On Wednesday the Supreme Court heard arguments in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum. In the case, the Summum religion has asked the Pleasant Grove City Council to accept a monument of their Seven Aphorism to be placed in a public park alongside a monument of the Ten Commandments, donated over a quarter-century ago by a private organization. The city refused, and the case went to court. For news coverage of the case, visit the many news links posted at Blog from the Capital, or read Nina Totenberg's report at NPR. Transcript of the oral arguments available from the Supreme Court website (document opens as a pdf). It is a very interesting case, and I encourage you to read up on it.
My three regular readers know that I am an adamant advocate for the separation of church and state. I see no reason for monuments of either the Ten Commandments or the Seven Aphorisms or of any other religious teachings to be placed in a tax-payer funded public park (accuse me of being a small government, fiscal conservative on this issue if you like!). Surely this town has private, religious organizations that would gladly erect religious symbols on their property and in their places of worship. Why should the tax-payer funded public park display a series of religious teachings, including "I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other Gods before me"? Unlike the "golden rule" given by Jesus (but lacking any explicit God language), the Ten Commandments are clearly and unabiguously religious in nature. Tax-payer dollars shouldn't go to the purchase, display, or maintenance of religious monuments.
But this is much more than a tax-payer issue. As I've said elsewhere, I believe that the church is at greater risk than the state when we violate the separation of church and state. The erection of religious monuments in public parks on one hand smacks of a faith-based and triumphalistic marking of one's territory, as if to say, "we Christians are the majority, this is our place, we can do what we want, the rest of you will just have to deal with it." This kind of pride can only poison the church and our proclamation of the Gospel.
Furthermore, there's a false sense of security in monuments – whether on public or private ground. We can build all the monuments we want, but that doesn't guarantee faithfulness to what the monument enshrines. In fact, erecting a monument is often the cheap and easy thing to do.
(For example, in Cuzco, Peru, once the thriving capital of the Inca people, a monument to Peru's indiginous peoples stands. But in this Andean nation it is the descendants of the Inca who remain disproportionately in poverty, struggling with illiteracy and suffering with shorter life expectancies. But . . . but the government dominated by the descendants of European conquistadores erected a monument! Why bother do anything else?)
Finally, I do not want the church to expect the government to help us carry out our God-given, faith-based mission. The mission of faith is the responsibility of people of faith, not the
responsibility of government or of the broader, secular society. It seems unreasonable for people of faith to ask the government to help them in their ministry of proclaiming religious teachings by accepting, displaying, and maintaining a religious monument in a public park. This is also why I oppose prayer in school – teaching children the discipline of prayer is the responsibility of parents and communities of faith, not that of a tax-payer funded public school system. This is why I am also uncomfortable with civic displays of religoius piety – invocations at political rallies or prayers at city council meetings – for it supports the notion that we're a "Christian nation" or that our faith is supported by the government and political leaders. That kind of complacency inhibits our prophetic mission to speak truth to power.
Well I could go on, but I won't. You three regular readers already know where I'm coming from, and probably haven't read this far anyway . . . 😉