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MIND'S EYE

 

 

Commandments Versus Amendments

Robert M. Price

Many years ago, I attended a Baptist high school youth retreat. We belonged to the Conservative Baptist Association, but we couldn't find a militant enough speaker in our own denomination, so we turned to the Baptist Temple movement for a good speaker, one Brother Bill Dougherty, a representative of Billy Sunday's "muscular Christianity" if there ever was one! Well, one evening, he asked all us enthusiastic Christian youths, "How many of you believe the whole Bible, cover to cover?" Every hand went up. Then he asked, "How many of you have read the whole Bible, cover to cover?" Not too many hands ascended at that one, I can tell you! His response? "You dumb-heads! How can you believe something when you haven't read it?" After thirty years, that incident remains fresh in my memory. Especially these days, I find myself wondering whether those who proclaim the loudest their absolute faith in the Bible have ever actually read the thing. If they had, I suspect, they might not take some of the positions they wind up espousing. I am thinking particularly of the recent row over the Ten Commandments monument on display in the Supreme Court of Alabama.

I love America. I love the Bible. I do not find that dual loyalty inconsistent. I don't have to choose between them. But I know there is a crucial difference between the biblical commandments and the amendments, the Bill of Rights of the Constitution. The first amendment mandates that the state shall establish no religion. That is, the government has no business proclaiming to American citizens that there is one proper religion for them to belong to. And thank God for that! Baptists were among the chief pioneers in securing the separation between church and state, because they had seen all too clearly, both in Europe and in the Colonies, how one group of True Believers, if they possess the power, can persecute other groups of True Believers. Chances are, if the United States government picked one particular faith to be the official one, it wouldn't be yours or mine. So we deem it better that nobody be top dog. We're all safer that way.

Many people seem to think that the Supreme Court's order for the Alabama courthouse to move that monument from its position of centrality is one more sneaky attempt by secularists to squelch any public display of the majority Christian faith. There are indeed such attempts. For instance, a few months ago a New York court decreed that while the Jewish menorah and the Islamic crescent and star were "cultural symbols," the Christmas Tree (the Christmas Tree, if you can believe it!) was a "religious symbol" and had to be removed from public display. Now come on! I call that anti-Christian bias! I call that un-American, too, just as I would if they tried to ban the Muslim and Jewish symbols.

But the Ten Commandments display is a different critter altogether, I think. The same issue came up in the recent debate over whether the Ten Commandments ought to be posted in public school classrooms. The problem becomes evident as soon as one actually stops to read the text. The Commandments are not all moral truisms like "Thou shalt not steal, commit adultery, murder, covet," etc. If they were, we would have nothing to argue about here. The trouble is that the very first commandment tells its readers or hearers to worship only Jehovah, the Hebrew God. It is a commandment, after all! For the government to post this commandment is, quite obviously, to mandate the observance of a particular religion: Judaism, and presumably by extension Christianity. "Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, etc: too bad! You're out of luck!" No, I don't think they are. We do not live in the covenant community of Israel to whom these commandments were given to govern their national life. We live in America, a multi-religious community where we have a covenant of amendments, the Bill of Rights, to govern our national life. And these amendments protect us from domination by any one of our religions. I don't think Alabama Judge Roy Moore actually intends to command everyone to worship Jehovah. It's more likely that he just hasn't thought through the implications of his position, or of the very commandments he so loves.

I don't pretend to know where Brother Bill stands on this issue, but I bet he would advise you in no uncertain terms to make sure you have re-read both the commandments and the amendments before you voice an opinion on this touchy question.

 

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