Friday, July 22, 2005

O'Connor's Swan Song

While I’m on the topic of the Supreme Court, I’d like to draw your attention to one of Sandra Day O’Connor’s final opinions. Concurring with the majority in McCreary County v. ACLU, the case involving a Kentucky county’s practice of hanging framed copies of the Ten Commandments on courtroom walls, O’Connor penned a persuasive argument for defending the separation between church and state.

At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: Our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails, while allowing private religious exercise to flourish.

O’Connor is a moderate conservative, but she’s got the sense to see that infusing secular institutions with religion undermines democracy. She anticipates and rebuts the argument that because The United States is a Christian country, its people have a right to demand that their government and its institutions reflect their religous beliefs.

It is true that many Americans find the Commandments in accord with their personal beliefs. But we do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.

I doubt that Christians who support practices like the one at issue in McCreary consider themselves at odds with the civil liberties protected by the First Amendment, but they believe that government should favor Christian morality over civil liberties when the two come into conflict.

I empathize with the goodwill of those who truly believe that Christianizing our country will benefit its citizens, though I disagree with their assessment of America’s moral needs. But the problem is that formally mixing our faith with our political bodies fundamentally alters the composition of our country, giving the government a moral authority the Framers never intended it to have. We are not living in a theocracy, so why should we move towards one? As O’Connor says, "Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?"

Good question.

--Matthew McCoy