As workers moved the 5,280-pound monument to the Ten Commandments from Alabama’s state courthouse Wednesday, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition declared, “We’re going to tell everyone to come to Montgomery and look at the future of America.” Pray that Mahoney is right, that the future America embraces the ideal that people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison envisioned: a nation tolerant of every sect that professes good ends; a nation in which religion is celebrated, religious diversity applauded and religious disputes avoided.
That, of course, is not the America Mahoney had in mind. He saw the removal of the monument, installed by suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, as an affront to Christianity and to God. “God haters,” protesters shouted at the workers moving the monument. “If it takes 75 years to reclaim this land for righteousness, God find us and our children and our children’s children ready,” declared the Rev. Rob Schenck.
Schenck and Moore and Mahoney are playing the Christian victimization card, the litany from the Christian right which whines that they are being persecuted, that the formerly Christian United States is becoming godless. They’re wrong on many counts, and display an appalling misperception of American history. Religious liberty was never greater than it is in the United States today — precisely because the courts so closely protect the concept of separation of church and state against even modest affronts, like displaying the Ten Commandments in the Alabama courthouse.
Surely they would not like to return to colonial Virginia, for example, where the Anglican church was the state church, people could be sentenced to death for blasphemy and Baptists, especially, suffered persecution. Nor would they like colonial Massachusetts, where Puritans controlled the government. They most likely wouldn’t even appreciate present-day Germany, where citizens are still taxed by the government to provide financial support for churches.
No, Christians have it pretty good in the United States today, and they have the separation clause of the First Amendment to thank.
Many Americans believe that the United States is a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation. They are mistaken. Most Americans are Christian and the Judeo-Christian ethic has significantly influenced American values. But this country is not a Christian state, a Hindu state or a Buddhist state; not a Jewish state or a Muslim state, though it celebrates all these faiths and the many ways in which they enrich the nation’s life.
The argument also is advanced that the federal courts are violating the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech — arguably the most important of America’s freedoms. But whose speech? Judge Moore’s? He can praise the Ten Commandments all he wants, in every forum he wants, except forums purchased by all the people of Alabama. Freedom of speech is an individual freedom, and Moore has no right to abrogate the freedom of even one Alabama taxpayer who takes offense at his display of the Ten Commandments — as many do.
Perhaps 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, this dispute would not have arisen. Given the public temperament of the times, Moore probably would not have felt a compelling need to display the Ten Commandments. Nor, if he had, would many people have taken much notice, just as few thought it odd that the schools celebrated Christmas and Easter.
But as this nation grows ever more diverse, and as the Christian political right grows in power, the need to be vigilant in protecting the separation of church and state becomes more imperative. That separation serves Christians well and deserves celebration; those who attack it should desist, lest they get exactly the opposite of what they want.