The Madison County Journal
October 1, 2003
Ten Commandments debate comes to Ga.
The debate over the Ten Commandments has come to Georgia in a spectacular way. Who would have ever believed that members of a black church would be cheering a professed member of the KKK at a rally supporting the document?
Many rural counties have recognized the Ten Commandments as a source document for the Rule of Law and posted copies in or near courtrooms. The passage from the book of Genesis is one of the oldest legal codes know.
Opponents argue that displaying the code in government facilities constitutes a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
I have two thoughts about this. First, opposing the Ten Commandments is a misinterpretation of the First Amendment. Second, the federal judiciary has on authority to rule on the question of posting the Ten Commandments in a state or local facility.
The First Amendment says Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The restriction involves the establishment of religion, not recognizing existing faiths as an essential part of our governing authority. If Congress were to pass a law declaring the Bald Eagle to be a God and requiring that all citizens worship the national bird, that would be establishing a religion.
Please note that the restriction is placed on Congress and nowhere else. It does not restrict state or local governments from recognizing religious principles. In fact, the Tenth Amendment specifically grants those powers prohibited to the federal government to the states or to the people. That is the key power that guarantees the rights of states to govern their own citizens.
Our Founding Fathers proclaimed the right of citizens to establish their own government, and that a government of the people requires that government be kept as close to the people as possible. That is why the states were recognized by the founders as sovereign governments, and the federal government was limited to specific areas that required corporation between the states.
Under our political system, federal courts have no authority to interfere in state affairs. Only when a conflict between states arises, such as the water dispute between Georgia, Florida and Alabama, does the federal courts have a roll in local affairs.
Only the Courts of Georgia have a right to rule on the posting of the Ten Commandments in a county courthouse. The Alabama Courts have exclusive rights to rule on the same question in Alabama. Federal judges have no authority to demand that the code be removed from any state facility.
We fought a bloody war over the rights of states to manage their own affairs. The fact that we lost the war in no way changes the constitutional restrictions on the federal government. The battle for state sovereignty is still under way. The Ten Commandments is just another scrimmage in the battle.
Frank Gillispie is founder of The Madison County Journal. His web page can be accessed at www.mcga.net. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Zach Mitcham
The Madison County Journal
October 1, 2003
In the Meantime
Choosing substance over symbolism
Next time you flip a quarter, look at George Washington. Notice that God is printed under his chin In God We Trust.
Actually, its stamped behind the braid of his wig on some 25-cent pieces.
The point is: God is on our currency.
We also have God on some of our government walls. For instance, Madison County commissioners have the Ten Commandments behind the clerks seat in their meeting room.
Some symbols of Christianity are clearly evident in our institutions.
State agricultural commissioner Tommy Irvin was right when he addressed a crowd at the state capitol this week and stated that Christianity is part of our American heritage.
Absolutely, Christianity is part of our cultural identity. Lets face it, God cannot be chiseled off every coin or wiped from every mind of governance.
But part of our American heritage is also a commitment to separation of church and state. This notion is genuinely God-like, if you will. It is a recognition that the individual matters, that we are at our best if our government relinquishes any say on our spirituality and accepts that individuals should have free-will, a basic right to choose or not choose a religion without having a state impose one. This understanding is not atheistic, nor is it Christian. It is simply a highly-evolved form of governance that sets value on self-determination.
But it is human nature to need clarity and the dual nature of having a Christian culture and a secular state troubles many who want clear lines.
So we want to say the Ten Commandments are good, therefore they should be posted. Or, we should recognize the separation of church and state, take the Commandments off the wall and wipe out any possible reference to God in our government.
But in our need for black and white, can we eliminate the gray from all debate?
I believe the conflict over the Ten Commandments is yet another example of how symbolism matters more than substance in mass culture.
We cannot articulate our deeper sentiments to our enormous society because no one will listen. Who has the time to hear us, or the interest? And are our shouts really going to change the minds of those who are passionate one way or another?
But many will align with you or against you once you introduce a controversial symbol. Declare your allegiance or your disdain toward a symbol and thats enough. You dont need to articulate your deeper thoughts, because no one needs to hear your arguments; theyre irrelevant anyway. Besides, everyone else is too fired up to hear you. Just so long as you can adopt a team slogan, youre O.K.
One example of how symbol has trumped substance in our culture is the flag conflict. Our countrys racial history is volatile, a very touchy subject that is hard to talk about without sounding somehow lacking in understanding.
So we choose not to talk, unable to admit that we all are lacking in understanding to a large extent, because theres no summing it all up in a neat package that dignifies everyone elses experience.
Nevertheless, we pick at wounds with matters that only address the harder topics in a round-about way.
The flag conflict, for instance, seemed a dysfunctional way of addressing the truly difficult, yet very real issue of white guilt in the post-Civil Rights era America. Thankfully, history now judges with disdain the past evil institutions of slavery and Jim Crow. But where does the guilt go? Is institutionalized white guilt, such as affirmative action, a help or hindrance to society? Do we wipe out all things associated with past years under flawed institutions, ignoring the individuals who might have been dignified nonetheless? Is it not wrong to demonize individuals of yesteryear with one big wave of a guilt wand?
On the other side, does the glorification of the past without acknowledgement of the ugliness that existed seem right? No, I dont think so. So where is the line in our society between appropriate remorse for past injustices and manipulation of a culture of guilt for personal or political gain?
The flag had these elements beneath the surface. But it was a bumper-sticker issue, not the soul-defining matter of our nations racial struggles.
The Ten Commandments issue has the same feel. It is a rally for the emotional, a way to draw at least some line in the sand so we can wipe away the troubling grays that come with a complex identity, the coexistence of a Christian culture and a secular state.
Can we not step back and realize that symbol should not be confused with the actual, deeper substance?
The Ten Commandments may or may not be on our governments wall. This is a matter of symbol. The actual posting of the Commandments on a government wall will not affect you or me, not really.
But apply the Ten Commandments, or apply a personal moral compass to our own lives and theres something much deeper than symbolism at work.
The best way to exhibit the Ten Commandments is to try our best to live by them and have the decency and strength of character to admit when we dont.
And lets not find ourselves arguing whether God should be printed under George Washingtons chin on our quarters. There are so many other things that need our attention first.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.