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David R. Hoffman: The Ten Commandments Debate

Although debate still lingers over Karl Marx's observation that religion "is the opium of the masses," the recent uproar over the removal of a Ten Commandments monument in Alabama, which had been placed in the state's judicial building under the cover of darkness by a demagogic judge named Roy Moore, lends credence to the thesis that the EXPLOITATION of religion may be the true opium of the masses
Historically this has often been the case. Slaves in antebellum America were often told to accept their bondage, because the blessings of "jubilee" awaited them after death. Workers laboring for long hours and low wages in unsafe and unhealthy conditions were often told to be content with their plights because heaven's rewards awaited them, even as their bosses gorged themselves on the profits such labor abuses provided. "Conservative" preachers, who during America's civil rights movement in the 1960s frequently proclaimed that religion was about the soul's salvation, not social change, became deeply entrenched in politics themselves during the Reagan years of the 1980s.

There has always been disagreement in America about what the "founding fathers" intended when dealing with church/state issues. While the truth may never be known, historical evidence suggests why the subject of religion came to be specifically addressed, not once but twice, in the Bill of Rights.

First, many early settlers came to the "New World" to escape the persecutions they suffered by refusing to submit to the edicts of government sanctioned religions. Second, as is often the case, once in the "New World" many of the persecuted became persecutors themselves as religious
intolerance evolved into "witch hunts," crude corporal punishments, banishments and lynchings of religious dissidents. In response, colonies like Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and South Carolina were formed and promoted as bastions of religious tolerance.

This tragic legacy provided the founding fathers with some awareness of religion's divisive potential. One such founder, James Madison, explained that the mingling of church and state would invariably lead to "a usurpation on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them." Madison further explained that only "an entire abstinence of the government in any way whatever [from entanglement in religion] beyond the necessity of preserving public order, and protecting each sect against trespass on its legal rights by others" would prevent such usurpation or corruption from occurring. Thus it was not surprising when the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights decreed there will be "no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Although these two clauses are often viewed as contradictory, they are in reality quite compatible. The second phrase, known as the "Free Exercise Clause," had for years been interpreted to mandate that the government could not interfere with an individual's or group's PRIVATE religious practices unless it could show a "compelling interest" for doing so.

Unfortunately, this clause did little during the nineteenth century to dissuade the government from its efforts to "Christianize" indigenous peoples. Native-American children were often forcibly removed from their homes and placed in "schools" where they were forbidden to practice their traditional beliefs.  Native-American holy men were sometimes imprisoned and starved until they renounced their faith.  The slaying of the famous warrior Sitting Bull and the 1890 massacre of Native-American men, women and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota all resulted from governmental efforts to suppress a religious ritual known as the "Ghost Dance."

This hostility to Native-American religions has persisted to this day. In the case of EMPLOYMENT DIVISION V. SMITH (1990), for example, the United States Supreme Court showed such disdain for the Native-American church that it decimated the "compelling interest test," thereby making it easier for government to interfere in religious practices.

The wisdom of the first phrase, also known as the "Establishment Clause," was perhaps best expressed by conservative politician Barry Goldwater: "By maintaining the separation of church and state the United States has avoided the intolerance which has so divided the rest of the world with religious wars." It is, after all, a sad reality that politicians in a democracy often win elections not by appealing to the nobler virtues of their constituents, but to their basest instincts, including racism, sexism, greed, fear and superstition. Former Alabama governor George Wallace, whom some have compared to Moore, built his political career upon appeals to racial hatred camouflaged as advocacy for "state rights."  The first Bush regime tacitly preyed upon both racism and fear to reach the White House by exploiting an African-American man named Willie Horton, allegedly to demonstrate how Bush's opponent, Michael Dukakis, was "soft on crime." The current Bush regime continued this legacy through its condemnation of affirmative action policies and its exploitation of a death penalty that disproportionately targets minorities. Although the Establishment Clause has made religion largely exempt from such machinations, there is little doubt that weakening it would inevitably result in political campaigns designed to appeal to religious bigotry and intolerance.

Because of this history, I, in my capacity as an attorney, became involved in an Establishment Clause case, which involved the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from the lawn of a city hall.  My experiences in this case not only reaffirmed my belief in the veracity of the Establishment Clause, but also demonstrated how this clause actually enhances religious diversity. I learned that many disagreements exist regarding the interpretation of the Ten Commandments, and that these disagreements usually revolve around different versions of Christianity. For example, the Decalogue in question in my legal case contained the commandment "Thou shalt not make any graven images," while a similar monument nine miles away omitted these words.

I also discovered that the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" is interpreted by some faiths to prohibit the death penalty, while other faiths interpret it to read "Thou shalt not murder," which permits state-sponsored executions. Pacifist religions argue that "Thou shalt not kill" forbids
killing even in wartime, and other faiths claim this commandment protects the sanctity of all life, not just that of humans.

Finally, but not surprisingly, I learned how correct both Madison and Goldwater were, as I observed politicians attempting to outdo each other in exploiting the Ten Commandments "controversy." One city official, who was outspoken in his support of the Decalogue, had previously admitted "ghostwriting" a letter attacking another city employee, clearly a case of "bearing false witness. "The state legislature passed a law approving the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools, and when I inquired about the motivations behind this new law, I was told it was "an easy way to get votes." The governor, who had authored death penalty legislation as a state representative, sought to place a Ten Commandments monument on the lawn of the State Capitol building, an explicit, official endorsement of the "Thou shalt not murder" interpretation.  And today the world is learning that those in power will even "bear false witness" for the sake of conquest, as evidenced by the Bush administration's willingness to use exaggerations, deceptions and outright lies to create the "motives" for the war against
Iraq.

As it became evident that political and governmental involvement in religion only served to demean it, I became a Plaintiff in a case involving a Ten Commandments monument. From the outset I publicly stated that I had no quarrel with or aversion to the monument's open and prominent display, nor to the principles enshrined thereupon. My sole objection (for reasons previously stated) was to the Decalogue's presence on government property. Nevertheless, efforts were still made to misstate my views.  One proposed "solution" involved covering the commandments with a shroud, which was clearly intended to convey the erroneous message that I was somehow "ashamed" of the monument's text.  These misstatements continued even when the monument was ultimately relocated, as politicians found it "necessary" to mention the alleged "irony" of the commandments being more "visible" in their new location than they were in their previous one.

Given these experiences, I certainly took no comfort in Moore's recent "crusade" in Alabama, nor did I have any doubt about the self-serving nature of his motives.  Here, after all, was a man who not only chose to sit in judgment of others, but who was doing so after being elected to the highest judicial office in his state--an office he attained largely through his prior exploitation of the Ten Commandments. The New Testament is replete with criticisms of those who make ostentatious displays of their "faith” comparing their hypocrisy to "dead men's tombs, pure and clean without, but full of stench and decay within." This knowledge and the "God by mob" ideology of many of Moore's supporters invariably lead to one conclusion: "Thank God for the Establishment Clause."

David R. Hoffman
United States of America
An attorney and college professor in the United States.

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