Thursday, May 21, 2009

10 Commandments Display in Oklahoma

There is a particular irony in proposals such as that recently passed in Oklahoma to display a 10 Commandments monument on capital grounds.

(See: The Oklahoman: Oklahoma state Capitol to display Ten Commandments)

Even though the monument declares that one should not bear false witness, and its proponents claim that it is important to teach this moral value to children, the plan itself is built on a foundation of lies, half-truth, and distortions.

I have heard the defense that the prohibition against bearing false witness merely says that perjury is wrong. However, are the proponents of this law actually going to retreat to the defense that lies and deception are acceptable when they are not made under oath? Or are they willing to admit to the moral truth that lies and deceptive manipulation of the truth is wrong at other times as well?

If they admit that bearing false witness generally is wrong, then they are going to have to come up with some way to square their behavior with this prohibition.

They tell us that the purpose of the monument is to "simply acknowledge" that "many of current laws can be traced to the 10 Commandments."

Yet, there is a very long list of things that many of current laws can be traced to – from the Code of Hammurabi to the principles of the pagan goddess Justitia to European monarchies. There has to be a reason why they selected this item among all of them, and that cannot be because it "simply" acknowledges our heritage, because that is not what makes the 10 Commandments different from the others.

The truth that the supporters of this legislation wish never to speak out loud is they want to put a billboard advertising their religion on the Capitol grounds. They want to have the government declare that, "Those who belong to this religion, more than any other, are Oklahoma’s truest and most noble citizens."

Anybody with a breath of honesty in their lungs knows this to be true. They know that the claim that this is "simply" to "acknowledge that heritage" is false. They know that these people bear this false testimony in order to get away with something that is both illegal and unethical.

It is no more legitimate for the legislature to put up a billboard for any particular religion on the public square than it would be for the government to put up a billboard for Wal-Mart or Exxon-Mobile. If they do choose to lease or to give away billboard space on government property, then the government’s duty to be impartial (because people have a right to EQUAL treatment under the law) gives them no right to accept one billboard and to refuse all others.

If the government does put up a billboard for Wal-Mart on the grounds of the Capitol, it has a duty to be prepared to offer as much and as good of an advertising space to competitors such as K-Mart and Target as well. If it wants to put up a billboard for the Judeo-Christian religions, it had better be prepared to put up billboards for the Muslims, Hindu, Wiccans, and Atheists as well.

When it comes to teaching the difference between right and wrong to our children, we have far more potent teaching tools available than the writings on walls. Our best tool is the force of our example.

Just as the rest of us know that the 10 Commandments is not being posted "simply" to "acknowledge that heritage", and that there are ulterior motives involved, children know this as well. Because they know it, they learn a valuable lesson in hypocrisy. They know that, in fact, the people who put the words there only want others to refrain from bearing false witness. Bearing false witness is an activity that the supporters of this legislation wish to reserve for themselves.

It is a lesson that we can fully expect these children to learn – that true virtue can be found in the manipulation and distortion of the truth whenever to get what one wants.

Or we can teach them that we respect truth and honesty, by admitting that this legislation in fact is not meant "simply" to "acknowledge that heritage" but is meant to put a religious billboard on government property and to imply that the official government position is that those who accept the religion advertised by the state are better than all other citizens.

This is what the advocates of this legislation want. And they are willing to distort and manipulate the truth on order to get it. And they are more than willing to have the next generation learn from their example.


CrypticLife said...

"If the government does put up a billboard for Wal-Mart on the grounds of the Capitol, it has a duty to be prepared to offer as much and as good of an advertising space to competitors such as K-Mart and Target as well. "

Actually, I don't think this is true. The government could permissibly favor a particular commercial enterprise, at least under the Constitution (whether it could under anti-trust law is a different story). It's religion it's not allowed to establish.

In fact, favoring a particular company wouldn't even necessarily be caused by or indicative of bigotry.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Well, this is an ethics blog, not a blog on constitutional law.

It would be wrong for the government to show this type of favoritism regardless of what the Constitution says. It is not the case that what the Constitution does not explicitly prohibit morality must necessarily permit.

In fact, one of the problems that I see with the atheist approach to these types of issues is that they focus too heavily on the legal questions and ignore the moral questions. The result is that they promote an overall hatred of (their interpretation of) the Constitution.

There are two ways to amend the Constitution. One is to actually pass an amendment. The other is to promote such hostility to a particular interpretation that the interpretation in quesion is no longer enforced.