Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Ten Commandments and The Culture of Disbelief

Christianity Today's weblog has a good summary of yesterday's Supreme Court decisions in two cases involving display of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state capitols of Texas and Kentucky. It includes links to the original opinions, including the dissents.

About 10 years ago I taught a Sunday School class using The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Relidious Devotion, by Stephen Carter, published in 1994. Carter's thesis was that American law and politics tolerate public displays of religious faith only when it is case as a "secular faith" devoid of any true religious meaning. In other words, it's okay to say "God, God" in the public square as long as everyone understand that we don't really mean it.

Carter, a devout Episcopalian and a professor of law at Yale University, was quite a prophet wasn't he? Yesterday the Supreme Court seemed to say that the Texas display of the 10 commandments is permissible because it is only a small part of a much larger secular display and has been in place 40 years without objection, so hey--no one could seriously believe it had any religious meaning. On the other hand, Kentucky must remove the display because they got caught adding additional secular displays to distract from what must have been intended as a REALLY religious display.

What precedent can be derived from these two rulings? It must be that you can display the 10 commandments in the public square only if you do so in a way that makes it clear that they are not to be regarded as anything more than an historic artifact.

Is anyone else wondering whether the medieval theologians who argued about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin are being channeled through the Supreme Court?

7 comments:

will spotts said...

They seem to have been that way for the last 50 years or so.

Personally, I was more disturbed by the eminent domain ruling -- but I suspect I might have gotten so used to the legal opposition to everything Christian that this didn't surprise me.

I have no desire to force Christian views on people who don't want them, but I have trouble believing that the framers of the Constitution intended to protect us from displays of the 10 Commandments. It's a wonder the SCOTUS can even take itself seriously.

MommyCool said...

The Ten Commandments are historical and a lasting part of literature (isn’t the Bible the world’s all-time best-selling book?) and they provide an excellent guide to living. MommyCool is disappointed with the continual efforts of some to edit the uplifting.

will spotts said...

Ironic that I regard this as hostile to things Christian rather than Jewish.

I just noticed that.

Still, the accusation is not that Judaism is being endorsed, but that Christianity is.

There also seems to be something wrong headed about trying to jettison a cultural heritage.

St. Casserole said...

I heard people talking about the "liberal" judges and thought, the Supreme Court is liberal?? I hear people say we need to get rid of liberal judges. I never heard such a stupid idea because the Supremes are not liberal. These two ruling will fuel the right for years.
I'm going to go outside and holler.
Glad you are back from the reunion, we missed you.

Quotidian Grace said...

I think the division in the court is more accurately characterized as "activist" vs. "originalist" rather than "liberal" vs. "conservative".

"Activists" are those who will look outside traditional legal precedent to find grounds for their rulings. "Originalists" (formerly called "strict constructionists") invoke "the original intent" of the Founding Fathers or the authors of legislation as grounds for their rulings.

As you can see from these two cases, the political terms "liberal" and "conservative" are not helpful in trying to analyze the judges' decisions.

You are right--the Court has set itself up to hear every squabble over every display of the Decalogue in city halls, county courthouses and state capitols across the country. I hope they enjoy it--it's going to drive the rest of us nuts.

And thanks--it's good to be back!

will spotts said...

Good analysis. It's certainly not a liberal/conservative break in the way we now use the terms.

John said...

The Raisch decision showed that the so-called 'originalists' (e.g. Scalia, Rhenquist) are not particulary concerned with following the original intent of the Founders.

No one, except possibly Thomas is committed to original intent.