Monday, October 6, 2008

Summum & the Supreme Court

Are the Ten Commandments God’s word? According to a religious organization that calls its Summum, Moses revealed the Decalogue to the Israelites because he saw they were incapable of understanding the higher truths divulged to him atop Mount Sinai. The cognescenti received a more profound teaching, however. And these higher truths are contained in the Seven Aphorisms.

The Seven Aphorisms of Summum are admittedly whacky. They include the Principle of Correspondence, the Principle of Virbration, the Principle of Opposition, and so on, all explicated with a good deal of metaphysical, New Age mumbo-jumbo. But then many mainstream religions, including Judaism and Christianity, might seem weird to an anthropologist from Mars. Is the requirement of circumcision any more rational than Summum’s Principle of Gender, which proclaims that all existence has male and female poles?

Summum might remain one more fringe spiritual movement, except that this fall, the Supreme Court will hear a case that challenges the town of Pleasant Grove, Utah, which allowed a display of the Ten Commandments in a public park, while rejecting a proposed pyramidal monument that would be inscribed with the Seven Aphorisms.

A number of groups have filed amicus briefs, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the American Jewish Committee. They note that a diversity of religious opinion flourished in the American colonies during the 18th century—Quakers, Freethinkers, Universalists, Jews, Roman Catholics, Hutterites, Dutch Reformed and a multitude of other denominations--and that the Founders sought to maintain a strict neutrality toward these various religious traditions. It is hard to argue with the reasoning of James Madison, who wrote in his Memorial & Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of other Sects?”

Granting Pleasant Grove the power to erect a shine to the Ten Commandments, by Madison’s reasoning, means the town (or any other governmental body) could equally well erect a shrine to the goddess Kali, to the exclusion of non-Hindus. That would be bad.

Personally, I like the Ten Commandments much more than the Aphorisms of Summum. Some of the rules, like the ones about idol worship and not taking God’s name in vain, seem a bit dated. But prohibitions on murder and false testimony never go out of style. I predict that “honoring your father and mother” will be a precept that stands strong, long after Summum is forgotten.

But my own religious preferences weren’t meant to be written into law. So while I’m free to display the Commandments in my home and in my church, they shouldn’t be memorialized on Pleasant Grove’s town green.

Here’s my aphorism: Keep the Commandments in your own ethical life—but don’t keep them in the public park. That was the Founder’s view. And I think the God of Moses would probably agree.

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