in failing Santayana’s warning.
The response might be, aren’t you over-reacting a bit much? It’s just a granite monument, not an instant theocracy. But the public display of the Ten Commandments is the camel’s nose under the tent. This is a matter of slow change, like the proverbial frog that boils to death when the water is heated slowly. And each incursion of religion into state is used as a further justification for the next.
Remember the granite monument to the ten commandments in Alabama? Know what it had chiseled onto three of its four sides? “Under God,” “So Help Me God,” and “In God We Trust.” These were placed intentionally as justifications for the displaying of the monument in a public building: America is based upon Christianity and these religious words integrated into government-sanctioned acts confirm it. America is a Christian nation, and has always been.
Except it’s not true–just the reverse, in fact. Not anti-religious, rather simply secular. People complain that the pledge should not be changed–but the present version of the pledge is the changed one. “Under God” was added long, long after the pledge was written. Why not go back to the original? What was wrong with it then? “In God We Trust” was never on coinage, originally–all coins bore the single word, “Liberty,” until religious groups got their way at one point and the new motto was brought in.
And “So Help Me God” was not only another example of religion added long after the Constitution was written, but the Constitution itself forbids the requirement of a religious oath in the taking of public office. Go ahead, read the Constitution. It’s right there, in black and white: government officials “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Article VI, Clause 3. Now, people would point out that it is a voluntary addition to the oath of office–but what would happen if a president decided not to utter the words? He wouldn’t be impeached, but he’d probably be crippled politically.
And that’s where the whole camel starts following the nose through the tent flap. Now it is essentially a requirement for a president to take the oath, in violation of the Constitution. And yet these religious incursions, each one violating the principle of church and state, are used to justify the next step, the new religious incursion.
If the Supreme Court approves the display of the Ten Commandments this year, then in ten years they will be hearing a case in which we’ll see the ornate display of the Christian bible in a place of honor and respect in government buildings–and the Ten Commandments ruling will be used as justification and precedent. After all, the commandments are scripture–so is the bible. The principle is the same, public edification of scripture is approved, so the quantity of scripture should not matter at all. And that, in turn, would be used as justification for the further steps, and pretty soon, it goes too far–by which time it is well-cemented in law, and any attempt to take it out is met with hostility and scorn, the already-famed “persecution” of the privileged majority. Remember the Pastor Niemoller? He said, “In Germany they first came for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. And then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.” You wait for the axe to fall, and it’ll be too late. Protest when the axe first comes into view.
And don’t think it couldn’t happen quickly, either–did you know that in the 19th century, there were two attempts to amend the Constitution to read that “humbly acknowledging almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the ruler among nations, his revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government [...]“? That would have done it, right there, in one fell swoop. The Constitution and its first amendment have been under attack for a long time now, by well-meaning people who think that marrying church and state is a swell idea. In other words, people who don’t read history–or do, and are OK with the results so long as their religion is the dominant one.
If you think that protest against unreasonable religious incursions would not be quelled, that Americans would still be free to object in the late stages of the marriage, think again. Evidence of this is in the comment which protested my suggestion that the Ten Commandments should not be displayed. I was accused of being part of a “vocal minority” attempting to abandon every facet of our culture, and of so “slavishly obeying” the first amendment that I would be silly enough to ask that mention of God be removed from the pledge of allegiance. This from someone I have seen, in past comments, as perfectly reasonable and average. And that rebuff was just for the relatively small stuff now. You think that by the time it’s so ingrained and cemented that church and state are married, that my protests will be greeted with less scorn? Quite the opposite–people will justify the marriage with Supreme Court decisions, religious law, and historical precedent in addition to all that they personally believe, and I’ll be screwed. The people who are seriously religious will react far more inhospitably.
Show me a state which married itself to a religion, and I’ll show you a state where religious freedom was violated. For every mild success of such a marriage, history holds dozens of examples of cruel tyrannies where those not of the “official” faith were crushed. One of the pillars of American greatness has been our ability to avoid that fate. I don’t want that pillar to be eroded, even a little–I want it polished and kept strong.
In the end, principle is at the heart of this issue–and you don’t compromise on principles. Once you do, you’re on your way to losing them entirely.