One of the great debates in America today is over the role of religion in the public sphere. To what extent is the United States government embracing religion? Are we “one nation under G-d?” Most concretely, should religious teachings such as the Ten Commandments be allowed on the walls of courthouses and classrooms?
The question of separation between church and state has long been an important one in America. In Virginia, the Church of England was the established church, and in Massachusetts it was the (Puritan) Congregationalist Church. In England, this split contributed to a bloody civil war. In the colonies, there was a move to eliminate the concept of an established church. In 1763, for example, Virginia patriot Patrick Henry argued in the “Parson’s Case” that parishioners should not have to pay so much to support the established church. While he technically lost the case, Henry persuaded the jurors to award each parson one penny in damages, thus weakening the established church’s hold.
Another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, played a pivotal role in clarifying the separation of church and state. As author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson avoided any Christian terminology, and referred to “Divine Providence” rather than a Christian “G-d.” While he opposed the Constitution, Jefferson did contribute to the push for a Bill of Rights to be added to the Constitution, and the First Amendment begins with an explicit rejection of an established church: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” When he became President, Jefferson emphatically endorsed this separation in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802:
I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
In the 20th century, many church-state issues have gone to the Supreme Court. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Warren Court tended to have a Jeffersonian view in overturning religious practices in the public sphere. More recently, a more conservative federal judiciary has tended to allow these practices, and a number of Republican politicians have espoused the idea that the United States is (or should be) a Christian nation. In 2006, the Supreme Court made conflicting split decisions, striking down the posting of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky courthouses, but allowing it on the grounds of the Texas Capitol, both by 5-4 decisions. Proponents of the public posting of the Commandments argue that it is needed to avoid moral decadence and that G-d cannot be removed from our culture. But is it true that posting this declaration helps to put G-d in society and raise our moral commitments?
Religion should be in the public square, but in a way that celebrates diversity and, most importantly, in a way that actually works to further our collective goals. Religious values should be modeled for others to emulate, not jammed down people’s throats. Those seeking spiritual homes might be more receptive to growth and change if religious leaders were less forceful with their ideologies. Rather than creating a culture of plaques, we need a culture of action. Values should be lived, not hung on walls.
Further, the celebration of the Ten Commandments is the celebration of one religion’s expression. Christianity may be the most practiced religion in America, but we must be sure to preserve pluralism and prevent the marginalization of minorities. Indeed, there is evidence that America is less Christian than before, and that there is more “mobility” in religion than we suppose. Consider the following:
- While 76% of Americans identified as Christian in 2008, this is a decrease from 86% in 1990. During the same period, those indicating no religion rose to around 15%.
- In 2009, Gallup poll data revealed that only about 45% of American Christians (Protestants and Catholics) attended church regularly.
- 2007 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life data showed that 44% of adults have changed (or dropped) the religious affiliation of their birth.
We should take this into account, and acknowledge that the Ten Commandments require serious theological commitments in addition to moral obligations. In addition to maintaining a pluralism of values, we must strengthen religious pluralism. While the Commandments do appear in the Torah twice, the Rambam (responsa 263) opposes the practice of standing in synagogue for the reading of the Ten Commandments, since one might come to think that these teachings are more important than all of the other values in the Torah. Rav Ovadia Yosef (Shu”t Yechave Daat 1:29) accepts this position. Christianity may prioritize these ten, but Judaism is much broader in its commitments. Our religious values cannot adequately be expressed through statues of the Ten Commandments.
Judaism is a religion of debate, argument, and discussion, not dogma. Putting up statements about commandments flies in the face of celebrating a lived tradition. This is why it was originally prohibited to write down the Oral Torah. It should be spoken about and lived, not put onto the library shelf and archived.
The Ten Commandments debate should not be viewed as a debate between the religious and the secular. Rather, the truly religious should value religious expression that works, values the dignity of human difference, and celebrates learning and discourse over the posting of plaques.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.