May 14, 2010

Sarah Palin on the Ten Commandments

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Spurred to bold rhetorical flourishes by the recent Federal Court decision against the National Day of Prayer, Sarah Palin took her "Christian nation" act to The O'Reilly Factor. The ensuing conversation is a study in wrong-headedness.

Palins's advice: "Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant -- they're quite clear -- that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the ten commandments.

"What in hell scares people about talking about America's foundation of faith?" Palin continued. "It is that world view that involves some people being afraid of being able to discuss our foundation, being able to discuss God in the public square, that's the only thing I can attribute it to."

I'm sure she meant to say "H E Double Hockeysticks," gosh darnit. Her outrage has clearly gotten the better of her.

Of course, what the founding fathers were "quite clear" about was the exact opposite. The very first amendment to the Constitution prohibits government establishment of religion; a fact O'Reilly at least gives lip service to in the interview. God is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. If the intent were truly to make this a Christian nation, that would have been quite the oversight. The private writings of a number of the founders make it even more clear that they did not want the government in the religion business. A good overview can be found here

One of the more absurd notions batted about by Palin and O'Reilly is that our laws are based on the ten commandments, with O'Reilly going so far as to claim that they can be found in the Supreme Court building. This is a distortion. There are depictions of Moses and his iconic tablets but they are placed in a context with other legendary lawgivers. One of the more prominent images places Moses with Confucius and Solon, neither of whom can be confused for Judeo-Christian thinkers. Our founding fathers also had nothing to do with the Supreme Court building. Construction didn't begin until 1932.

Whenever I hear anyone say that US law should be -- or is -- based on the ten commandments, I have to wonder if they've actually read them. Any attempt to legislate them in entirety would be, not just unconstitutional, but thoroughly impracticable.

The commandments appear in both Exodus and Deuteronomy with slight variations. What we think of as the ten commandments is actually a reduction of more complex scripture and the finished product varies in different religious traditions. Wikipedia does a decent job of showing the context and derivation. But I'll pick a list and take them one by one:

1. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me."

Many iterations leave all the stuff about Egypt out for reasons that should be obvious. Most of us have never even been to Egypt, so at best, it would have to be interpreted as a metaphor. That creates a little problem for fundamentalists who advocate a literal interpretation of scripture. Sort of a conundrum.

But the larger issue, obviously, is that any pretense of religious freedom would go out the window if congress started passing laws mandating which god we must all worship. There's no way to argue that that isn't an "establishment" of a religion.

Legal issues aside, this commandment is a bit of sticky wicket. It implies rather strongly that there are other gods. It's an unusual monotheism that says not that there is only one god, but that we must worship only one god and ignore the others. It's more of a preferential polytheism, really. In most of the Judeo-Christian world, that implication is ignored as our concept of a god blurs with mystical awareness of oneness symbolized by a definable God... but not always. It slips out from time to time. A recent example can be found in the statement from Franklin Graham that created so much controversy.

The God of Islam is not the same God. He's not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It's a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion.

Such "my tribe is better than your tribe" divisiveness really doesn't advance us spiritually or otherwise.

2. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My Commandments."

Again, I can't think of any law prohibiting graven images anywhere in the US. Like the first commandment, it would be a blatant violation of the establishment clause. Not only would legislation based on this commandment interfere with the practice of many other religions, from Hindu to Wicca, it would also create problems for many Christians. Much of the Christian world seems to ignore this commandment entirely. Catholicism, in particular, is rife with images of God, angels, Jesus, the saints... Christians everywhere bow or genuflect before the cross, with or without the crucified Jesus on it. Not since the various iconoclast movements in time of yore has anyone in the Judeo-Christian tradition seriously tried to stop the use of religious idols.

The other part of this commandment that, shall we say, gives one pause is the revelation of God's jealousy. Not a becoming attribute in a god. It sounds petty. And it, once again, indicates that there are other gods to be jealous of.

3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain."

Laws against profanity, in general, crop up here and there in local statutes; none God-specific, though. They raise free speech issues. We could try making them federal, I guess, but then Sarah Palin would have to watch her mouth and stop swearing like a sailor on national television. (See above.)

4. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it."

Other than Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, I can't think of anyone who even follows this practice anymore. Okay... Seventh Day Adventists... there may be others. But as a matter of law? Not so much. There are blue laws here and there that restrict retail or, more commonly, the sale of alcohol on Sundays but these, at most. follow the spirit, not the letter of the commandment. I also expect a strict adherence to Sabbath restrictions would be a hard sell in our current pro-business environment. And if we're to be really Judeo-Christian about it, we'd have to shut everything down for the entire weekend, starting on Friday night. I have a hard time envisioning that.

5. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you."

Well, this would get into the complexities of family law but in the modern world, the "honor" is supposed to go both ways. There are laws against child abuse now and a strict reading of that commandment could negate them.

6. “You shall not murder."

This one absolutely makes it into law. Of course it's pretty universal. Murder is explicitly prohibited in non-Judeo-Christian countries and cultures around the world.

7. “You shall not commit adultery."

There are some states that have laws on the books making adultery illegal but they are relics of another time and are no longer prosecuted. The only legal ramifications currently have to do with damages in divorce cases, lawsuits, and the like. Article 134 of UCMJ prohibits adultery and can result in a dishonerable discharge and rarely, if ever, a year in jail.

The military -- where people live and work closely together and have access to weaponry -- is the only place you see any real punitive action against adulterers. Throughout most of American society, adultery is viewed as a private matter. I'm sure there are many politicians -- including legislators -- and numerous religious leaders who are glad that they won't face legal consequences for such indiscretions. (Bill O'Reilly, for instance, has found himself on the wrong side of that particular commandment.) For that reason alone, I doubt we'd ever see any great legal push for laws more consistent with the seventh commandment.

8. “You shall not steal."

See commandment six.

9. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."

There are civil, not criminal statutes, against libel and slander and the legal bar is quite high, in this country. The charge must not only be false, it must be proven that the defendant knew it was false and spread that falsehood with malice.

Perjury could qualify as false witness against a neighbor, in some cases, but it's much broader. That can result in criminal charges.

10. “You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's.”

God really saved the best for last because this one's my favorite! I just love the way wives are equated with slaves, property, and livestock. Technically, this would be a thought-crime. It's hard to legislate against thought-crimes and it gets into all sorts of sticky First Amendment issues.

The purpose of laws is to allow people to live together harmoniously and there is a good bit of universality to some of those commandments. Moses was faced with some of the same issues that any community faces and some of those practical considerations are evident. He also had to deal with the whole worship of the golden calf thing so I suppose specifying which god to worship was important. They were, no doubt, the laws most likely to advance social cohesion at the time. But most of them just aren't applicable in a modern democracy. If they were and if, in fact, our system of jurisprudence was based on those commandments, you'd expect all ten of them to be class 1 felonies. Aside from 6 and 8, they're not and I think it's pretty unlikely that they ever will be... unless we turn into a Handmaid's Tale kind of dystopia. I doubt even Sarah Palin wants that... but I could be wrong.

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