The battle between secularists and religionists has been joined in the courts of the US. At stake is the country’s tradition of tolerance and freedom, writes John V Stevens.
The issue of the posting of the Ten Commandments in United States government schools and institutions, although not a universal battle, is, according to the Bible from which they are drawn, one that has worldwide implications. People on both sides have, in their own view, outstanding reasons why their position should prevail. But what would be the outcome—for good or for evil—from their posting? It would be ironic if in seeking to promote higher ethics and morality, religious oppression and persecution were the result. But this is what Revelation chapter 13 predicts will be the result of a government infiltrated by religion.
Today the US is in the business of exporting her political system—by force if necessary. Tomorrow—and again by force—it might well be its religion.
In the Supreme Court of the United States, the sculptor placed the Ten Commandments of Moses directly above the Chief Justice. To the right is a symbolic figure, Power of the Government; on the left, the Majesty of the Law. Coincidently, his knee shields most of the first table, which deals with humankind’s duty to God, including the fourth, the Sabbath day. The rising sun, above the law, appears to take pre-eminence over it, again a hint at what is predicted in Revelation 13.
Supporters of religion argue that if the Ten Commandments can be posted in the Supreme Court where constitutional decisions are made, what, then, is the problem with placing them prominently in schools and elsewhere?
The short answer is that in the Supreme Court, they appear as merely two tables of stone—part of a sculpture—with no words, along with other secular instruments of law, such as the Code of Hammurabi.
A Kentucky law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools was challenged in Stone v Graham, in 1980. The state court ruled the law was constitutional in that its “avowed purpose” was “secular and not religious.” (Private funds paid for such postings.) On appeal, the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Kentucky upheld it in an equally divided court. However, the US Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional by a majority of justices on November 17, 1980. Earlier it had announced a three-part test when a state law was challenged in that religion was being established. It was first enunciated in the case of Lemon v Kurtzman, 1971. It ruled, “First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion … finally, the statute must not foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion.”
Kentucky had placed in small print at the end of the statute: “The secular application of the Ten Commandments is clearly seen in its adoption as the fundamental legal code of Western Civilisation and the common law of the United States.”
The High Court responded, “The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature. The Ten Commandments is undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact.”
It went on to concede that the latter part of that law did deal with secular matter, such as dishonoring parents, killing, adultery, stealing, false witness and covetousness. But the first part deals with worshipping God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the name of the Lord in vain, and observing the Sabbath—all purely religious. Such posting “under the auspices of the legislature provides the ‘official support of the State … Government.’” Its unconstitutionality was so obvious to the Court that oral arguments were not held.
That should have stopped the pressure, but it didn’t. More than three decades on, the issue simmers. Two 2005 decisions dealing with the posting of the Ten Commandments on government property have forbidden its placement in courts (McCreary Country, KY v ACLU) while approving it (Orden v Perry) on state capitol grounds when mixed with other displays.
The mixture of the religious with the secular is troubling and confusing. In it is concealed the foundation for the Bible’s predicted establishment of religion by governments, something that might sound unlikely today, but should the Ten Commandments ever be “established” in the US, the legal foundation for it will be in place.
There are always those well-intentioned people who insist everybody should adopt religious behaviour that parallels their own. But when they use the power of government to enforce their view, there are problems. It’s happened before.
The power of Christianity lies not in force but in divine love. God seeks only voluntary respect and obedience, exercised by our freewill and, even then, it should be to the benefit all humankind. The great divide between God’s commandments and those of Caesar—the secular code of law—is incapable of being bridged, for God writes His on the heart (Jeremiah 31:33), obeyed not by force but love, whereas governments use force and sanction.
In the early years of Jerry Falwell’s rise to religious and political power, he wrote an article in Logos magazine. “It is interesting to note that most of the Ten Commandments are still written into the laws of the various states,” he observed. All law, he went on, is an imposition of someone’s value system over someone else’s value system. He believes in legislating morality, and furthermore, sees it as a good move to legislate the whole of the Ten Commandments.
Mr Falwell needs to read Paul’s clear definition on the responsibility of government in relation to the Ten Commandment law. In Romans 13 Paul states that everybody should be subject to government authority, for God establishes earthly authority.
But earthly authorities worldwide don’t enforce laws fairly or consistently, something the apostle Peter discovered when he was thrown into jail for preaching the gospel. “We must obey God rather than man,” he said. His mandate was a responsibility to God, outside the jurisdiction of human government. Christ said we’re to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
Paul, in Romans 13:8-10, says we are to pay our obligation of love to our fellow beings—the area of the Ten Commandments where government does have jurisdiction. Such commands forbid the dishonoring of authority, murder, adultery, theft, deceit and coveting. Government has an obligation to enforce these social moral laws that operate horizontally, human to human.
But the first four commandments operate vertically—human to God—and define our spiritual relationship with Him. These commandments demand the worship of God alone, the repudiation of false gods, the use of God’s name honestly and not hypocritically, and the observance of the Sabbath in honour of Him who created us. These are clearly out of the jurisdiction of government.
Right here is where the intrusion of the established religious governments of the Middle Ages in Europe occurred, and it’s being tried again. To many, even among the judiciary, common law and biblical law are just about synonymous.
Thomas Jefferson, a linguistic scholar who mastered not only English but also Latin, Greek and Hebrew, pointed out in a letter of June 5, 1824, that thanks to the decisions of judges, Christianity had for all practical purposes become part of common law. This view is reinforced by a 1947 judgment, Everson v Board of Education, which concluded that “A large proportion of the early settlers … came … from Europe to escape the bondage of laws which compelled them to support and attend govern-favoured churches. The centuries immediately before and contemporaneous with the colonisation of America had been filled with turmoil, civil strife, and persecutions, generated in a large part by established sects determined to maintain the absolute political and religious supremacy.”
Early American pioneers of a religious bent typically set up their own religious establishment and proceeded to treat religious minorities in the manner that led to their departure from Europe.
Making the Ten Commandments the law of the land could and did in reality lead to some difficulty for minorities and nonbelievers. For instance, Sunday observance was the law for everyone in the Colony of Virginia, even though only less than 10 per cent of its people were affiliated with a religious body. Both believers and nonbelievers were required by law to have religious observance and attend the “divine service, and catechising, upon pain for the first fault to lose their provision, and allowance for the whole week following, for the second to lose the said allowance, and also to be whipped, and for the third to suffer death.” Virginia also had a death penalty for blasphemy and disagreeing openly with established church teachings.
The Plymouth Colony of New England in 1671 called for death penalties for idolatry, witchcraft, infidelity, blasphemy, for cursing God and presumptuous Sunday desecration. Their 1651 law called for death for those who denied the Bible. Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1646 approved banishment for those guilty of heresy, separating them from their jobs and relatives. A year later it passed a law that banned Catholic priests on penalty of death. Other death penalties in Massachusetts Bay Colony were applied to those guilty of worshipping other gods, witches, blasphemy, and stringent punishments for those not attending compulsory church services.
And in Australia, in the late-19th century, alleged Sabbath-breakers were placed in stocks in Parramatta, in the colony of New South Wales, a decision of the courts,
This probably explains why so small a percentage of early settlers in either country had official ties to the churches. It also explains why so many Founders of the United States were deists instead of Christians. Christian witness was far from Christian, certainly nothing like the life of Christ, whom they professed to believe in and worship.
In the battle for the establishment of the Ten Commandments, there is more to come. Revelation 13 reveals a time—perhaps not too distant—when there will be a government-legislated code of worship. It clearly suggests economic penalties for nonconformists, with a death penalty to follow. It also says that the return of Christ will intervene before its implementation, bringing deliverance to those loyal to God and faithful in their worship of Him.