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The power of ten

Interview | Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on a different way to defend displays of the Ten Commandments

Issue: "Lebanon: Democracy now," Feb. 26, 2005

On Wednesday, March 2, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is scheduled to present before the U.S. Supreme Court his defense of a Ten Commandments monument on the state capitol grounds. But this is of more than Texas interest: Mr. Abbott hopes the court, which refused to hear the appeal of former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, will use the monument as an example of how the Ten Commandments may be displayed.

Mr. Abbott graduated from the University of Texas in 1981 and studied law at Vanderbilt University. He took a break while studying for the bar exam in 1984 and went for a jog, but a 75-foot tree at least eight feet in diameter fell on him, damaging his spine and almost killing him. He says that while lying in the hospital he thought that he was still alive for a reason. Since then he has been in a wheelchair, partly paralyzed. He is a Catholic and strongly pro-life.

WORLD: How is your approach to displaying the Ten Commandments different from the approach of Roy Moore, Alabama's former Chief Justice? Why did you proceed that way?

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Abbott: My approach in defending the Ten Commandments display on the Texas Capitol grounds is driven by applicable U.S. Supreme Court precedent and the specific facts of our case, which differ significantly from the facts in Alabama.

In 1961, the Fraternal Order of Eagles donated the six-foot granite monument "to the Youth and People of Texas" as a way to combat juvenile delinquency and promote a personal code of conduct for youth. (The group gave similar monuments to other states during the 1950s and '60s.) The Ten Commandments monument is one of 17 monuments that adorn the grounds of the historic Texas Capitol, and they collectively celebrate various people, events, and ideals important to the culture and diversity of Texas.

The Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred religious text, but-equally undeniably-they are also a foundational text for Western legal codes and culture. As such, they deserve a place on the Capitol grounds among the numerous other statues and memorials that acknowledge the various influences on Texas history. The Ten Commandments carry enormous cultural, historical, and legal significance. I agree with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the Ten Commandments, while a holy text to many, is "also a powerful teacher of ethics, of wise counsel urging a regimen of just governance among free people."

More fundamentally, the First Amendment was never intended to remove all religious expression from the public square. As the 5th Circuit put it, "Such hostility toward religion is not only not required; it is proscribed." But plaintiffs seeking to purge all such expression from public view are sadly never in short supply and often bully government officials into yielding under the threat of expensive litigation.

I fully believe, and will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, that the Texas Ten Commandments monument is constitutional and that government may recognize religion's undeniable role as a foundational aspect of our nation's law and culture.

And as I present my argument, I will be mindful that looking down on me and the justices in that historic chamber will be a carving of Moses holding the very tablets that are at the center of this debate.

WORLD: What lessons do you derive from evangelical political engagement over the past two decades? What have been the best results of that engagement?

Abbott: Those who want to impact the direction of legislation and other public policies must stay engaged in the process long after the polls close. Protecting the sanctity of human life is a top priority for many evangelicals. Their sustained involvement over the years has helped elevate society to the point where we value life more. Through crisis pregnancy centers, caring people show pregnant mothers that we care about them and their unborn babies. We also have pro-life legislation that would not have passed, were it not for the involvement of concerned evangelicals, Catholics, and other people of faith.

The impact of "values voters" in the recent election shows just how significant that participation can be. Many commentators still puzzle at the 2004 presidential election and the rise of Red State values voters. But this much is clear: Evangelicals are weary of the ceaseless disdain heaped upon them by liberal elites and the dominant media culture that denigrates religious values. President Bush, for example, has been on the receiving end of some vicious rhetoric-"fanatic," "messianic militarist," etc.-that likens him to history's worst barbarians. And the tiresome Bush-bashing has bled at times into a general anti-religious bigotry, vilifying his supporters for living their faith out loud (even filibustering some of his judicial nominees for their "deeply held religious beliefs"). This rhetoric of contempt and religious profiling is startling, and voters demonstrated on Election Day that they're fed up with it.

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