Monday, May 11, 2009

Ten Suggestions on the Ten Commandments

In no particular order, here follow a handful of reasons why Governor Henry ought to veto HB1330:

  1. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids it, both in theory and in practice. Applying the five criteria of Justice Breyer’s crucial concurring opinion in the case of Van Orden v. Perry, it should become clear that the proposed Oklahoma monument fails every prong of his five-pronged, highly-contextual test for the constitutionality of borderline cases of religious displays on public grounds. I gravely doubt whether any Constitutional scholar who does not wholly reject the principle of stare decisis can make a well-reasoned argument to the contrary conclusion.

  2. The Oklahoma Constitution Section II-5 expressly provides that “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion.” It is only by the most rarefied and disingenuous sophistry that one can hope to claim that the solicitation and maintenance of a Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol grounds should be seen as anything other than the indirect use of public property for the endorsement and benefit of the Hebrew and Christian systems of religion.

  3. The above two jurisprudential concerns indicate the eventuality of a lawsuit which the State of Oklahoma will most probably lose. Passing HB1330 will therefore waste the time and money of Oklahoma citizens during a period of pervasive financial difficulties, in which there are more than enough compelling needs affecting the lives of our people far more directly than our current lack of granite monuments to ancient moral codes.

  4. Contra HB1330, the Ten Commandments (taken as a whole) are not “an important component of the moral foundation of the laws and legal system of the United States of America” but rather consist primarily of religious injunctions intended originally for an ancient and theocratic people, most of which would be unconstitutional and unethical to enforce upon the citizens of a modern and pluralistic free people. One need look no further than the irreconcilable conflict between the unyielding religious orthodoxy of the First Commandment and the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment to see that this is so.

  5. Contra HB1330, this display does nothing to further the philosophy that “God has limited the authority of civil government, and that God has endowed people with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” neither does it provide the reasonable observer with any basis to guess that it was erected to honor these time-honored principles of American government. To the contrary, the message transmitted by this display is a straightforward endorsement of the divine moral code of the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

  6. Contra HB1330 Section 2(D), the display of this particular passage and translation of the Hebrew scriptures (the King James Version) clearly serves to endorse particular religious traditions and elevate a religious minority within Christendom to uniquely privileged status, a chosen few whose favored conception of holy writ has been set in stone and officially endorsed by the state government. It is widely known that Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics do not accept the validity of the KJV on account of its formation and promulgation as an Anglican response to Puritan concerns. Moreover, in light of the burgeoning King-James-only movement within modern Protestantism, this monument takes sides in an ongoing theological debate. For example, the congregation of Calvary Baptist of Edmond may rejoice that the State of Oklahoma has chosen to set in stone a passage from the only translation of the Bible which they consider to be the divinely “preserved Word of God for the English-speaking people.”

  7. Religious minorities, upon viewing this monument, will (rightly or wrongly) conclude that the State of Oklahoma does not intend to treat them as equal citizens before the law, because they do not recognize the Hebrew Scriptures or (as is the case of two-thirds of Christendom) do not recognize the validity of the King James Version of the Bible. This message is unmistakable and ineluctable, and can only be avoided by seeing the problem solely through the eyes of a member of the Protestant majority, without for a moment considering what it would be like to see a monument to a religion other than one’s own on the Capitol grounds. To fulfill the injunctions of Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 19:19 to love others as we love ourselves, we must consider the monument as if in the shoes of our neighbors who do not believe as we do.

  8. This monument will have political implications which are currently unforeseeable. For example, groups advocating broadening the death penalty as well as those in favor of strengthening the current Sabbath laws may cite to this monument as a morally exemplary statement of Oklahoma values, noting the relevant Scriptural punishments for breaking the Commandments, e.g. capital punishment for working on the Sabbath. This is an extreme example, of course, but it should be clear that posting this monument will open the door to the interjection of all manner of theologically informed and faith-based arguments into the legislative process.

  9. This monument will have theological implications which are currently unforeseeable. Just as the above examples demonstrate the possibility of having more church in the state, so also this monument suggests the propriety of having more state in the church, that is, more openly partisan politicking in the pews.  Surely churches will feel that they ought to take a more active role in getting people elected who share their faith commitments, now that the state has taken it upon itself to select particular religious dicta to be displayed prominently and exclusively on the Capitol grounds.  This will lead inevitably to a perverse admixture of religious and political orthodoxy, unnecessarily dividing congregations and other religious bodies.

  10. Finally, one must wonder whether the passage of this bill is (at least for some officials) nothing more than a cynical attempt to garner grassroots support from those who would happily tear down Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state, and to thereby create an de facto religious test designed to exclude those politicians who care to preserve our national ethos of pluralism and religious tolerance. Such Machiavellian tactics are surely to be deplored, most especially when coupled with the flagrant hypocrisy of those politicians willing to take the name of the Lord’s in vain by cloaking themselves in an illusion of public piety in order to consolidate their power base and manipulate the electorate to serve their own ends. Of such politicians, the red-letter words of Matthew 23:27 spring inevitably to mind.

Given all of these reasons, it should be clear that it would be unwise, unethical, and almost undoubtedly unconstitutional to post this monument at the State Capitol. It takes a rare and courageous official to veto a popular bill in the face of uninformed but pervasive public support, but these are precisely the traits which may make someone into a great leader of a free people.


  1. Comment from Clinton Wiles:

    Assuming that OK goes with the same 10 commandments that TX has, their relevance to our legal system goes something like this.

    The first 4 don’t address the interactions of people. While the US Constitution leaves the individual to address these matters in relation to their religion, the Founders did not leave the matter in legislative hands; primarily because of the history of legislating the relationship of citizens to deities.

    The 5th should be a conditional commandment or at least incumbent on both parties. The home of Kelsey Briggs should be well aware that some parents don’t deserve honoring.

    Commandment 6 seems a bit idealistic in the land of the ‘Make my day’ law. Perhaps we should use the Jewish version of the commandment here which enjoins us not to murder.

    Commandment 7 could ease some marital problems if universally observed but as enforcement records from the office of the President on down show, it is a matter best left to couples with the state handling the obligations of the aftermath of the relationship.

    Numbers 8 and 9 do have direct and reasonable application in the laws protecting personal property and insuring meaningful un-perjured justice.

    Number 10 might be useful in reducing tensions in society but it would also be an assault on the capitalist system in which the desire to have more and better things drives the economy that also delivers our standard of living.

    Two directly useful commandments available from any religious culture, one that has to be adjusted for extreme situations, one piece of good advice, one that should cut both ways to be truly useful, one that would undermine our economic system, and four that address matters best not addressed by the legislature. Perhaps we were more inspired by common sense and should erect a monument to rationality.

  2. as an Oklahoman--I think it is awesome.


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