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Funny Thing on the Way to the Courthouse

Glenn Reynolds links to a parody of sorts mocking the Decalogic goings on in that Alabama courthouse:

Alabama Superior Court Justice Roy Moore addresses his supporters outside the Alabama Judicial Building where a monument of Cthulhu was put in place by Moore which he has refused to take down, August 21, 2003 in Montgomery, Alabama. Alabama's Supreme Court judges, breaking ranks with their chief justice, ruled that a Cthulhu monument must be removed from the state court building to comply with a federal order, drawing protests from insane cultists who want to keep it there.

Reynolds then does the following nice lawyerly sidestep to ignore the underlying truth — that the Judeo-Christian God is inherent in the foundations of our country and its laws — of an email that he received in response:

Hmm. So the real question here isn't whether we have a state religion. Rather it's the claim that we do, or should, have a particular state religion. I'd certainly prefer Christianity or Judaism to the Elder Gods, if that's the choice. But I don't believe that the Constitution requires me -- or even permits me -- to make that choice.

The funny thing, in all of this, is that I wouldn't consider it a federal matter if a state courthouse built a monument to some pagan god or goddess (that chick with the scales derives from elsewhere than Christianity, I believe), particularly if the folks in the community supported it sufficiently to hold seance vigils. I'd shake my head at what those nuts in (most likely) California were up to, but I wouldn't think it an obvious travesty against the United States Constitution. Of course, relating to Reynolds's email correspondent, the parodist's scenario isn't very likely, for the simple reason that Cthulhu doesn't have millions of followers and a featured place in the founding documents — and hearts of the founders — of our nation.

Applying this litmus test of reality to the parody at hand, we also find that Deskmerc (the author) handily skipped over much the same distinction as Reynolds does: the real monument isn't an image of God, but a list of laws that permeated every culture and religion of the West. In contrast, I read through the entire parody without finding indication of what the laws of Cthulhu might be.

This, in my view, points to the underlying danger of the specious argument that government ought to have nothing to do with religion: one must ignore the degree to which our entire history and society is rooted in religion. It must ignore that right up through our nation's founding to the present day, leaders have acknowledged from whence claims of equality and justice come. The only alternative to ignoring it would be to suggest that we've "moved beyond" the need to filter our society through God, which establishes an explicitly religious view in the law at least as much as a Nicene Amendment to the Constitution would. And pushing open that gap in the thread of precedence, secularists make the law the arbiter of morality; if it ain't illegal, it must be moral.

One would think that civil libertarians would see the directly inverse ratio of the influence of religion and the required size of the government and be sympathetic to government acknowledgement of religion — broadly at the federal level, but allowing for more specificity toward the local level. But they don't, and they don't often consider what the outcome might be if government is pulled back at the same time that the reach of other forms of social influence is forcefully restrained. Libertarianism is all about the religion of Me — allowance of individual liberty come Hell, high water, or the wrath of Cthulhu.

I suspect libertarians might object to my suggestion that religion is being "forcefully restrained." They might reply that religion is free to peddle its wares in the "free market of ideas." To this, I would ask that they look inside themselves to discern what their reaction would be if a state courthouse put up advertising for a local company or put up a monument to Reason.

So, Instapundit has gotten fewer emails on this issue than he expected. I can give him a reason that he didn't get one from me: I've come to feel that it isn't an open discussion with Professor Reynolds on such issues, and therefore not worth my time. Perhaps I'll alert him to this post and see what happens.

I thought I'd also address an update that he's added. Instapundit reader Michael Gebert emailed, "I have to wonder which Founding Fathers Ben Gibbons thinks were so determined to see Christianity sewn into the very fabric of our government and society." Of course, the Ten Commandments aren't strictly a Christian thing, being in the Old Testament and all, and it was to the Judeo-Christian God that Gibbons was referring.

This blurring of religious references ties in with the rest of Gebert's email because he shifts a general argument into a very specific sub-argument. Gebert follows the above statement with a bunch of those quotations that it seems atheists are compelled to memorize. Search any one of them in Google, and you'll find that they very often appear with the most limited amount of context necessary to make the anti-Christian point. When they are put into context, their power as trump cards for the rationalist-state argument begins to diminish. Indeed, looking beyond even the immediate context will tend to undermine the intentions of those who raise the quotations in the first place.

John Adams: "It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses."

The first thing to note with this one, which I list first only because Gebert does, is that all of the founders were writing during a time when ideological attacks would have come from a theistic, rather than atheistic, position. In that context, this quote makes a very specific statement: the government cannot claim to be acting on behalf of God. It was formed based purely on "reason and the senses"; perhaps we could rephrase that as "purely based on self-evident Truths," such as that "all Men are created equal [and are] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." The Adams quotation is only useful, in the modern day, to argue against those who wish to claim that the founders intended explicitly to follow Christian (or any specific religious) doctrine as such and were divinely inspired to do so. The underlying faith is still a constituent part of "reason."

Of course, it's also relevant that Adams was among the strongest proponents of separation of church and state, in fact:

As a member of the Massachusetts constitutional conventions of 1779 and 1820, John Adams strenuously fought to separate the church from the state. Although his efforts failed, the goal was achieved seven years after his death. In a statewide referendum in 1833, Massachusetts voters disestablished the state religion by a 10-1 margin.

Amazingly, this Founding Father failed to bring the state of Massachusetts to the Supreme Court to end the "unconstitutional" establishment of religion. Perhaps he thought states ought to have the right to establish religion (let alone place the Ten Commandments in a courthouse).

But the question of Massachusetts religion relates to another of Gebert's quotations:

Ben Franklin: "When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."

This statement was made with reference to "religious tests" in Massachusetts. Note the sentence preceding the above:

If Christian preachers had continued to teach as Christ and his Apostles did, without salaries, and as the Quakers now do, I imagine tests would never have existed; for I think they were invented, not so much to secure religion itself, as the emoluments of it.

To be sure, this is not a condemnation of Christianity, but of the misdirected Christianity of eighteenth century Massachusetts. As a Catholic, and guessing that the established Christianity in question was Protestant, I'm not inclined to disagree. (Note to Protestants: these are old disagreements, and for the modern time being, we'd do best to put them aside, wouldn't you say?) I'm also not inclined disagree with the following, from a different writing of Franklin's to be found immediately below the preceding on the page linked above:

Here is my creed. I believe in one God, the creator of the universe. That he governs by his providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think his system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.

I left it there to end on the "Franklin chuckle," but the next sentence suggests that belief in Christ's divinity might be of value to persuade more people to take the related moral code more seriously. I leave it to you to dig up the argument for Christ's divinity being necessary for belief in his moral brilliance (hint: C.S. Lewis), because the point is that Franklin obviously considered God as a constituent component of reality, nature, and reason. As for the question of a religion "supporting itself," I refer you to my first Addendum.

Thomas Jefferson: "Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law."

Note the brevity! Note also the words "common law." This quotation bears on a specific discussion (scroll down) about the derivation of Saxon "common law." I don't have time to dive into the necessary research, but I do wonder what Jefferson was responding to. The context given in the link is to the seventh Amendment and "Suits at common law," about which I know nothing, but which don't seem related to Christian doctrine. I will agree with Jefferson that anybody wishing to argue that the words "common law" prove a specifically Christian basis for our law has more homework to do. Nonetheless, returning to that broader perspective away from which the secularists continually attempt to pull the conversation, one still has to acknowledge that the specific "common law" in question derived from other systems of law, including Roman, through which Judeo-Christian principles likely seeped.

George Washington: "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

This one is Reynolds's offering, and it comes from the Treaty with Tripoli (I don't believe that it's specifically Washington's language, but I could be wrong). Not only was this statement made purely as part of a treaty, but it was part of a treaty with a Muslim country. In that sense, not being founded on the Christian religion means having no inclination to use the structures of government to convert other nations. Nonetheless, even with these qualifications, this quotation would contradict those who insist on declaring the United States to be an explicitly Christian country. Yet, it only contradicts that argument.

Again, the Ten Commandments are not strictly Christian, Alabama is not the United States, and we deny the religiously based faith and morality that is — indeed — "sewn into the very fabric of our government and society" at our peril.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 07:22 PM EST