Ten Commandments in the Park?

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 pietyinvocations 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 . . . 😉

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

6 thoughts on “Ten Commandments in the Park?

  1. Well, one rather regular reader also found this fascinating – agrees completely that church/state separation is to the benefit of the church. The NPR report made the case presentation sound like multiple attempts to thread the needle with as many excuses as possible hoping something might pass through, and that the Court wasn’t impressed (though reading the Supremes’ attitude toward a case from the questioning isn’t a good idea…). Thanks always for your well-reasoned discussions.
    Oh, and nice new look…

  2. Exactly! I also don’t like invocations/prayers at meetings that don’t have anything to do with religion/faith. My daughter worked for a company that supposedly had some Christian roots and basis. I thought that they promoted values that were counter to Christian values in subtle ways. They had a prayer to begin a banquet I attended. That didn’t set well with me at all, as there were no requirements that employees had to follow any religion. So another corollary of this is that we ask God’s blessings but do what we want to without even seeking His will.

  3. I almost DIDN’T read that far…
    Your take on church and state is faithful to both. Every time one of these “ten commandments stories” comes up, I am always left with the image I watched on television back around 2003. When the 10C monument in the courthouse in Alabama(?) was ordered removed and the judge that refused to make the call sooner charged in as they were taking it out, threw himself upon the monument, and said (and I quote), “get your hands off of our God!”
    If only every practice of idolatry were so blatantly confessed.

  4. I can’t really decide what I think the best solution to a case like this is.
    I mean, obviously, the easiest and most pleasing to any party is complete separation, as you advocate.
    But if we ARE going to post the 10 commandments, privately donated, and there are other private donations of a similar (religious) vein…Then who’s to say we can’t fill an entire park with rules and regulations from 10000000 different religions? It would sure be an educational place to go!
    Although maintaining them would be difficult and costly, I suppose…

  5. The separation of church and state is a fascinating topic. I usually argue the legal reasoning behind the church/state separation and its great to learn some of the reasons why it benefits the church!
    I also tend to think the establishment clause of the first amendment is actually a protector of religion rather than a diluter. While Christianity is the majority religion today, it may not be in the future. The first amendment guarantees that it doesn’t matter which religion is the most popular, it affords no favoritism. Those were some very forward-thinking founding fathers (who I hear knew something about religious persecution).

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