March 07, 2005

Those Other Religions...

by PG

My favorite brown blog, Sepia Mutiny, has a good post about the Supreme Court's Hindu friends. Unfortunately, there is no naan in the SCOTUS cafeteria, but the Hindu American Foundation, along with nine co-signatories representing Hindu, Buddhist and Jain organizations, filed the only amicus curiae brief providing a non-Judeo-Christian perspective in Ten Commandments case argued before the Court last Wednesday.

I think people too often assume that the only folks with a dog in the church-state separation fight are Christians and atheists, with the Christians trying to maintain their religious practices and beliefs as the norm, while atheists try to remove everything they perceive to be a lie from the public square. However, many of us are neither Christian nor atheist, and these Other religions have their own stance in these matters. "During the arguments, Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, Attorney for Van Orden, specifically asked the Justices to consider the effect of the Texas display on Hindus and Buddhists."

Inspired by this post, I'd like to work out which of the Ten Commandments are Hindu-compatible, in hopes that Justice Souter might find it useful.

Justice David H. Souter asked whether a tablet containing only the last five commandments, the injunctions against killing, stealing and so on, might be constitutional because, unlike the first five, they did not necessarily imply religious belief.
That would be a harder case, Mr. Chemerinsky replied, but such a tablet would still be unconstitutional because it would still convey the Ten Commandments' message.
This is a little tricky, as Balkinization commenter David noted, becaused of the disparity between the Scalia and Ginburg versions; i.e., should I go by the Catholics or the Jews? The difference isn't just in the numbering, either.

A central concern for Hindus would be the prohibition on graven images -- hard to perform all the milkwashing and garlanding parts of a puja without the figure of a god or goddess. It's boo-boo number two in the Protestant and Hebrew decalogues, but nowhere to be found in the Catholic list. This was an issue in the Reformation, as Martin Luther & Co. found praying before the images of Jesus, and especially of the Virgin Mary and saints, to be a little too close to pagan practices. The numbers work out because the Jews and Protestants collapse the coveting bans into a single commandment, whereas the Catholics politely distinguish one's wife from one's ox and ass. (Ditto the Hebrew reminder "I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery," which fits because the Jews put "no other gods" and "no graven images" into the same commandment.)

The degree to which these monuments to the Ten Commandments, particularly if one takes the Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore "remove them over my dead body" attitude, might be considered worshipped graven images, I leave to someone with more theological sophistication than I.

I'm not sure why Justice Souter thought that only the last five commandments didn't imply religious belief, as "Honor thy mother and father" seems like a good secular precept for a nation of poorly-run nursing homes and elderly people subsisting on Social Security checks to take seriously. Certainly both Hindus and followers of Confucius -- one of the historical law-givers depicted in the Supreme Court's east entrance sculpture group, along with Moses and Solon -- favor this principle. All except the first three commandments in the Catholic decalogue seem fit for non-Christians, and all except the first four in the Protestant and Hebrew editions.

If we were looking for historical significance, I'd add the Sabbath commandment as well, to explain the American tradition of complaining when one has to come into the office on the weekend. Possibly the prohibition on taking the Lord's name in vain might be a quaint historical reminder of the days when profanity rather than obscenity obsessed the FCC's predecessors.

The prohibition on having no gods other than the one who brought the Jews out of Egyptian slavery, however, strikes me as actually contrary to the First Amendment, in a way that no other commandment conflicts with our declared constitutional principles. Maybe it's just my polytheistic upbringing talking, but for the state to declare in any way that it recognizes only one god seems to Establish Religion -- and not just "religion" in the general sense, but a religion worshipping a god, which all but the nuttiest supporters of religion in the public square concede to be unconstitutional -- quite effectively.

March 7, 2005 03:05 PM | TrackBack
Comments

A minister in a small English town was in the habit of bicycling during the week to visit parishioners. One day his bike was missing and he was quite upset. So he decided Sunday's sermon would be on the Ten Commandments. After services that Sunday, as the parishioners left the church, they commended him upon his sermon. One parishioner was very pleased, except that he did not recall whether the commandment against adultery was included. The minister responded, "When I got to that one, I remembered where I left by bicycle."

Western civilization governs the training, education and thought of most of us in the western world. We know very little of other major civilizations. After all, we're number one militarily and economically; why not religiously as well. You're either with us or against us. The addition of Judeo to Christian serves as a useful buffer, for now.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline at March 8, 2005 05:00 PM
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