Philosopher Kings to Rule on Ten Commandments

My new linking buddy (shout out to my dawg!) Joe “The Moderate Voice Thrown Across the Room” Gandelman reports that SCOTUS is going to consider the constitutionality of the practice of placing the Ten Commandments in courthouses. (Remember that the First Amendment is one of our topics here.) A few thoughts:

I wrote on this a few years ago in a somewhat purple essay for the Federalist Society. My point there was that the use of the tablets as symbols of law may be objectionable not from the “civil libertarian” point of view but from the religious pont of view — because our legal system is so morally distant from that Law. A little harsh, maybe, but it has the virtue of being a somewhat different take.

To some extent the point raised in the New York Times article linked to by Joe by Jay Sekulow, counsel for an evangelical Christian-oriented group that supports the retention of the Ten Commandments in the courts, backs up this point. He says:

The Ten Commandments have acquired secular as well as religious meaning, he said, and have come to be “uniquely symbolic of law.”

Mr. Sekulow noted that the marble frieze in the courtroom of the Supreme Court Building itself depicts Moses, holding the tablets, in a procession of “great lawgivers of history.” (The 17 other figures in the frieze include Hammurabi, Confucius, Justinian, Napoleon, Chief Justice John Marshall and Muhammad, who holds the Koran.) “Does the Supreme Court now issue an opinion that requires a sandblaster to come in? I think not,” Mr. Sekulow said.

He’s got a nice point. But from my perspective, Moses and John Marshall don’t belong in the same statuary. I would just as soon do without the rest of these “great lawgivers, ” too — remember, Jay, Moses was unique among the prophets, and believe me, Napoleon and Justinian were no prophets. In other words, while I appreciate the idea of giving “props” to Moses, if you really take Moses seriously it’s sacreligious to use him, or the profound religious symbols that are the Ten Commandments, as part of a theological / historical potpourri of “players.” There’s already plenty of confusion. Quite a bit.

And, in any event, the frieze at the Supreme Court building arguably bespeaks a conception of religious pluralism — unlike the Ten Commandments displays at these courthouses. I like the Ten Commandments. I keep them every day. But they aren’t, really, the business of the secular courts, and while I am generally in favor of more, not less, religion in the public square, I don’t think these displays bring anyone closer to God. So here’s one right-wing vote “against.”

UPDATE:  And here are the other ones.

One comment

  • Let’s see it in perspective shall we? The frieze is a display of historical players who at one time or another had a hand in the creation or dissemination of laws. Whether you agree with the philosophy of any individual portrayed, they present a logical philosophical reference point. Let’s stop saying that any display having any potential religious undertones be stricken from public display. Would you have the same objection to the Smithsonian or National Gallery displaying religious works of art such as those of El Grecco? The cornerstone for objection is the adoption of laws – it is not the prevention of speech or in this case public art. If the mere display of any figure or symbol having religious undertones were prohibited, it would preclude many of the symbols and words we have come to use in everyday life.