Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Fetishizing the Ten Commandments

The US Supreme Court finds itself in a bit of difficulty of late over the issue of the display of the Ten Commandments in public places. Recent rulings on a display in Kentucky and a display in Texas create a situation in which, in essense, the court suggests that it has eroded religious liberties over time, and simultaneously undermines its own legitimacy.

The problem begins with the fetishization of texts, in which the metaphorical meaning of the text becomes bound up more in its medium than in the metaphors of the words themselves. The Ten Commandments has, for better or for ill, become fetishized by Christians and anti-Christian activists.

Consider this: In orthodox Christian thought, Christians are not bound by the Ten Commandments, and the Old Covenant which they represent. Though adherence to the Ten Commandments is a way of avoiding sin, the Commandments are almost irrelevant to matters of salvation.

So how did the Ten Commandments gain public prominence as they did? The focus on Moses as a law-giver suggests the legitimacy of legal workings in legislatures or courthouses, by simultaneously suggesting that the laws rest on a solid foundation reaching back millennia, and that God Himself legitimizes the legal work done there. Obviously, posting the entire Pentateuch is impractical, so instead images of Moses (such as that in the US Capitol and Supreme Court) and the Ten Commandments serve as representatives of a whole body of legal tradition. The Ten Commandments are a particularly nice example, since Moses asserts that they were written on the stone tablets by the finger of God Himself.

In that sense, the Commandments as a text are unimportant. Indeed, I've almost never heard the public debate on the issue address the particular commandments, i.e. the text itself. I suspect that if you were to ask most Christian and anti-Christian activists alike to name the Commandments, you'd probably get an answer like, "Um, let me see ... thou shalt not kill ... um ... something about coveting ... I think stealing is in there too..." In other words, the individual commandments are nearly irrelevant. Otherwise, the Court's rulings would be along the lines of disallowing the commandments that specifically mention God (like no graven images), but allowing commandments that don't (like prohibitions on murder and theft). Instead, the syllabus of the Court's ruling on the Kentucky display suggests that "displaying that text is thus different from symbolic representation, like tablets with ten roman numerals..."

In this way, the Ten Commandments are simply a fetish symbolizing the legitimacy of the State. I suspect in most cases displays are not motivated by religious activism, but instead out of the impulse to show ancient legal precedence. Anti-Christian activists want to destroy the text as a fetish ... they want to remove suggestions that the legitimacy of the State rests on Providence. It is rather like book-burning, in that book-burners are not so much trying to prevent people from reading the individual codices that are cast in the flames, but to destroy the fetishized texts. If you don't like the book-burning example, then consider it like the old custom of swearing on the Bible -- you are just supposed to touch the Bible-fetish; you aren't supposed to open it up and read it.

Christians have fallen into a trap by accepting the fetishization of the Ten Commandments. Of course, Christians are right to recognize that groups that seek to destroy Ten Commandments displays aren't against the Commandments, but are instead against Christians and the Christian history of the nation. Instead of participating in the fetishization of the Ten Commandments, however, Christians would be better served by promoting the text itself.

Let me explain this way: anti-Christian activists achieve important goals when they successfully eliminate Ten Commandments displays -- they blot out the public memory of the State's claims of legitimacy, they prevent public expressions of faith in other contexts, and they discourage Christians from getting involved in public and political life. Christians, on the other hand, do not achieve anything by putting up more such displays -- sure, they cheese off the anti-Christian activists, but they do not encourage the reading of the text itself, in this case the Bible. In a sense, they discourage reading the Bible by suggesting that being in the proximity of a Bible fetish is sufficient.

It's rather like those beautifully bound sets of classic books you'll find on people's shelves. They display them so that people will associate the owner with erudition. Generally speaking, you won't find a lot of English professors with such sets, since their appearance forbids reading -- you wouldn't want to ruin the set by breaking the binding. English professors tend to have shelves of well-worn, dog-eared books.

The textual scholar in me shouts out, "If you want people to respect a text, get them to read it. If you want them to read it, let them see you reading it yourself." If I were to demonstrate against the destruction of a text-fetish (such as book burning or destroying Ten Commandment displays), I would oppose them by reading the text itself. By saying that displays of ten roman numerals are OK, but displays of the text itself is not, the Court is admitting that it bans the text itself, just not the fetish. Who cares how the courts determine what is a religious and what is a historical fetish? What I care about is the Court banning texts.

The Supreme Court's problem is this: it wants to find a way to screen out the religious metaphors inherent in the Ten Commandments, but not the metaphor of legal precedence and legitimacy. So, in the apparently contradictory Texas and Kentucky rulings, the Court determined that the Texas display was acceptable because of its age (being more than 40 years old). In applying age as the primary criterion for determining the relative religiousity of the display, however, the Court appears to tacitly admit that the degree of religious liberty permitted decades ago was greater than the degree of religious liberty permitted today. This, in turn, undermines the very notion of precedence bound up in the "acceptable" versions of the Ten Commandments.

Eventually, the Supreme Court (or its co-equals, the Congress and the President) is going to have to straighten this whole fetish thing out. It can't simultaneously claim its legitimacy based on precedence of a text, then ban the very text that it claims gives it legitimacy. It's as absurd claiming that the Constitution forbids the reading of the Constitution. It seems to me that the Court will either have to allow communities the liberty to display the Ten Commandments and base its own legitimacy on the long tradition of Western law, or the Court is going to have to base its legitimacy on something else (such a popular opinion, or might, or a self-legitimizing Constitution). The only thing that is clear about the Ten Commandments rulings is that posting the text of the Ten Commandments nowadays is forbidden in the public arena, and a community's only hope in having such a display is that the display was erected during a time of greater religious liberty.

No comments:

Post a Comment