Government, religion don’t mix well

By Tibor Machan

Alabama’s suspended Chief Justice Roy Moore has argued in television appearances that requiring him to remove the 5,300-pound monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama judicial building amounts to a violation of his constitutional right to declare his faith in God.
There is also the fact that other government buildings around the country house displays of the Ten Commandments, although not in such prominent form as in Alabama. Even more importantly, perhaps, there is some reason to think that the doctrine of separation of state and church, which is contained in the First Amendment to the Constitution, applies to the federal government only.
The legal arguments will, of course, continue, and at some point they will be settled by some final edict, be it based on sound or unsound legal reasoning. The real question, however, is whether a governmental facility ought to display the Ten Commandments. And the answer to that is that it should not do so.
The reason is that in a free society there may not be an official religion — or the denial of any religion — not Christianity, not Buddhism, not Islam, not atheism and not even agnosticism. A free society’s government rests on the decision to provide protection of everyone’s natural right to think — including to worship — for himself or herself. This means that other than affirming those rights and whatever is needed to protect them the government may not declare anything precious, sacred, valued or true. That is the task of the citizens as they go about living their lives, joining organizations, churches, clubs, associations and professions. The only thing the legal authorities are supposed to do is carry out the task of protecting individual rights.
The Ten Commandments are articles of faith of a particular religious heritage. They do embody many notions that are shared by people with different religious or philosophical heritages, of course. But they also command forms of conduct that apply only to the faithful — for example, the exclusive honoring of the God of the Bible. So, a government’s prominent display of the Ten Commandments amounts, in part, to the official endorsement of forms of conduct that are not, in fact, required of citizenship in a free society.
Chief Justice Moore’s claim that he has a Constitutional right to declare his faith in God is true but it is also a bit of sophistry. It doesn’t mean what he alleges that it means, namely that he is authorized to give official endorsement to the Ten Commandments. It means he may worship at the church of his choosing; that he may display the Ten Commandments at his home or some private, non-governmental gathering of which he is in charge.
It’s a little like my own job. I have the right to think what I will as a citizen and as a person who studies philosophy. But as a teacher in my class, hired to familiarize my students with the content of the world’s philosophical traditions, I am not authorized to declare my own views as required beliefs for my students. I may not put my various favorite quotes from favorite philosophers on display in my class room. In short, I am not authorized to indoctrinate my students.
I am no legal expert about state rights, but I do know this: Governments have no moral authority to take sides on religious matters. They may only side with the rights of the citizenry, akin to how the only side a referee or umpire may take is with the rules that govern the game, not with the competitors or teams taking part in the competition. None of that disparages in the slightest the content of the Ten Commandments or the religious heritage from which they hail. It simply removes it all from the provinces of politics and law.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at