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Jewish World Review Feb. 19, 2002 / 7 Adar, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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Blurring the thin line -- SINCE Sept. 11, a surge of patriotism has increasingly been intertwined with reinvigorated religious faith. A Dec. 10 Chicago Tribune report ("Crusading for a Christian nation") states that "Christian conservatives have declared war on civil libertarians for the soul of America."

One front in this battle is the raising of money and support "for local officials who have voted to erect Ten Commandments plaques in city halls, county buildings and courthouses."

This is in protest to a 1980 Supreme Court ruling that placing the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms

violates the First Amendment's prohibition of government-established religion. However, the First Amendment also protects the "free exercise of religion." The apparent conflict between those two clauses of the First Amendment has been embedded in American history from pre-Revolutionary times. But there is a deeper division in the nation, as the Chicago Tribune story makes clear:

"For many devout Christians, the Ten Commandments movement is not just about saving souls or the First Amendment. It is about reasserting Christianity as American's dominant religion, a message being preached by some of the nation's most prominent evangelists."

But this battle is joined on an even more fundamental level, as exemplified by Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore who is the target of two federal lawsuits for having installed a 4-foot monument of the embattled Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the state judicial building in Montgomery. Says Chief Justice Moore: "This is not a nation established on the principles of Buddha or Hinduism. Our faith is not Islam. What we follow is not the Koran, but the Bible. This is a Christian nation."

That salvo in the war for the nation's soul reminded me of an afternoon some years ago at Pat Robertson's Regent University in Virginia. I was on a panel, and in the room there was much celebratory talk about this being a Christian nation. After all, in 1993, Pat Robertson had called the separation of church and state "a lie of the left. There is no such thing in the Constitution."

I reminded the audience that Article VI of that very Constitution states unequivocally: "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to an office or public trust under the United States."

I have to assume that Alabama's Chief Justice, Roy Moore, has read the Constitution and knows that, in addition to the clause in Article VI, there is no mention of G-d in the Constitution. "Nature's G-d" is cited in the Declaration of Independence, but it is the Constitution that is the law of the land.

Also, as Cornell University professors R. Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick point out in their book, "The Godless Constitution," (WW Norton, 1997): "although 11 of the 13 states did have religious tests for public office in their constitutions in 1787, the no religious tests clause" sailed through the Constitutional Convention in that year.

They quote Maryland delegate Luther Martin, who said that this assurance that even Americans of no faith can hold public office "was adopted by a very great majority of the convention without debate."

This is a country of so many different faiths that it is needlessly divisive, in any case, to proclaim that any one of them is, or could become, the dominant religion. We should rejoice in the constitutional fact that each of us is indeed free to exercise our beliefs.

Through my friendship with the late John Cardinal O'Connor of New York, I often witnessed the power of his faith to strengthen the lives of others, including people of no religious faith at all. In his relationships with all kinds of people, in and out of

the Church, he imposed no religious tests of the worthiness of any single life. He told me that he began each day with the same prayer: "I ask G-d to keep me from preventing anybody from doing any good. I make that prayer because somebody might be able to do something good, but because of my arrogance, my vanity, my stupidity, or my misunderstanding, I might in some way prevent it. In my position, you can indeed impede an awful lot of good, and that possibility terrifies me."

As for the insistent Ten Commandments Movement, Northwestern University law professor Steven Lubet notes in the Chicago Tribune, that 23 verses in the Bible are part of the Ten Commandments, "and Protestants, Jews, and Eastern Orthodox religions all extract different sets of them." Is placing any set of them in public places more important than actually doing something good for another person?

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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