Sunday, November 21, 2004

Non-Christians & the Right to Worship:

Note, the following is an excerpt of a piece that I have completed and am submitting for publication at various places. If anyone wants to read the entire piece and provide me critical feedback (or just because you are interested) I will gladly send it to you in a Word attachment. Also, if anyone has any advice for where to submit, I'd gladly listen.

Freedom to Worship, the Ten Commandments, and Public Law

When our nation was founded as a liberal democracy, political necessity demanded that the majority of Americans, many of whom were orthodox Christians, accept that God grants men natural rights. And one reasonably could (and did) make the case that Christianity, properly understood, was compatible with liberal rights theory. Certainly, Roger Williams’s understanding of Christianity could accept that the Christian God grants men an unalienable right to “worship other gods or even no god at all.” So, it should come as no surprise that dissident Protestants and Enlightenment rationalists acted together to disestablish religion and guarantee religious liberty in this nation.

However, the notion that civil governments are properly “founded” as “Christian” in a public sense, conflicts with the doctrine of a God who grants non-Christians religious rights. Many American colonies, notably Winthrop’s Puritan Massachusetts, were founded as “Christian States,” incorporating Biblical law, in its practical entirety, into the civil law. Indeed, David Barton, a prominent religious conservative scholar, in an affidavit submitted to a United States District Court, supporting the public display of the Ten Commandments, proudly proffered examples of such colonial civil ordinances based on the First Commandment and other parts of the Bible that prescribed the death penalty for openly worshipping “any other god but the Lord God.”

In his document, Barton asserts that “the Ten Commandments…dramatically impacted American law and culture with a force similar only to that of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.” Curiously he notes

“[C]ritics often point to the Rhode Island Colony under Roger Williams and its lack of civil laws on the first four commandments to ‘prove’ that American society was traditionally governed without the first ‘tablet.’ However, they fail to mention that the Rhode Island Colony was the only one of the thirteen colonies that did not have civil laws derived from the first four divine laws -the so-called first ‘tablet.’ Significantly, every other early American colony incorporated the entire Decalogue into its own civil code of laws.”

Barton apparently doesn’t recognize the glaring inconsistency in embracing the Declaration of Independence and believing that the Ten Commandments are rightly incorporated into the civil law. For instance, Jefferson, the author of the Declaration, held that “nature’s God” grants men the right to worship no God or twenty Gods. Yet, the “jealous” Biblical God, in His first commandment expressly forbids the worship of false gods. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, God commands that those who urge others to worship “false gods” be stoned to death.

If God grants us the right to worship no God or twenty Gods, then the first four commandments, as well as many other parts of Scripture, can have nothing to do with our public laws. Moreover, if Jefferson’s nature’s God and the Biblical God are one and the same, then God grants men an unalienable right to do what He expressly forbids in the Bible. And if this notion is applied to other areas of social life, for instance, extra-marital affairs, homosexual relations, or pre-marital sex, it could radically redefine how religious conservatives view what ought to be acceptable social policy.


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