Posts Tagged ‘state’

More Church/State Separation issues in the US

January 20, 2010

The battle in the US between the religious and the secular is at least as old as the country is.  The First Amendment of the US Constitution, which prevents the state from endorsing or promoting a particular religious perspective, is the source of many battles over what, exactly, the founding fathers intended in the crafting of this amendment and, more recently, what role these varying interpretations have on the formation of public policy.

The most recent argument has come about due to a company inscribing biblical passages in the serial numbers of their guns, which are currently used by US military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.  For example, one scope includes “JN8:12” in the model number, a reference to the book of John in the New Testament, Chapter 8, Verse 12 which says: “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  Many have already pointed out the irony of a weapons manufacturer evangelizing about Jesus (I’m not convinced that Jesus, if he existed, was the type of person to coerce via gun point).  What is more intriguing to me is what role the First Amendment plays in the use of these guns going forward.

The manufacturer, Trijicon, has a contract with the US Army, and the question is: should this contract continue to be upheld?  From the perspective of the private business owner, Trijicon has every right to put whatever they like in their model numbers.  However, it doesn’t have a right to their contract with the US Army; on the contrary, I think the US Army, in accordance with the First Amendment, will have to either terminate the contract or acquire sights that don’t proselytize.

There are, of course, differing opinions on this point, and ultimately it only matters what the Supreme Court decides.  Let’s look at some issues that are tangential to this First Amendment question:

– Is it prudent to include Christian scripture in anything the US Army does in the Middle East?  When the Taliban and other religious extremists perceive themselves as in a holy war between the Christian West and the Islamic Middle East, isn’t it possible that the continued use of these sights provides fuel for the fire?  Some have argued that those on the wrong end of the barrel are not likely to see or know the inscriptions first hand, but that’s not what matters: they need only be told that it happens to produce motivation.

– Does the safety of US military personnel override the First Amendment?  Though I have no idea if this is true (being that I am not a gun owner), I’ve heard from several US citizens that Trijico makes fantastic weapons and accessories.  Would it be right of the US Army to terminate its contract with Trijico on First Amendment grounds if the only solution is to use inferior equipment?  Hopefully Trijico would prove to be flexible on this point, or else another private gun manufacturer will have to rise to the occasion.

In other news that I consider even more intriguing, we have another case of the Ten Commandments on public display.  In this case, it’s down in Kentucky.  The Ten Commandments were taken off the court house wall in 2002 due to a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union on First Amendment grounds.  Now, a court of appeals has overturned that decision, arguing that the Ten Commandments should be displayed alongside the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and other documents considered historically revelant to the US.

Of interest to me is what role the Ten Commandments really play in the formation of key US ideas.  First of all, look at the ten commandments, taken from the King James Bible, Exodus 20:

1. Exodus 20:3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me;

2. Exodus 20:4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image;

3. Exodus 20:7 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord they God in vain;

4. Exodus 20:8 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy;

5. Exodus 20:12 Honour thy father and thy mother;

6. Exodus 20:13 Thou shalt not kill;

7. Exodus 20:14 Thou shalt not commit adultery;

8. Exodus 20:15 Thou shalt not steal;

9. Exodus 20:16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor;

10. Exodus 20:17 Thou shalt not covet…any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

1-4 are all about how jealous god is, which he admits to in Exodus 20:5.  The 5th can (and has been) regularly challenged when parents mistreat their children.  The 10th is what Christopher Hitchens has called an example of thoughtcrime: you cannot even think such a thing.  It also seems to undermine a motivating factor that can lead to a more prosperous society when done in moderation.  I’m all for the 7th when its concealed or deceitful, but it’s not legislated by law.  6, 7, and 9 are all good to me, but you see that there are only 4 of the 10 commandments that are of practical use.  Of those 4, only 3 are actually prohibited by law.  None of them are original to Christianity, and we never see someone sentenced to death for violating these commandments (with the rare exception of the 6th commandment).

The Decalogue doesn’t seem to have been that much of a cornerstone for the US.  As another example, look at the Treaty of Tripoli, which explicitly says that the US was not founded as a Christian nation.  Equally interesting (and often forgotten amongst Christians espousing patriotism as their motivation) is the strong tradition of secularism in the US.  A number of the founding fathers were deists who didn’t believe in a personal god, including Thomas Paine, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, who wrote his own version of the bible stripped of all miracles.  Having come from Britian where their religious rights were challenged, the founding fathers felt it very important to keep religion and government completely separate.  The two are parted by a chasm across which neither can reach, and it is my view that this is ultimately beneficial for the religious, the non-religious, and the government alike.