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Clanging symbols

Courts | Ten Commandments rulings leave evangelicals wanting more-or less

Issue: "Africa: The new frontier," July 16, 2005

When the Supreme Court levied its pair of seemingly contradictory Ten Commandments rulings June 27, many voices of evangelical punditry fired breathless denunciations or quivered in constitutional angst. Others shrugged.

Focus on the Family's James Dobson described as "chilling" the incongruent 5-4 decisions that disallowed framed displays in Kentucky courthouses but protected a Ten Commandments monument on the Texas Capitol lawn. "This was no affirmation of the right of religious expression-particularly Christian religious expression," Mr. Dobson said on his daily radio broadcast, noting that the Texas monument was only allowed because the justices deemed it more historical than religious.

Nonetheless, Texas attorney general Greg Abbott, who argued for his state Capitol's monument before the Supreme Court, heralded the Texas decision as a victory for religious expression-albeit a highly qualified one. "It allows religious expression so long as the purpose behind the expression is not one that is focused on the religious aspect of the display," he told WORLD.

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Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship said the court's distinction between the two cases-namely, that the Kentucky displays were intended for religious purposes while the Texas monument was not-amounted to mind reading: "This gives the court all the latitude it wants to legislate from the bench."

Indeed, the majority opinion in the Kentucky case declared the government constitutionally bound to maintain neutrality between religion and nonreligion-an interpretation that if applied consistently might render unconstitutional the Declaration of Independence for its decidedly religious invocation of a rights-endowing Creator.

But however maddening such judicial tyranny may be, some question whether Ten Commandments cases are worth all the fuss. The conclusion of Evangelical Outpost blogger Joe Carter: "We should not endorse the display of the Decalogue on government property." Mr. Carter argues that public displays of the Ten Commandments have become false gods of generic religion and that appeals for them are thus violations of the First Commandment. "Too many Christians are more concerned about winning a symbolic victory involving the Decalogue than they are in obeying the actual commandments," the ex-Marine wrote on his blog.

St. Thomas University law professor Thomas Berg argues that symbolic fights distract from far more important issues such as private-school vouchers or appropriating public money for religious charity work. A proponent of broad religious freedom, Mr. Berg wonders why any parent would settle for "a few scraps of prayer at public-school graduation" when government discrimination continues to deny funding for seriously religious private schools.

Mr. Abbott responds that the cause of religious symbols and that of more tangible policy issues need not be mutually exclusive: "It would be inappropriate for us to turn a blind eye to important forces such as the Ten Commandments that have played a role in the development of our nation."

But the political commitment of many evangelicals seems most focused on public affirmation through religious symbols, especially since the highly publicized 2003 incident involving former Alabama Supreme Court justice Roy Moore and his two-ton Commandments monument.

In light of such evangelical commitment, some church-and-state separatists have recently considered altering their strategy. Writing for the New York Times magazine, New York University law professor Noah Feldman suggests a compromise: Redefine the Supreme Court's litmus test for acceptable church-state relations to allow religious symbols on government property and public prayer at state meetings; but quell any future possible chance for public funding of religious schools or charities.

Mr. Feldman writes that evangelicals would likely accept such a compromise: "Given that voucher programs have not spread, it should be relatively easy for values evangelicals to abandon them-especially since they will be getting something in return, namely greater recognition and acceptance for their values-based arguments and the corresponding symbols of public religion."

Mr. Abbott disagrees: "All of the issues are important. There's no reason that we can't focus on all of them."

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