Monday, May 23, 2005

FREEDOM OF RELIGION used to mean the freedom to believe in God or not; the freedom to observe your religion at home and in houses of worship; the freedom to wear outward symbols of your religion, like crosses or stars of David or head coverings; the freedom to engage in private religious activity and individual religious expression in public (which is not the same as collective or institutional religious expression in public).

Now freedom of religion means the right to put the Ten Commandments on the courtroom wall. Now freedom of religion means being able to display posters by the hundreds of thousands in public school classrooms and government buildings that announce, "In God we trust."

But which Ten Commandments? The one from the Hebrew Bible or the the one from the King James Bible? The one from The Essential Evangelical Parallel Bible, which puts four versions of the Bible in one book -- none of them Jewish? How about the one from the New Oxford Annotated Bible with the apocrypha? Jewish bibles do not have the apocrypha; the rabbis and Jewish scholars did not believe that the apocrypha were the sacred word of God.

The difference is important. Depending on whether you use the Hebrew or the Christian Bible, the numbering of the commandments is different, and the text is translated differently. Every version of the Bible is translated and edited by human beings -- human beings who come from distinct religious traditions and have particular philosophies of translation. Bible translators aren't created equal in talent or ability, and they don't all use the same sources. As an American who cherishes the First Amendment, I don't want government institutions, supported by public tax dollars, mixing it up with any religion. As a Jew, I certainly don't want to see the Baptist or the Catholic version of the Ten Commandments in a public place.

Blanketing the public schools with "In God we trust" signs is just as offensive. Who is this "we," anyway? It wasn't my father and it isn't my brother. It isn't millions of Americans who either don't believe in God at all or are skeptical or unsure. And it isn't even people, like me, who have strong spiritual beliefs but would not feel comfortable endorsing the notion of putting unquestioning trust in God to solve all problems. Bottom line, the government has no right and no business assuming that all Americans trust in God.

Religious feeling is a private, individual thing, by definition. To define it as common to an entire nation is wrong, wrong, wrong. It's just plain, flat-out wrong; and without question a violation and betrayal of the men who wrote the Bill of Rights. Those men, and many others like them, had fled another country thousands of miles across the ocean precisely to escape persecution by public authorities who thought that it was the right and obligation of government to "acknowledge their country's religious heritage." And they knew which religious heritage was the "right" one. If you didn't agree, you were in big trouble.

The same thing could happen here, and now; the signs are becoming more and more troubling. Keep the Ten Commandments and your feelings of trust in God in the sphere of your own personal religious expression. I do not want them on the courthouse wall.

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