A friend of mine e-mailed to gently chide me about a recent post I wrote drawing parallels between the Supreme Court decisions on Kelo and the Ten Commandments and how the Constitution and the Ten Commandments concern themselves with standards of behavior. In that post I had a toss-off line (I buy them three for a dollar) that “in my opinion, those who find the Commandments offensive are offended more by the suggestion that there should be such a standard of behavior (other than their own) than by the mention of God.” I’ll include his entire comment later in this post, but the part of it that was most related to my original essay and the struggle I see is as follows:
We believe that standards of behavior as established by the state should not pander to any one religious order but rather to the collective will of the moralities of all the American religions, which includes no religion. Contrary to fundamentalist belief, even humanists have morality.
Oh my goodness.
Or is it, “Oh, my goodness”?
Yes, everyone has a level of morality, whether it is self-formulated or externally applied: “I won’t do this, even though I might want to, because I think it is wrong,” vs. “I won’t do that, even though I might want to, because I don’t want to get arrested.” And if you’re grading on the curve, there are “good” people everywhere inside and outside of religion. I’m reminded, however, of the account of the rich, young ruler in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke who came to Jesus and asked:
“Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded to him by saying, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but God. But if you will enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:17, Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19).
This essentially becomes a worldview issue. To use my friend’s terms (though perhaps not his definitions), a “humanist” sees people as essentially good, a “fundamentalist” sees people as essentially bad, or sinful (there are obviously a lot of shadings within the groups, including those in either camp who wouldn’t necessarily include themselves in their respective groups, but let’s go with these terms for now). You can argue over which side can bring the most compelling evidence in support of its case.
People generally accept there should be a standard of goodness; it comes down to whether this should be a fundamental and timeless standard, or an evolving one complete with exceptions and penumbras. Roping myself to the fundamentalist side, I’d go for the eternal, if unattainable, standard over the one that relies on the shifting currents of human wisdom and fashion. I do so even though I believe that all of us, regardless of philosophy, have what Bonhoeffer calls “the vigilant religious instinct of man for the place where grace is to be obtained at the cheapest price.” It’s my belief that society is better served by acknowledging these “stretch goals,” even if large numbers ignore them, and even if there is a wide gap between what the culture deems “desirable” and what it sees as “acceptable”.
What struck me about the SCOTUS rulings on the Commandments and the Constitution is that both are important documents and were written down so that we could remember them and consult them authoritatively. If the people don’t know what they say then you can make them – commandment or the Constitution – say whatever you want, especially if you are a Supreme Court justice.
Now some will question the reasonableness of believing there is a divine standard in the first place, and the constitutionality of displaying it even if there is. It certainly makes for robust and, sometimes, even civil debate. For me, however, God is not a concept or an ideal. I have felt His tangible presence, seen His miraculous intervention in my life, even heard His voice. (So has Sandy, and you can read her recent account here.) And yet I still have better than an even chance of breaking many of the commandments every day. That, however, will have to wait for another post, as will my thoughts on the rest of what my friend e-mailed to me:
It’s not a matter of whether what’s on the Commandments is a standard or not, it’s rather that they talk specifically to a standard established by a religion–they are, after all, supposedly the word of God, but that’s a very specific, Judeo-Christian God. The laws of the country are established by consensus of the individuals herein (in theory, of course, being representational government and all) and one of the key parts is that said government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. Accepting the commandments de facto does just that. Establishing murder as illegal establishes that the society has deemed this behavior immoral, regardless of our varied religions. Laws can and do incorporate the ten commandments, but the 10, as a group, in the wording of the Bible, represent a specific religious segment. That’s why we find it offensive. We believe that standards of behavior as established by the state should not pander to any one religious order but rather to the collective will of the moralities of all the American religions, which includes no religion. Contrary to fundamentalist belief, even humanists have morality.
There are some good points in there and some things I want to respond to, especially regarding what “establishment” means and how the “collective will of the moralities of all American religions” are expressed, but this post is already long even though I’ve avoided any number of tangents that occurred to me while I was writing this. I hope to return to this topic soon, and I invite your comments as well.