The Ten Commandments and the Clash of Worldviews in Alabama
August 27, a moving crew went into the Alabama Judicial Building
in Montgomery and moved the 5,280-pound monument bearing the Ten
Commandments from the public rotunda to a place out of view in obedience
to a federal court order. In other words, the federal government
won this round even though the legal fight over the fate of the
monument is likely to continue for some time to come.
in 2001, Chief Justice Roy Moore of Alabama placed the monument
of his own design in the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery,
a monument designed by himself and bearing the Ten Commandments.
It did not take long before we began to hear from the usual suspects
(the ACLU and groups such as the leftist Americans United for the
Separation of Church and State and the leftist Southern Poverty
Law Center) on how the monument, in a state courthouse, violated
the supposedly Constitutional separation of church and state. Earlier
this month, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ordered Justice Moore
to remove the monument from public view, giving him 15 days to comply.
Moore refused. He contended that to do so would be to fail to acknowledge
the God whose divine law is the ultimate source of the Constitutional
basis for the rule of law in America. Moreover, he maintained on
Tenth Amendment grounds that the federal court did not have jurisdiction.
In retaliation, a judicial ethics panel suspended him. Mooreís eight
fellow state justices turned their backs on him and ordered him
to comply with the federal court. Thompson had threatened the state
with fines of $5,000 per day for every day the monument remained
on the rotunda in public view.
Christians have maintained round-the-clock vigils outside Justice
Mooreís courthouse. Judge Moore appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The appeal was turned down, allowing the lower courtís decision
to stand. Moore stood his ground, saying, "The issue is: can
the state acknowledge God. If this state canít acknowledge God,
then other states canítÖ And eventually, the United States of America
Ö will not be able to acknowledge the very source of our rights
and liberties and the very source of our law." He continues
to stand his ground, having filed a new appeal with the Supreme
Court. The Tenth Amendment says, "The powers not delegated
to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to
the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Thus Alabama could pass a law declaring itself an officially
Christian state without violating the Federal Constitution as originally
conceived by the Framers. Of course, doing so would be extremely
ill-advised, but that isnít the point. It is the federal
government the Constitution prohibited from establishing a religion.
these events play out, they promise to offer a lot of insight into
where we stand as a society, and where we are headed and for the
philosophically inclined, to point toward which philosophical premises
are guiding us. You see, this is not just another clash in the ongoing
culture war, although it is that. It is not simply a clash between
claims of state sovereignty versus federal imperialism, although
it is that, too. This clash is more fundamental than the one over
decisions such as Lawrence v. Texas in which the Supreme
Court found a mysterious "right" in the Constitution no
one had ever seen before, to practice sodomy.
clash over the Ten Commandments in Alabama is just the latest and
most visible skirmish in a much larger clash between comprehensive,
incompatible worldviews. Letís explore what this means.
Christian writer C.S. Lewis contended that there are just two basic
worldviews in Western EuropeanAmerican civilization (there
are a lot of variants on each, of course). There is the worldview
of Christian theism, as I will call it, and then there is the worldview
of materialism, or materialistic naturalism.
theism places the God of the Old and New Testaments at its center.
The universe, according to Christian theism, is a divine artifact.
It is the creation of God, as is the human race along with every
other form of life on this planet. Its enormous size and complexity
testifies to Godís commensurate creative powers. There are, in other
words, at least two realms of reality. There is a nonmaterial order
of things containing God, other supernatural agencies including
the devil, Satan, and the human soul that survives the death of
the body; and then there is the physical reality we experience through
the senses. Although human reason also has its source with God and
is capable of giving us at least partial knowledge of the physical
universe and the nature of things generally, it neither can nor
should be used as a path to God. According to Christianity, humanity
is a fallen species, in need of redemption, with redemption possible
only through His Son, Jesus Christ.
or materialistic naturalism, offers a far different and obviously
incompatible picture of the world. According to materialism, the
universe is self-existent and not created. Science has simply failed
to disclose any credible reason for thinking any gods or other supernatural
agencies exist. The human race emerged as just one of countless
products of a long but entirely natural process, a cosmic accident.
There is, in this view, just one order of reality physical or material
reality, its structure disclosed by natural science. This reality
may be a whole lot stranger than our senses alone can tell us as
evidenced by such discoveries as "charmed" quarks in elementary
particle physics. But materialistic naturalism is dead set against
interpreting any of the discoveries of science as pointing toward
anything supernatural, such as God or a divine creation of the universe
or a divine origin of human life.
theism supplied us with a specific foundation for a moral life
even if this foundation predates Christianity per se. This is the
Mosaic Law, of course, given its best-known expression in the Ten
Commandments. The ethics of Christian theism consist of absolutes
such as "Thou shalt not steal" and "Thou shalt not
murder." These rules are not negotiable. As Christians sometimes
sardonically say, God did not call them the "Ten Suggestions."
At one time, long ago, understanding them was a component of every
childís education, and of classical learning generally.
sort of ethics might follow from materialistic naturalism is something
philosophers have been struggling with ever since it began to become
dominant among the Western intelligentsia. A handful have followed
the lead supplied in the late 1700s by the German philosopher Immanuel
Kant, who was not a materialist but still held that morality could
be deduced from the structure of human reason itself, and was not
revealed. Kant spoke of the "categorical imperative,"
and of the "moral law within" that determined our duties.
Another group of philosophers has followed one version or another
of the utilitarianism with its roots in British thinkers such as
Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill. The latter spoke of the "greatest
happiness principle," and the "greatest amount of good
for the greatest number of people." There has been something
of an ongoing debate between the two, with neither achieving true
dominance although utilitarians have been the majority among ethicists
for quite some time now. Meanwhile, the machinery of the omnipotent
state has grown by leaps and bounds.
few philosophers have adhered to the brand of individualism or ethical
egoism espoused in its purest form by Ayn Rand. According to this
view, rights are conditions for human survival on this planet. Manís
life, its sustenance, and human prosperity and happiness supply
the standard. What is appropriate to the life of a rational being
is good; what coercively interferes with or harms this life is evil.
These ideas have been important among libertarians who have emphasized
that theirs is a philosophy for life in this world. Randís
Objectivism is a fundamentally materialist philosophy, however;
and so are these brands of libertarianism although the latter usually
eschew discussions of metaphysics and emphasize that it is a political
philosophy. The fundamental issues cannot be evaded or avoided,
however. The strong point of this brand of thought is its uncompromising
individualism and defense of liberty, for which we should all be
duly grateful. Its weaknesses involve its equally uncompromising
materialism, its extremely dogmatic nature, leading to the drama
of personality clashes, excommunications including libertarians
who deviated in even the slightest way from Randís words, the movementís
cultlike aspects, etc., and its hopelessly optimistic conception
of human nature.
has become an anathema, however, because of the fact that if individuals
are left to their own devices, some will excel magnificently while
others fall short. This violates egalitarianism. The idea that everyone
either is or should be, in some sense, equal, emerges out of a vague
sense of "fairness" that hearkens back to the Kantian
approach whose most significant twentieth century exponent
was political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls was not a pure egalitarian.
He believed some inequality was inevitable; but he also held that
these inequalities should be justified carefully, and it be shown
how they work to the benefit of the less well off. So to him, egalitarianism
is still the human ideal, even if unreachable in practice. (Rawlsís
major work, A
Theory of Justice, offered a perfect ethic for central planners
who are presuming omniscience in themselves while introducing machinery,
the "veil of ignorance," to remove the individual and
individual motivation, from ethical judgment all very appropriate
for a Harvard-based academic philosopher.)
modern state has vacillated between utilitarian and egalitarian
impulses, often mixing the two incoherently, depending on which
fashion was prevalent or which war, in the eyes of its propagandists,
was deemed necessary. The denizens of the modern state are not political
philosophers. They couldnít care less about all this hairsplitting.
They just want power. That means crushing the competition.
worldview we are going to endorse obviously matters a great deal
in a culture, therefore. Christian theism places God at the center
of creation, of our ethical lives and therefore of our political
order. It will follow that government like every other institution
is subordinate to Godís commands in the sense of Justice
Mooreís observation that Godís divine law forms the basis of all
human rights and obligations embodied in a constitutional system
of any sort that places checks and balances on government power.
Government of some sort may be believed necessary because of manís
sinful nature; but concentrations of power are not to be trusted
for the same reason. James
Madison, in the Federalist Papers: "If men were
angels, no government would be necessary; if angels were to govern
men, neither external nor internal controls on government would
naturalism recognizes no fundamental authority except, perhaps,
that of empirical science. It recognizes no sense of sin. Rather,
it embraces the Enlightenment notion of manís ability to perfect
himself through various forms of scientific social engineering.
Its apparent tendency, as evidenced by the past hundred-plus years
of history, is to unleash the human will to power in the few by
removing moral checks on power, while also unleashing human appetites
especially sexual ones, but also a more general lust for
entertainment. Thus a political and financial elite accrues more
and more power, centralizing it in government and closely associated
institutions such as central banks, until we arrive at an age of
central planners who see themselves as omnipotent and omniscient.
(One of the fascinating things about operational atheists
those who may never have given two thoughts about the question but
live as if atheism were true is that invariably, somewhere
along the way, God reappears in surrogate form. He reappears either
as the State, or as Science, or occasionally as a presumably infallible
Reason think again of Ayn Rand and her disciples.) The masses
become immersed in myriad distractions and cease to pay attention
to matters of state that seem remote from the chores of daily life
and the pleasures available in oneís off hours. In sum, in a culture
that (whether openly or tacitly) embraces the worldview of materialistic
naturalism, the State becomes the primary surrogate god because
of its capacity to control resources by force or threat of force.
Its authority becomes just as absolute although the rules may change
with the times or with whichever gang of thugs happens to be running
things. Individuals become self-absorbed. The larger culture, and
eventually the legal culture, embraces increasingly radical forms
of hedonism until we get a Lawrence v. Texas.
all this as background, let us return to the controversy in Montgomery,
Alabama. Much attention has been focused on what was originally
meant by that phrase, separation of church and state. The
first thing to note is something LewRockwell.com readers
doubtless already know: this
phrase doesnít appear in the Constitution or any other official
legal document but in the letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the
Danbury Baptist Association at the start of 1802. What the First
Amendment says is: "Congress shall make no law respecting
the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise
thereofÖ." Jefferson wrote, "Believing with you that
religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God,
that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship;
that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only,
and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act
of the whole American people which declared that their legislature
should Ďmake no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof,í thus building a wall
of separation between church and stateÖ."
precisely, does this mean? It clearly does not mean removing all
vestiges of religion (meaning by this Christianity) from public
life and visibility. There were differences in the specific religious
beliefs of the Framers, but all would have endorsed some version
of Christian theism. None were materialists. This is clear from
numerous individual statements. Four should suffice. From James
Madison, writing in 1778: "We have staked the whole future
of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far
from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions...
upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to
control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments
of God." From Benjamin Franklin "The longer I live, the
more convincing proofs I see of this truth that God governs in the
affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without
His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?
. . . I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers be held
imploring the assistance of Heaven . . . in this assembly every
morning." From Patrick Henry: "It cannot be emphasized
too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not
by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the
gospel of Jesus Christ! For this very reason peoples of other faiths
have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship."
From John Adams, our second president: "Our Constitution was
made for a moral and religious people.
is wholly inadequate for the government of any other."
Framers might not have endorsed every belief held by every Christian whatever
this would mean but they were clearly not materialists! They clearly
had the sense that whatever justification could be supplied for
government came from a transcendent and not a human authority. They
did not endorse what todayís legal eagles mean by "separation
of church and state" when that phrase is bandied around. What
then could it mean? Nothing more and nothing less than the need
to refrain from establishing a national church, on the order of
the Church of England, or giving government sanction to a particular
denomination such as the Anglicans. The federal government had no
business either "establishing" one of them as the "official"
religion of the new country, or interfering with the freedom to
practice oneís faith in any way. That God would be worshipped
was taken for granted; how to worship God was left to individuals
puts us in a position to ask how Judge Mooreís placing the monument
in his court house "establishes" religion. Moore himself
stated, "It does not take a constitutional scholar to recognize
that I am not Congress, and no law has been passed. Nevertheless,
Judge Thompsonís order states that the acknowledgment of God crosses
the line between the permissible and the impermissible and that
to acknowledge God is to violate the Constitution." Following
the removal of the monument to a place out of sight, Moore observed,
"It is a sad day in our country when the moral foundation of
our laws and the acknowledgment of God has to be hidden from public
view to appease a federal judge."
is likely to fall on deaf ears. In a society increasingly run alongside
premises Iíve described as materialist, as the State increasingly
becomes a surrogate god it will tolerate no competition for obedience.
Hence the mounting efforts to remove every vestige of Christianity
from public life, along with the growing supremacy of federal power
not just over the states (in violation of the Tenth Amendment) but
over everything else as well. Many Christians are rightly concerned
about being driven to the margins of society. Christianity was driven
out of government schools years ago. The culture is further threatened
by UN-sponsored "resettlements" of non-Christian refugees
from dysfunctional non-Western nations such as Somalia and the rise
of influential and well-funded movements such as the homosexual
lobby. Behind it all, of course, is the rising power of a global
writers including Edmund Burke, William Penn and Benjamin
Franklin have observed that if men are not ruled by God they
will be ruled by tyrants. Human beings were not designed for freedom
in the sense of total license. They were meant to be free within
bounds established by a transcendent morality. Modern philosophical
and scientific thought, freed from these bounds, has essentially
left all moral questions up for grabs. Hence the thesis of existentialist
writers that it is entirely up to us, working without guidelines,
to figure out what to make of ourselves (as Sartre said, "existence
precedes essence"). Hence "lifeboat ethics." Hence
the "bioethics" of a Peter Singer who contends that infanticide
is morally acceptable. Nietzsche saw clearly where this leads, with
his contention, written in the late 1800s, that the twentieth century
would witness the "advent of nihilism" in a collection
of writings later assembled under the revealing title, The
Will To Power. Todayís academic postmodernists have essentially
thrown up their hands in gestures of despair, having abandoned the
quest for philosophical truth in favor of continuing the conversation
of the West, as "superstar" academic philosopher Richard
Rorty put it.
can and must choose between worldviews if we are to have any hope
whatsoever of restoring liberty. The logic of materialism is tyranny,
whether imposed by violent revolution, as with Soviet Communism,
or by stealth, gradualism and subterfuge, the primary methods at
work in America today. We see this in every edict by a federal judge
that says, in effect, "My way or the highway," often in
plain defiance of the actual words of the Constitution. The removal
of the Ten Commandments from public visibility is being trumpeted
as a triumph of the "rule of law," illustrating the semantic
confusion ensuing when rule of law defined as adherence to
the Constitution is replaced by rule of law tacitly redefined
to mean blind obedience to the federal tyrant. This conception of
the rule of law could just as easily be applied to the eventual
removal of what miniscule Constitutional controls on federal power
yet remain. This would leave us completely at the mercy of those
who would utterly destroy the U.S. as a sovereign nation in favor
of a tyrannical global State that would doubtless be called
a global liberal democracy.
Yates [send him mail]
is an adjunct scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A professional
writer and editor with a Ph.D. in philosophy, he is the author of
Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action
(San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994). His latest book manuscript, In
Defense of Logic,
is undergoing revisions. He works out of Columbia, South Carolina.
© 2003 LewRockwell.com