The Right Solution

by Richard R. Crocker | 11/17/03 6:00am

To the Editor:

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's attempt to retain his monument to the Ten Commandments in the lobby of the state judicial building has rightly been rejected. It was correctly seen as an attempt by a government official to enthrone or establish a particular religious point of view. Yet those who side with Judge Moore, who believe that the decision to reject the public presentation of the monument in the lobby represents an impingement of their religious freedom, also need to be heard.

There are two misunderstandings here that need to be addressed. The first is Justice Moore's and his supporters'. They fail to understand that explicit governmental references to the primacy of biblical religion, while once common place in American life, were never really in accord with the spirit of the Constitution (just as slavery, though common, was never really in accord with the Constitution). Such references are threatening to the pluralism on which our democracy now depends. The beliefs attached to such references are private beliefs, even though they have public implications. Their private expression is protected by the constitution, but their public claims are necessarily limited.

The second misunderstanding is that of many of Justice Moore's critics. They fail to understand that Justice Moore and his supporters rightly recognize that there is no such thing as pure neutrality. Every public expression -- even the expression of emptiness -- represents someone's value system. To call that value system "secular" is to miss the point: it still makes a claim of ultimacy, by asserting that it is primary and all other beliefs are necessarily subordinate. Liberal critics often overlook this point.

The tension in the First Amendment between the right of free expression of religion and the prohibition of religious establishment is a permanent one. There is no easy resolution. Religious belief is by definition ultimate. It takes the primary place in one's life. The perpetual paradox of American democracy is that the ultimacy of religious beliefs for individuals can be protected only when no religious belief is given public privilege. This is, for some, an unsatisfactory solution to a difficult problem, but it is the best we have. As Americans, we are almost required to believe it.