3/10/2005

American Wahabbis and the 10 Commandments

From an excellent piece by Tom Engelhardt and William Dowell on TomDispatch.com:

Whether the Ten Commandments, graven in stone, sit on a lawn by a government building or in a courthouse, isn't for me exactly a life-and-death issue -- and I think I'm not alone on this, which is why the Ten Commandments cases at the Supreme Court right now are so dangerous. The Bush administration and its various fundamentalist allies (religious and political) have proven especially skilled at finding wedge issues that, because they only seem to go so far, successfully challenge and blur previous distinctions, thereby opening yet more possibilities. The Supreme Court's decision in these particular cases holds great promise for further blurring the lines that once separated church and state in our country.
We're in a period, of course, when lines of every sort, involving civil rights, privacy, foreign and domestic spying, presidential power, Congressional rules, the checks-and-balances that once were such a proud part of our political system, and so many other matters are blurring radically. We also have a President who is in the process of casting off the constraints of any presidency, while placing religion with powerful emphasis at the very center of Washington's new political culture. He is now adored, if not essentially worshipped, by his followers as he travels the country dropping in at carefully vetted "town meetings"; and the adoration is often not just of him as a political leader but as a religious one, as a manifestation of God's design for us. It's in this context that the modest Ten Commandments cases are being heard; in the context, that is, of the destruction of what's left of an authentic American republican (rather than Republican) culture.

American Wahabbis and the Ten Commandments
By William Thatcher Dowell
(This also appeared as an LA Times editorial.)

For anyone who actually reads the Bible, there is a certain irony in the current debate over installing the Ten Commandments in public buildings. As everyone knows, the second commandment in the King James edition of the Bible states quite clearly: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth below, or that is in the water under the earth." It is doubtful that the prohibition on "graven images" was really concerned with images like the engraving of George Washington on the dollar bill. Rather it cautions against endowing a physical object, be it a "golden calf" or a two-ton slab of granite, with spiritual power. In short, it is the spirit of the commandments, not their physical representation in stone or even on a parchment behind a glass frame, which is important. In trying to publicize the commandments, the self-styled Christian Right has essentially forgotten what they are really about. It has also overlooked the fact that there are several different versions of them. The King James Bible lists three: Exodus 20:2-17, Exodus 34: 12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Catholic Bibles and the Jewish Torah also offer variants.
...It is just this kind of theological debate which has been responsible for massacres carried out in the name of religion over thousands of years. It was, in fact, the mindless slaughter resulting from King Charles' efforts to impose the Church of England's prayer book on Calvinist Scots in the 17th century which played an important role in convincing the founding fathers to choose a secular form of government clearly separating church and state. They were not the first to recognize the wisdom in that approach. Jesus Christ, after all, advised his followers to render unto Caesar what was Caesar's due and unto God that which was due God.
The current debate, of course, has little to do with genuine religion. What it is really about is an effort to assert a cultural point of view. It is part of a reaction against social change, an American counter-reformation of sorts against the way our society has been evolving, and ultimately against the negative fallout that is inevitable when change comes too rapidly.
...In a strange way, George Bush may now find himself in the same kind of trap that ensnared Saudi Arabia's founder, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. To gain political support, Saud mobilized the fanatical, ultra-religious Wahabbi movement -- the same movement which is spiritually at the core of al-Qaeda. Once the bargain was done, the Saudi Royal Family repeatedly found itself held political hostage to an extremist, barely controllable movement populated by radical ideologues. Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has found himself in a similar situation, drawing political power from the swing votes of the ultra-orthodox rightwing religious and fanatical settler's movement, and then finding his options limited by their obstinacy to change.
...The Christian Right, the evangelical movement that provided the added push needed to nudge President Bush past a tight election, is equally prone to selective interpretations of scripture. The Ten Commandments are used as a wedge to put across what is essentially a cultural protest against social change, but in the bitter disputes that have followed these seemingly ridiculous arguments the message of the commandments is usually lost. The Christian Right pretends to be concerned about the life of an unborn fetus, but expresses little interest for the fate of the living child who emerges from an unwanted pregnancy, and is even ready to kill or at least destroy the careers of those who do not agree with them. Although the commandments prohibit killing, and Christ advised his followers to leave vengeance to God, the fundamentalists seem to delight in the death penalty, and in reducing welfare support to unwed mothers who are struggling to deal with the results of pregnancies that they could not control and never wanted to have.
In the United States as in the Middle East, the core of this Puritanism stems from a nostalgia for an imaginary past – in our case, a belief that the U.S. was a wonderful place when it was peopled mostly by pioneers who came from good northern European stock, who knew right from wrong, and weren't afraid to back up their beliefs with a gun, or by going to war, if they needed to.
The founding fathers, of course, had a very different vision. They had seen the damage caused by the arcane disputes which triggered the religious wars of the seventeenth century. They preferred the ideas of the secular enlightenment, which instead of forcing men to accept the religious interpretations of other men, provided the space and security for each man to seek God in his own way. The idea that religious values should affect, and indeed control politics, is something that you hear quite often in the Islamic world. But perhaps the strongest rationale for separating these two dimensions of our daily lives is that politics inevitably involves compromise, while religion involves a spiritual ideal in which compromise can be fatal.
...The fact is that, as Saint Paul so eloquently put it, "Now we see through a glass darkly." We have a great deal of religious experience behind us, but only God can understand to the full extent what it really means. Men have their interpretations, but they are only human and, by their nature, they are flawed. We see a part of what is there -- but only a part. In that context, isn't it best to keep our minds open, the Ten Commandments in whatever version out of our public buildings or off our governmental lawns, and to lead by example rather than pressuring others to see life the way we do. As Christ once put it, "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"

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