Religion 101

In my previous blog entry, I mentioned the fact that U.S. public schools are taxpayer-supported, government-operated state institutions (teachers and other public school staff members are state employees), and that, as state institutions, U.S. public schools are therefore required to function as secular institutions (owing to the constitutional principle of “separation of church and state” — the mandate that religion and government remain independent of one another).

This is why creationism (which is a religious belief, rather than a valid alternative scientific theory to evolution) cannot be taught in our secular public schools.

This is also why it is equally unconstitutional to post the Ten Commandments in U.S. public schools.

But this line of thinking really seems to throw a rather considerable proportion of the American public. Why, many of them wonder, should it be illegal to post what they tend to think of as just ten really good basic moral rules or principles — rules which they cannot imagine any genuinely moral person seriously objecting to? Why, if America is a Christian nation, should it be illegal to post ten of the bedrock principles of Christian faith?

In an earlier blog, I’ve already touched upon the problem inherent within that last question. America is only a “Christian nation” in a purely demographic sense, not in an official one. The U.S. population might happen to be nearly 80% Christian, but the U.S. government is an expressly secular republic, and in no sense founded upon or operating according to Christian (or any other religious) principles.

Thanks to the Bill of Rights (specifically, the First Amendment), religious “majority rule” is overruled, in favor of religious freedom and a “hands off” policy of neutrality on the part of government toward both religion in general, as well as any specific religion in particular (such as Christianity).

This means that the government, or the state, cannot engage in the business of promoting any religious doctrines — not even doctrines held dear by the overwhelming religious majority of its own populace.

Since the Ten Commandments are pretty unambiguously religious doctrine, they cannot receive official endorsement or promotion by the state at any level. And insofar as posting the Ten Commandments in public (state) schools could only be construed as state promotion and endorsement of those particular religious doctrines, doing so would be a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution.

It is sometimes seriously argued that, although the Ten Commandments might indeed be “religious” in the sense that their source lies within the pages of the Bible, and in that they are admittedly foundational to Christian (even Judeo-Christian) faith and practice, they are nevertheless also just good universal ethical principles that surely nobody could seriously object to.

In other words, a note of ambiguity is interjected: setting aside for a moment their explicitly religious origins and nature, could the Ten Commandments perhaps alternatively be looked at also somewhat more abstractly, less as “doctrines” and more as merely universal principles, wise guidelines, or good rules for living in general, regardless of their source or original context?

Divorcing them from their original religious context, could they not now be seen simply as widely accepted, perhaps even globally applicable basic ethical laws and moral principles — essential principles shared in common by virtually every religion, but also discoverable or supportable independent of religion — which all genuinely moral people (of any religion, or even of none) should therefore have no real problem accepting, and abiding by?

Whenever this sort of question is posed, I have to wonder: when was the last time this questioner ever actually read the Ten Commandments?

(To be continued, in Part Two.)