by Nathan Abrams on Sep 4, 2003
The 5,280-pound monument of the Ten Commandments installed by the Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore may have been removed from the rotunda of the Montgomery, Ala., judicial building by federal court order, but the issue he raised of the proper place of religion in American public life will not go away.
Unless an un-breachable wall between religion and public life is properly and fully erected, the problems raised by Moore’s original act will keep recurring.
Why? Because the United States is an extraordinarily religious country with a long tradition of using the Bible for non-religious, particularly political, ends. Indeed, English may be America’s unofficial first language but, to all intents and purposes, Hebrew (in translation of course) comes a close second.
Moore’s claim that the Ten Commandments form the basis of American law will not stand up to legal scrutiny, but his actions fit squarely within American tradition. American public life has long been permeated with the use of biblical language and symbols.
Over the centuries, the Bible has been overused in the United States to such an extent that it has become merely a device of political spin — a set of empty and banal cliches, divorced from context and meaning, ready to be deployed at will.
Moore is simply the latest in a long line of descendants of the first Puritan settlers in America who felt a keen affinity with the Children of Israel. Puritans called their new land “Canaan” and built their institutions on their covenant with God. If we keep this covenant, said John Winthrop, the founding governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, “we shall find that the God of Israel is among us.”
The Puritans firmly set their stamp upon American culture. In denouncing the Tea Act of 1773, Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Rush turned to the Bible. “What shining examples of Patriotism,” he wrote, “do we behold in Joshua, Samuel, Maccabeus and all the illustrious princes, captains and prophets among the Jews.”
Like Moore, Thomas Jefferson and the other revolutionary leaders called themselves “Israelites” who were throwing off the yoke of the “Pharaoh” in their “Promised Land” during the American Revolution. On the very day that American independence was declared, a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson selected an official seal for the new Republic. Their design represented the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea as Moses was leading the Israelites to freedom.
Franklin, who had studied Hebrew, suggested that the inscription on the seal be in Hebrew. It read in that language “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.” In addition, the Liberty Bell was inscribed in English with the words of Moses: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” It’s no coincidence that “The Ten Commandments,” one is watched by millions of Americans every Easter.
What’s more, the decision to locate the capital of the United States outside the territory of the individual states was influenced by the precedent of Jerusalem, which was not situated within the land of the individual twelve Jewish tribes. As a testament to this influence, a marble relief of Moses is in the House of Representatives.
When Judge Moore and his Alabama supporters use the Bible to justify his actions, they are no different from American leaders of the past. Americans have long incorporated religious imagery into public life. The Abolitionist crusade against slavery, which inspired the Union’s forces during the Civil War, drew upon the Hebrew Bible, and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” derived from biblical prophets.
During the early Cold War, the Pledge of Allegiance was enlarged to incorporate the words “under God.” In 1957, the words “In God We Trust” were added to dollar bills. Four decades later, at the verge of the Gulf War in 1991, using a phrase from Ecclesiastes, George H. W. Bush announced there’s “a time for peace, a time for war”. His son, President George W. Bush, probably knows his Bible better than any other book.
The excessive use of the seemingly simple and emotional language that the Bible can supply has cheapened it into a set of political slogans to be used whenever politicians see fit. Over the course of two centuries, American leaders have steadily blurred (if it indeed ever really existed) the boundaries between religious discourse and public life. Moore’s installation of the Ten Commandments is simply the latest, physical embodiment of this old tendency. The time has come to put a stop to it.
Displaying the Ten Commandments or using Biblical precedents and language sends out a message of discord in a multicultural society. It privileges a Judeo-Christian ethic to the exclusion of other religions. If the United States is to be an all-inclusive society, then every recognized religion must have a right equal to Christianity to display its symbols in a public space. There are really two unpalatable alternatives: filling public space with all sorts of religious symbols, or excluding them and keeping the existing ones intact (ones, such as the Sabbath, which, in today’s society, many people may no longer recognize as being religiously derived to begin with).
The court order to remove Alabama’s Ten Commandments monument was the correct one. If we can now build on this foundation to erect an impermeable wall between the use of religion in public life, similar crises may be forestalled. Religion is too personal to treat as a political football, and our public space too important for it to become the preserve of one group.
Nathan Abrams teaches U.S. History at the University of Southampton (Great Britain) and is a writer or the History News Service.