Archive for the ‘Ten Commandments’ Category

Bill O’Reilly made the following statement in a segment in response to a viewer.

“Bill, in your Tebow segment you stated that Christianity is a philosophy, not a religion. You are incorrect. Christianity is a religion just like the Catholic Church and Judaism.”

Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, Daniel. Alright, listen up. Everybody, not just Daniel. Catholics are Christians. Protestants are Christians. But Christianity is not an organized religion. It’s a theology and a philosophy. You can be atheist and follow the teachings of Jesus, alright. The religions – Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics – those are the ones that you don’t impose on people. But the Christian philosophy was used by the Founding Fathers of the United States to develop our Constitution. The Judeo-Christian philosophy. That’s why the Ten Commandments hang in the Supreme Court.

I believe that Richard Dawkins coined the idea of an “Atheists for Jesus” t-shirt:

Atheists for Jesus t-shirt

While the discussion of what makes a person a Christian or a “true Christian” is an interesting topic, it’s also an abstract one for the most part, since a person’s faithfulness (or lack thereof) is between that person and their god (or lack thereof). However, Bill O’Reilly pulls this discussion out of the strictly theoretical in using it to justify a display of the Ten Commandments in the Supreme Court.

First, it’s important to fact check O’Reilly and note that the Ten Commandments do not hang in the Supreme Court. The designer of the friezes in the Supreme Court, Adolph Weinman, stated in a letter (preserved in the Supreme Court archives) that the Roman numerals I through X in the Supreme Court represent the ten amendments which comprise the Bill of Rights. While Moses is one of the many figures depicted in the Supreme Court friezes, his depiction has no special emphasis, and the Commandments with which he is depicted are 6 through 10 – the secular ones against murder, theft, adultery, perjury, and covetousness.

However, for the sake of discussion, we should broaden the scope of the topic to any displays of the Ten Commandments on government property. Is it a harmless gesture? Is it a patriotic demonstration of our freedom of religion? Is it a proud expression of faith that the Bible expects (or demands, or requires)?

Power of a Symbol

To answer these questions, we need to establish the power of a symbol. No, there is not a symbol out there that has any sort of supernatural power (so sorry Van Helsing, the wooden cross you keep handy will do you no good against Dracula). But symbols have power over the minds and hearts of those for whom and against whom they stand. The American flag is a rallying banner for all Americans. Think of the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima:

Iwo Jima

or the Apollo 11 moon landing:

Apollo 11

The American flag is such a poignant symbol to Americans that in many states, it is a misdemeanor to publicly or knowingly defile it.

Meanwhile, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon symbolized economic and military might to America’s enemies, which is why the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were chosen for the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001.

So yes, visual symbols have power. However, what about a written document, such as the Ten Commandments? Can such a document be considered anything more than just a statement of belief or ideals? The answer is yes. An example of such a written document that is much more than the words which comprise it is the American Constitution. The phrase “We the People” has taken on a patriotic life of its own, even for those Americans who may not know the rest of the text of the Preamble. The oath of office of the President requires the President to swear to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This clearly does not mean that the President would have to stand armed with a shotgun in front of the National Archives if the US were invaded by enemies. It means the President swears to protect the values and principles upon which this nation was founded. So even a written document can take on symbolic power above and beyond the simple text it contains.

The Ten Commandments are a powerful symbol for the Christian faith. They are perhaps the only laws from the Old Testament not considered by Christians to be “fulfilled” by Jesus (in other words, the only laws from the Old Testament still considered to be valid and binding). And despite the fact that Americans know Big Macs better than Ten Commandments, many religious groups fight to display the Ten Commandments on government property. This shows the power of a symbol.

Religion or Philosophy?

The display of the Ten Commandments on government property would probably be a non-issue if the approach used in the Supreme Court Building were taken – the exclusion of the five religious Commandments. This neatly dodges the problem. But if we’re going to messily insist on an all-or-nothing response, we need to determine whether the Ten Commandments are a religious symbol or a philosophical symbol.

Returning to O’Reilly’s statement, that the Ten Commandments would be permitted to hang in the Supreme Court due to the fact that Christianity is a philosophy and a theology, not a religion. This statement implies that if we demonstrate that the Ten Commandments are a religious symbol rather than a philosophical or theological symbol, then they should not be displayed on government property.

There is spiritual value in many passages of the Bible when you sheathe the Hammer of Literalism. So even without a belief in God, a spiritual philosophy could be devised based on the Bible. This philosophy would have to omit those passages expressing or describing the worship of God, however. Religion describes the way in which God, the gods, or the supernatural are worshiped. So once I include commandments indicating which days of the week must be kept holy or how God can be addressed, I’ve left behind philosophy and entered the domain of religion. If I exclude the first five of the Ten Commandments, I’m arguably still within the domain of philosophy. But if it’s all-or-nothing, then we have to choose nothing.

When all other attempts at discrimination fail, the difference between a religion and a philosophy is that a religion is based upon a knowledge of the sacred, whereas a philosophy is based upon a knowledge of logic. While the moral conclusions of religions and philosophies will often overlap, their origins are mutually exclusive.

Secularism

You may be asking, “But why shouldn’t we display religious symbols on government property? Let’s take a vote. Let the majority determine what religious symbols, or lack thereof, to put up.” It’s true that we live in a Christian country in the sense that the majority of Americans are Christian. If the majority wants something, shouldn’t they be able to vote it in? The answer to this is, resoundingly, that majority vote is not and should not be sufficient to override a principle. The principles involved here are secularism and freedom of religion.

What guarantees our freedom of religion? Why do we even have such a right? The phrase “freedom of religion” is a derivative of the text of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]

The First Amendment guarantees us the free exercise of religion (thus, freedom of religion). From this, it seems pretty straight-forward that the restriction of religious symbols, even on government buildings, violates the rights that the First Amendment guarantees. However, there are two parts to this clause of the First Amendment, and the first part is often overlooked. So let’s expand the ellipsis to see the full text:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

It’s not enough to guarantee Us the People the free exercise of religion. The Founding Fathers knew that it was just as important to ensure that the government never moved in the direction of establishing a state religion, which is what the first part of that clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) means. So the very first part of the first amendment in the Bill of Rights was written to ensure that the government would never attempt to establish a state religion. And thus, secularism was born.

Secularism is not a tool of the left wing, nor is it the nemesis of the freedom of religion. In fact, secularism is the reason we enjoy freedom of religion in this nation. Imagine if with each new US President, the spoils system also allowed the new President to mandate the state religion. Sounds crazy? If so, then you’re taking for granted the rights we have today – the principles that distinguished us from the monarchies of Europe. British history is full of examples of monarchs who brought their religion with them to the throne, or used religion as a weapon against their enemies (Henry VIII and “Bloody” Mary I, for example). And even if this spoils system were limited to nothing more than the choice of the religious symbols that would be displayed, we have already established the power of symbols.

Uncle Sam

Secularism protects us from extremist groups like the Taliban and from witch hunts like the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. And while we may scoff at these things from the comfortable point of view of the 21st century, the means by which we have reached such a comfortable point of view is secularism. People of all faiths (or lack thereof) should strive to ensure we defend this principle.

This is the reason that the ACLU is so uptight about harmless gestures such as nativity scenes or the Ten Commandments on government property. These gestures, however small, are symbols representing the violation of the First Amendment. And everybody, not just the ACLU, should be uptight about a violation of the First Amendment.

The Bible

This is, after all, Bible Study with Bill, so what does the Bible have to say about all this? Matthew 6:5-6 reads:

5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

The Hammer of Literalism can be applied here to beat the spirituality out of this passage. If we bludgeon this passage with literalism, we get an odd message out of it that says, “When you pray, you should pray in your closet with the door closed.” While this is a pretty clear argument against prayer in public schools, it’s doubtful that the author of Matthew really envisioned all these closet case prayers.

The spirituality of this passage is actually a powerful message. Your Christian beliefs should be your source of humility, not your source of pride. This message is a reminder of Psalms 37:11, that the meek shall inherit the earth. An aggressive battle to violate the principle of secularism and boldly display a symbol of your religious convictions on government property is not what the psalmist nor the author of Matthew would have wanted. Be humble in your faith, proud of your nation’s principles, and find the path of Christian spirituality.

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