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Our cultural roots are NOT a monopoly of the right

Judge Roy Moore of Alabama says he wants to honor the Ten Commandments for their seminal influence on the American system of law. But the way he has gone about it has rightly been called into question. One could well be suspect that Judge Moore is out to grab headlines, alienate potential allies, and all the while pretend like the Ten Commandments is the unique inheritance of the religious right.

The historic significance of the Ten Commandments is hardly in dispute. People of many faiths honor the almost incalculable dignity of the "ten words" [Aseret ha-Dibrot ] of Moses, but the true homage is not so much to publicly and ostentatiously "impose" a particular or a religious observance of them, but rather to so live as to truly embody their vital and fundamentally liberal spirit.

Erich Fromm in The Revolution of Hope wrote: "I submit that if people would truly accept the Ten Commandments or the Buddhist Eightfold Path as the effective principles to guide their lives, a dramatic change in our whole culture would take place."

Judge Moore may have focused on aspects of our cultural roots that do indeed warrant our attention. Deep in medieval Anglo-Saxon England King Alfred the Great founded his own laws on the Ten Commandments. Seeking out Jews of the realm, he aimed at emulating the wisdom of Moses on behalf of his own people.

My objection to Moore's go-it-alone commemoration of the Decalog is the narrowness and particularity of his effort, together with what smacks of a sort of religious imperialism that the Christian right occasionally displays. I do not object to those who pray for our country, or those who celebrate our sometimes greatness, or who acknowledge divine favor throughout our history. After World War II began what has been called The American Century, Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) was to say, "The American people have a genius for splendid and unselfish action, and into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of afflicted mankind."

That "genius for unselfish action" did not appear out of nowhere. Regarding the American founding, Cecil Roth wrote: "It was Hebrew mortar (to quote a famous phrase) that cemented the foundations of the Republic; and not without reason did the first seal it adopted depict the overthrow of Pharaoh in the Red Sea, with the motto: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God' . . ." This seal was designed by Thomas Jefferson.

Yes, our roots go deep into medieval England, back to Greco-Roman antiquity, and yes, even earlier into the biblical soil of ancient Israel, the levant, and (through Moses) Egypt. We can no more change those origins, than we can unlearn the English language we speak, that our documents are written in, or the Roman letters we use. The King James (and Shakespearean) phraseology of the great moral beacons of our history, from Lincoln to Martin Luther King, is destined to remain a part of our cultural consciousness (and sub-consciousness).

A bitter irony of the right wing attempt to appropriate Moses' law for their own has been the traces of a domineering, oppressive spirit one can find there, if not instances of outright racism, anti-semitism, and intolerance. If our biblical heritage is a patrimony of conservatives today, it most certainly also belongs to liberals and progressives as well. I highly recommend the book "Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism" by Staughton Lynd, as well as "The Bible and Civilization" by the noted Jewish historical scholar Gabriel Sivan, from which we are reminded of the crucial, the integral role of biblical and Hebrew influences on our history.

The great American (California) socialist Henry George in his book Moses wrote that under the Mosaic Code it is not the protection of private property, but the protection of humanity and human rights, that is the goal. Far from being a right wing prop, the Ten Commandments, if anything, are a challenge to institutionalized injustice.

Beyond just the "ten words" of Moses, the Bible itself is a profoundly liberal document. Thomas Huxley, in his Controversial Questions, paid a remarkable tribute to the advanced social thinking to be found in this Book of the Jews. "The Bible has been the Magna Charta of the poor and of the oppressed; down to modern times no State has had a constitution in which the interests of the people are so largely taken into account, in which the duties so much more than the privileges of the rulers are insisted upon, as that drawn up for Israel in Deuteronomy and Leviticus; nowhere is the fundamental truth that the welfare of the State, in the long run, depends on the uprightness of the citizen so strongly laid down."

The physiocrat and socialist Pierre Proudhon observed (1846) that "the whole Bible is a hymn to Justice -- that is, in the Hebrew style, to charity, to kindness to the weak on the part of the strong, to voluntary renunciation of the privilege of power."

The sense of outrage and anxiety that welled up in the cry of the Prophets was to inspire much of Judaism's legal code and many attitudes and institutions developed within Christianity and Islam. One observer notes: "All modern social legislation is an outcome of the prophetic spirit, and the spirit of these Hebrew teachers will continue to urge nations to ever fresh reforms." H Gunkel, Was bleibt vom Alten Testament, 1916.

America's great Democrat Andrew Jackson unabashedly declared of the Bible that "that book .... is the rock on which our republic rests."

Franklin D. Roosevelt alluded to the Scriptural foundations of American democracy in a 1935 broadcast: "We cannot read the history of our rise and development as a nation, without reckoning with the place the Bible has occupied in shaping the advances of the Republic . . . where we have been truest and most consistent in obeying its precepts, we have attained the greatest measure of contentment and prosperity ..."

Another of the fathers of humanitarian Socialism, Saint-Simon (who fought with Lafayette in the American War of Independence) tried to alleviate the plight of the underprivileged by advocating the redistribution of wealth and power in the interests of all mankind. Prosper Enfantin and other Saint-Simonians believed that Hebrew monotheism foreshadowed the future unity of humanity and their doctrines attracted Jewish supporters as well, including the exiled poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote that "Moses was such a Socialist, though as a practical man he sought only to remodel existing institutions ... instead of hotheadedly decreeing abolition of property, Moses only strove for its moral reform," particularly through his introduction of the Jubilee Year (when every alienated heritage returned to its original owner). "Moses did not want to abolish property. Rather, he wanted everybody to own some, so that poverty should make no man a serf with servile thoughts. Freedom was always the great emancipator's final idea; it flames and breathes in all his laws on pauperism . . ." (Gestandnisse, 1854).

I do not criticize Judge Moore's interest in, or respect for, our biblical and Hebrew heritage, at least not to the degree that his interest and respect are sincere. Nor do I disparage what seems to be his love for his worthy 'Dixie' (or southern white) heritage. But if America seeks to renew our reverence to the symbols of that old heritage, it must surely be a joint effort, one respecting the multi-faceted reality of our history, one respecting the sensitivities of minorities, one that acknowledges not merely how far we've come, but how far we still have to go.

The place of faith is essential, if the context and dimensions are right. Sometimes that context is not at the state level, but in the home. Allan Bloom, called a "conservative" philosopher, wrote about the unique role of community, and roots, in his own immigrant heritage.

"My grandparents were ignorant people by our standards, and my grandfather held only lowly jobs. But their home was spiritually rich because all the things done in it, not only what was specifically ritual, found their origin in the Bible's commandments, and their explanation in the Bible's stories and commentaries on them, and had their imaginative counterparts in the deeds of the myriad of exemplary heroes. My grandparents found reasons for the existence of their family and the fulfillment of their duties in serious writings, and they interpreted their special sufferings with respect to a great and enobling past. Their simple faith and practices linked them to scholars and thinkers who dealt with the same material, not from outside or from an alien perspective, but believing as they did, while simply going deeper and providing guidance. There was a respect for real learning, because it had a felt connection with their lives. This is what a community and a history mean, a common experience inviting high and low into a single body of belief."

In the context of Amendment One, doesn't Bloom's vignette show us how in private ways, not dependent on the official "establisment of religion" -- Americans can fully participate in, and enjoy, "the free excercise thereof."

More recently Noah Feldman has responded in a book to much of the dilemma posed by Judge Moore's ten commandments' gesture. We Americans, as a people, indeed have long been "Divided By God." I find Feldman's discussion to be provocative, and its conclusion (perhaps even) wise.

What do you think?

Am I on the right track?

      Bob Shepherd
      Bob Shepherd with some pizza pals, 2008

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