Texas State House representative Phil Stephenson has introduced a resolution calling on all public schools to display the Ten Commandments. His resolution also calls for “support(ing) prayers, including the use of the word ‘God’ at public gatherings.”
As one who is often concerned about hyper-secularism being employed in the name of defending both freedom of, and freedom from, faith, I have a measure of sympathy for Mr. Stephenson. Too often, especially in our public institutions, we confuse with freedom of religion, including the sacred right to practice no religion at all, with freedom from the presence of religion altogether.
While the Constitution assures us of a wall of separation between church and state, a wall which must be carefully guarded, it also bears remembering that a wall without windows and doors is more akin to a prison than to anything else. That said, Representative Stephenson’s initiative is fundamentally misguided, and even irresponsible, and needs to be understood accordingly.
For starters, the resolution, as introduced by Stephenson, can be construed as little more than a provocative publicity stunt – one that mirrors the larger sickness infecting so much of our current politics, in which elected officials waste time grandstanding in the name of rigid ideologies instead of doing the necessary work of responding the real issues immediately before them.
As presented, the resolution advocates for issues that have already been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States. As recently as 2005, the court ruled that displays such as those which Mr. Stephenson would introduce into Texas schools and other public institutions, violate the Constitution. Whatever one thinks about this issue, Mr. Stephenson’s way of addressing it is, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, a cynical attempt to replace the real work of governance with diatribe and fear.
This resolution also repeats a common and potentially dangerous approach to defending the legitimate role religion and religious symbols can have in public life. The resolution confuses the right of majority views to be represented with the right of majorities to strip away the equally legitimate rights of minorities. It is the problem so brilliantly identified centuries ago by Tocqueville, as “tyranny of the majority.”
While it is certainly true that neither people of faith, nor their faith itself, need be driven into the dark corners of society in order to protect freedom of conscience for all people, it is also true, that when it comes to that freedom, we do not practice a numbers game. As stated by Sandra Day O’connor in a 2005 Supreme Court decision, “It is true that many Americans find the Commandments in accord with their personal beliefs, but we do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.”
Finally, the resolution confused the importance of acknowledging both the role of faith in our nation’s history, and its ongoing significance to most Americans, with advocacy for specific religious traditions. For example, what version of the Ten Commandments would be placed in Texas schools? Would it include the commandment “Thou shall not kill, as typically rendered by Christian versions of the words found in both Exodus and Deuteronomy? Or, would it render the words “Thou shall not murder,” as the word appears in the Hebrew Bible’s earlier formulation?
That is simply one example of a potential problem, and one that could probably be worked out. Of course, the real problem is that too many people confuse good and authentic faith with the faith which they happen to practice.
While it may be true that we need to find more and better ways to honor the fact that we live in a nation composed overwhelmingly of believers, this resolution is not the way. In fact, its introduction raises the legitimate concerns that actually retard the advance of our national conversation about faith in the public square.
So unfortunately, we can now thank one more public official for setting back the very cause they claim to champion – a problem occurring with increasing frequency across the current political landscape on a whole variety of issues.