TCS Daily


Turning Faith Into Elevator Music

By William J. Stuntz - July 1, 2005 12:00 AM

The Supreme Court has spoken, and then some: ten separate opinions in a pair of Ten Commandments cases, which seems nicely symmetrical. What all those opinions add up to, predictably, is a muddle. The Ten Commandments can stay on the Texas State Capitol grounds -- but not in Kentucky's courthouses. Moses hangs in the balance. So does baby Jesus: Come December, you can bet on a raft of manger scenes on courthouse lawns across the South and Midwest, in all the places Michael Moore likes to call "Jesusland" -- and a raft of lawsuits seeking to take them down.

I'm rooting for the lawsuits.

That's a little odd, since I'm part of the target audience, the constituency that is supposed to like these things. I live in Massachusetts (which Michael Moore likes to call "Canada"), but my natural sympathies belong to Jesusland. I'm a Christian. I believe the Bible is a true account of who God is and who we are. I believe the Ten Commandments lie at the core of wisdom. I believe the Incarnation, the event all those manger scenes celebrate is incomparably the best and most important event in human history. If it matters, I even voted for George W. Bush, twice. So if anyone should want the Ten Commandments in state capitols and "in God we trust" on the coins and manger scenes on courthouse lawns, I should.

But I don't want any of those things. I'd much rather give them back.

Here's a thought experiment. Test the decision to put that monument on the Texas capitol grounds against another Biblical principle: the Golden Rule, the idea C.S. Lewis liked to call "do as you would be done by." Take the people who want symbols of their faith on government property, and put them in a society where passionate atheism is the majority view. Suppose all those passionate atheists want to put up monuments in every courthouse and state capitol saying that there is no God, that all good law consists of human wisdom and nothing more. Would my fellow believers like that state of affairs? I don't think so. I know I wouldn't like it. It would make me feel, just a little, like a stranger in my own home, someone who doesn't belong. It would be a tiny reminder that other people with beliefs hostile to mine own this country, and that I'm here at their sufferance. I wouldn't like that at all.

If that's right, then turning around and doing the same thing to people who don't believe what I do when my crowd is in the majority is wrong. Not wrong by the measure of the First Amendment or some legal theory or secular philosophy, but wrong by the measure of "do as you would be done by."

That might be tolerable if the monuments and manger scenes satisfied some religious duty. If anything, though, duty cuts the other way. There is a passage in the book of Revelations that bears on this point. The risen Jesus is speaking of, and to, the church in Laodicea. He tells them: "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm -- neither hot nor cold -- I am about to spit you out of my mouth." Symbolic acknowledgments like the Texas monument and the Kentucky plaques, like religious mottoes on money or public manger scenes (usually accompanied by Santa and his reindeer), are quintessentially lukewarm. They do not so much honor God as try to buy him off, cheap. This was precisely the problem with most mandatory school prayers in the days when such things were allowed. The prayers were so vapid as to insult believers, yet still managed to offend non-believers. Just like baby Jesus with a stable full of reindeer.

Seeing the Ten Commandments in public spaces is a little like hearing the Miranda warnings on "Law and Order," which doesn't make anyone think about the real meaning of Miranda (whatever that is) because it doesn't make anyone think at all. It's the social equivalent of elevator music. Religious people shouldn't want their faith to be elevator music.

That leads to an even worse problem. Symbols like the ones the Supreme Court haggled about give the impression that Christianity and the government are somehow in cahoots with each other. That's a dangerous impression, and a false one. It's a small step from the idea that the government endorses Christianity to an idea that is much worse: that Christianity endorses the government. Christians are the big losers in that transaction. Western Europe is filled with Christian symbols -- Christian Democrats are a leading political party in several countries -- but almost entirely devoid of Christians. Christianity does not thrive when political parties take its name and capitol lawns showcase its precepts. On the contrary, it thrives when it stays as far from those things as possible.

The government thrives, too. Religious conservatives and secular liberals should be able to agree on this much: teaching good morals is not a job for the Texas legislature or the Kentucky courts -- or any legislature or court. Making just laws is hard enough, and our government isn't so good at that. Teaching virtue is incomparably harder. Personally, I'd rather they stuck to the laws.

But the question shouldn't be what I'd rather. It shouldn't be what is or isn't to my side's advantage. If the Golden Rule means anything in this context, the question should be, what is to the other side's advantage? Twenty-first century America is a land full of legal rights, and lawyers to make the most of them. The most Christian thing to do in a place like that is to make the least of them. Somewhere, sometime I'd like to hear that my fellow believers, when given the opportunity to erect some watered-down monument or display, said: "Thank you, but no. I don't want to exercise my rights." That would communicate more Christian faith than all the monuments and plaques and graduation prayers put together.

Then the Supreme Court could quit wasting its time on these cases (and, given the way the Supreme Court works, start wasting its time on something else). There are plenty of issues worth fighting about in America's courtrooms and legislative hallways. This isn't one of them.

William J. Stuntz is a Professor at Harvard Law School and a frequent TCS contributor.

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