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Church-state’s dangers

Alan Braunholtz

The actions of wishful demagogue, Alabama’s Moore, illustrate why church and state should remain separate. Here we have a state’s chief justice ignoring the law of the land, using his position of power to proselytize his beliefs.

Either his religious fervor overcame his legal knowledge or he doesn’t have any. His “still the Ten Commandments judge” election slogan apparently appealed to the emotions and prejudices of enough of the electorate to vote in a chief justice ignorant of the law. Neither is a good situation for Alabama.

That he installed his “Ten Commandments” monument without the knowledge of the other judges and in the middle of the night with a TV crew present (you can buy copies to help support the cause) suggests he’s trying to make a political issue out of his faith. He knows he is right regardless of what the constitutional law of the land says. Everyone is entitled to believe what they want, but if you can’t put that aside to follow the law, then don’t become a judge.



The 1st Amendment contains a clause against the establishment of religion. It also supports free speech and free exercise of religion. These can be viewed as contradictory.

Isn’t removing the “Ten Commandments” an infringement on the free speech of Moore’s religious preaching? Not really. He’s free to preach whatever he wants outside a building representing the state of Alabama. This monument in the eyes of Alabama’s other justices (a conservative group) clearly violated the 1st Amendments clause against the establishment of religion and free exercise of all religions.



For a government not to choose a religion, it has to be equal to all religions and those who choose to be free from religion. This is difficult to do, especially if one religion dominates. Allowing all religions the right to put monuments in government buildings (he didn’t) sounds fair, but in practice the majority religion will crowd out all others and effectively become the state religion. All religions will be equal, but some more equal than others.

This may be the goal of some religious conservatives, the linking of Christianity with government, but if you want freedom of religion, none can enjoy government privileges.

Sometimes this can come across as anti-religion if taken too far. “Freedom of religion, not freedom from religion” is a favorite quote. Interestingly, creche displays at Christmas and our money “in God we trust” are considered by the courts to be historical habits devoid of religious meaning. So much for the word “God” as a religious icon!



The men who wrote the Constitution were all deeply religious, but they knew the dangers of joining church and state. The pilgrims came to this new land because of religious persecution in England. Their practice of Christianity didn’t mesh with the king’s chosen one. Some of the worst crimes in history came about when religion and state got together. The Crusades and Inquisition are examples of a state religion justifying any action. Unbelievers or heretics are wrong by definition and have no rights.

Mixing religion with government is bad for both. Countries in the Middle East provide an example of this. Government constrains religious expression, and religion constrains government and social reforms. It’s a vicious circle that prevents either from responding to a changing world. These countries are stagnating.

Its worrying that Chief Justice Moore chose the Ten Commandments as his religious benchmark. These predate Christ, belonging to the vicious eye-for-an-eye Old Testament. Do we really want the moral underpinning of society to be that of a savage desert people? Which 10 did he choose? There are many different versions (Lutheran, Catholic, Judaism). The Bible’s versions differ slightly between Exodus and Deuteronomy and they aren’t listed in neat 1 through 10 tablets, as per Charlton Heston. I’m not sure how gun rights fits in with “shall not kill,” either.

Legally, most of these commandments have nothing to do with modern law. More are about worshipping God first (but not only; monotheism came later). “You shall not kill” and “shall not steal” are not unique. They’re found in every religion I’ve heard of and are ambiguous in circumstance.

Are executions and wars outlawed, or is it just unnecessary killing whatever that is? Honoring your parents and the Sabbath are good, but Exodus 35.2 follows this up with a direction to kill those who work on the Sabbath. It’s a bit harsh if you work in the service industry.

Exodus 21.7 mentions selling one’s daughters into slavery, so espousing the Old Testament as law and God’s eternal and unchanging word is troubling at best.

Religious knowledge needs to be understood in its historical context and interpretation of religious knowledge changes over time. Christianity has had an amazing (overall positive) impact on the world because of the teaching’s of Jesus, not the Old Testament.

Jesus conveyed the message that the world wasn’t a fixed creation but God worked on the future, too. Change is possible. Jesus preached humility, patience, compassion and peacemaking while dedicating most of his time to the poor and sick instead of the religious establishment and rulers.

Christianity grew so rapidly partly because of its egalitarian appeal, especially with women. When powerless and oppressed, Christianity naturally preached a doctrine of nonviolence. But even with power the emperor Augustine made a case for defensive wars being the only just wars: One should never fight for gain; non-combatants not to be harmed; and the aim of war is peace not revenge. That’s not a bad start to making wars less hellish.

Many of our modern laws do come from papal legal reforms and canon law of medieval times. Rational trials replacing trial by ordeal and marriage based on consent are two examples.

The teachings of Jesus seem to me a better moral underpinning of society than the Old Testament. I like Gandhi, too, though, and personally don’t think any religion has an exclusive on morals or ethics. The Ku Klux Klan was a religious organization, and the preachers who led their congregations in a celebration of the murder of gay Matthew Shepherd in Wyoming believed they were doing the right thing.

Strangely, I don’t see much preaching against banks charging interest (usury), something the Bible condemns many times. It’s easy to choose morals that reflect your prejudices.

People who are not constrained by an “it is because it is” thought pattern can come up with revealing ethical arguments regarding the choices of modern life. There are too many authors to list, but if you want to challenge any preconceived beliefs, try reading Peter Singer.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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