by Metta Jon Maslow
Church-State relations have been a recurring subject in American discourse since
the birth of our nation. The Founding Fathers wrote about it passionately and
frequently. Over two centuries have passed, and debate over the place of religion
in public life continues. Open the newspaper, turn on the radio or television, or
surf the web, and you’ll often find news and opinions about Church-State issues:
organized prayer in public schools, clergy endorsements of political candidates,
and religious displays on government property. Arguments, both pro and con,
usually draw upon the U.S. Constitution and its framers’ testimony for support.
Despite the modern tendency to paint our nation’s founders as venerable saints
or Biblical patriarchs, they were very human. Recognizing the human tendency
to abuse power, they devised a political system that would create and maintain
order while protecting the basic liberties of all citizens. The fruit of their labor,
the Constitution of the United States of America, defines the structure and roles
of our government, both granting and limiting its powers. Also affirmed are the
rights of the people, and the government’s obligations to them.
The Founding Fathers were a diverse group of men. Some of them were pious,
deeply religious men (like Roger Sherman, a Congregationalist Christian); others
were moderate (George Washington, a Deist); and still others were skeptical of
organized religion (Thomas Jefferson, a Rationalist/Unitarian). Recognizing the
diversity of the population—which is even greater today—the Founding Fathers
overcame their differences and worked together to protect the religious liberties
of all—the “Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and
infidel of every denomination” (Thomas Jefferson, 1779). ¹
Religion is only mentioned once in the Constitution, and that is in the third clause
of Article VI, which forbids religious tests for public offices. Following the federal
Constitution, a Bill of Rights was created. Its First Amendment rules out any laws
“respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.
The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the States from violating the privileges,
immunities, and rights that the U.S. Constitution guarantees us, adding emphasis
to the second clause of Article VI, wherein the framers proclaimed the Constitution
as “the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound
thereby, any thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State notwithstanding.”
Contrary to popular opinion, neither the Ten Commandments, nor the Bible from
which they are derived, are the basis for our legal system or our government in
general. Not only is there a conspicuous absence of religious language in the
Constitution, but it lacks any principles that either expressly or exclusively
originate from the Bible. Of the Ten Commandments, only four of them have
direct relation to United States law: the Commandments against murder, theft,
adultery, and perjury (ie, “false witness against thy neighbor”).
It is also demonstrable that the Bible isn’t the only source for such moral laws;
in fact, there are numerous legal codes that predate the Commandments (which
were likely introduced by the Biblical Moses circa the 13th century BCE). The
most famous of these codes—having many laws and punishments in common with
the Ten Commandments—is the Code of Hammurabi, which came into existence
sometime around 1760 BCE. Before that, there was the Code of Ur-Nammu (circa
2050 BCE) and the Precepts of Ptah-Hotep (circa 2200 BCE).
Back to the present: citing legal history as justification, well-meaning citizens
seek to teach the Ten Commandments in public schools, or to display them in
those schools, and in courthouses. But, as we have seen, there is no genuinely
secular basis for doing either. Nor should government even implicitly endorse
purely religious edicts, such as the first four of the Commandments; our families
and clergy are responsible for moral and spiritual guidance.
The religious diversity of America makes it essential that politicians and others
comprehend that moral values are taught in all of the major world religions.
Buddhism, for example, has its own list of proscriptions—The Ten Unwholesome
Courses of Action. We are to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct,
lying, slander, abusive speech, gossip, hatred, covetousness, and evil views.
The Buddha also taught Ten Wholesome Courses of Action—virtuous thoughts,
words, and deeds that counter the evils of the ‘Unwholesome’ list.
Like other Americans, Buddhists cherish morality and law; nevertheless, we don’t
aim to impose the teaching of our beliefs and practices upon non-Buddhist children
in public schools. Nor do we strive to have our symbols or teachings enshrined in
government buildings. Understanding the content of the Constitution and the intent
of its framers, we respect and defend the religious liberty of our neighbors—
and hope that they will do likewise.
© 2003 by Metta Jon Maslow (9-3-03)
1. Excerpt from Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.
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