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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

September 2, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 23

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Moses, we have a question

By Joan Chittister,OSB

So, who's right? Alabama State Chief Justice Roy Moore, who insists that his monument to the Ten Commandments belongs in the Alabama Judicial Building over which he presides -- or his eight fellow Alabama State Supreme Court justices, who overruled him and ordered that the monument be removed? Moore says that the United States is a country whose legal system rests on principles drawn from the Christian scriptures and that the monument is a testimony to that. The other justices argue that such a monument violates the U.S. principle that forbids the use of religious icons in public buildings.

People on both sides of the issue hold their heads and ask, "What is this country coming to?" But if that is clearly everybody's question, everybody's answer seems to be disturbingly confused.

U.S. consensus on the place of religion in public life becomes less clear every day. Public prayer in public schools is still a hot topic. The teaching of Creationism, the idea that God created humankind as a discrete entity, is still a matter of debate. Where must the country stand on issues like these, on the principles of fundamentalist religion -- that we are "a country under God" (and it is a Christian God, everybody please remember that) -- or on the principles of political history -- that we are a country dedicated to the separation of church and state (and don't anybody forget it)? And is there really a difference?

The answer to those questions would seem to have been forged more than 200 years ago when the United States became the last great arena of the Protestant-Catholic divide. The feeling then was that no one should be left out of the American system on the basis of religious affiliation. Religion, the Founding Fathers determined, was a private, not a political, thing. In a world that was relatively stable, that feeling prevailed for two centuries. After all, Hindus were in India, Muslims were in the Middle East, Buddhists were in Asia, Christians were in the West and Jews lived in small, relatively invisible enclaves everywhere. No problem. Now, with humanity moving back and forth across national borders in great rootless numbers, the question takes on a completely other quality.

"The instinctive feeling of a great people," Louis Kossuth, the Hungarian revolutionary hero, once wrote, "is often wiser than its wisest men."

The question, then, is really how do we feel about all of this now?

Our wise men say we're fine, but "the instinctive feeling of a great people" seems to be registering otherwise.

Caught in the tension between threats of terrorism and competing political claims of how to deal with it, the people of the country agree on only one important thing: There's something wrong. In two short years everything has changed, both our social climate and even our ideals.

We view human rights differently now. We interpret the Constitution differently. We define "patriotism" differently. We live differently. They frisk us at airports now. They televise us on secret cameras everywhere. They keep our drugstore purchases in data banks so they can trace where we've been at all times.

No doubt about it: some of the fundamentals are shifting. Everyone is concerned. And everyone is expressing that concern differently.

Chief Justice Moore seeks to recall the values of U.S. society and the U.S. judicial system to its "Christian" roots. "This is what is happening in this country," The New York Times quotes Moore as saying. "The acknowledgement of God as the moral foundation of law in this nation is being hidden from us."

Who doesn't sympathize with the concern? But Moore, in his frustration and concern, wants everyone who comes in to his courtroom to know that what happens there happens through a filter of Christian ideals. The problem is that he may be forgetting at least four important elements, the loss of which can only make the present shifting social situation far worse in the long run than it is now.

In the first place, the United States of America is not a theocratic state. Church and state are not one and the same thing here. So images of religion -- any religion -- do not belong in our public offices and least of all in our judiciary buildings. Moore has clearly got us confused with the old Afghanistan, maybe, or the present Saudi Arabia, perhaps. In this country, we don't live under religious laws that the state enforces. You can be a voting, governing American without being a Christian. And, Christian or not, you have the right to be a judge or to be judged according to the statutes and case law designed to interpret constitutional norms that are equally applicable to everyone. At least that hasn't changed yet.

We learned the need for the distinction between church and state from Reformation Europe, where people were burned -- under the law -- for their religious beliefs, and states were toppled because of the conflict. Defining our own legal system as a "Christian" system in a world and a country that has become dangerously pluralistic is only one short step away from going back to the days of religious competition for state authority. As the religious nature and numbers of the electorate change, if Moore's position is upheld, we might well find ourselves today in a Christian system, yes, but in the not-too-distant future, under something quite different.

In the second place, any attempt to base a legal system on religious law -- even on the Judaeo-Christian scriptures -- is pretty iffy legal practice. Biblical interpretations are in some ways far more fluid, and far more uncertain, than the Constitution. It is the Bible, after all, that was used by many to defend slavery, outlaw divorce and repress women.

In the third place, there is a world of difference between being a judge who is a Christian and being a Christian judge. In the first situation, Christianity might indeed influence a judge's decisions. We all see life through the filter of values in which we have been formed. In the second situation, on the other hand, in a country where judges are sworn to be the protectors and proclaimers of a Christian law, Christianity must influence judicial decisions. John F. Kennedy's election as president hinged on the answer to the question of whether or not, as a Catholic, he would follow the dictates of the law or the moral directions of the pope of Rome.

Finally, it is the perception of universality, even-handedness and objectivity that gives credibility to justice. What Muslim citizens, of whom we have almost 6 million, according to the World Almanac of 2002, will feel comfortable with the application of Christian norms to their lives? Will our more than 1 million Hindu Americans feel safe in a Christian court of law? Who among our more than 4 million Jewish Americans does not know how the application of Christian scriptures has been regularly distorted, and to their very peril?

Eight Alabama Supreme Court Justices -- seven of them Republican colleagues of Moore, a popular man whose supporters often call him a "new Moses"-- voted to remove the 5,280-pound monument from the Alabama Judicial Building. Such are "the instinctive feelings of a great people."

Moore is right: Something has gone wrong in this country. But from where I stand, fixing our moral dilemmas by distorting our legal system will not make it right.

And anyway, if our courts really function under the Ten Commandments, could someone ask Mr. Moses to tell us again why they have capital punishment in Alabama?

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