Foundational texts shape and direct the moral and social discourse.
Ten days ago a monument depicting the Ten Commandments was removed, by order of a federal judge, from the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery and placed in a closet. A week later, 300 miles away, in Starke, Fla., an unfrocked Presbyterian minister, Paul Jennings Hill, was executed for the 1994 murders of an abortion doctor and his bodyguard in Pensacola.
The two incidents illuminate the difficult but necessary work of reconciling a nation's moral and spiritual traditions with its public life.
For many, the carting away of the Commandments monument -- installed two years ago by Chief Justice Roy Moore -- was one more episode in the long drama of the First Amendment. Fresh twists in the plot have brought new life to this spectacle. In recent years, a troupe of scholars has made out a case that the Establishment Clause -- "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" -- does not require the wholesale banishing of religion from public life, as many modern jurists believe. In Alabama, a less charitable interpretation of the First Amendment prevailed; but there is more to the story than this.
The critic Walter Benjamin once spoke of an art in which the "writing consists largely of quotations." He intended no paradox; he merely expressed a truth about the way Western civilization works. Westerners build on their foundational texts. Their progress is nourished by antiquity.
John Henry Newman saw the process at work in Judaism and Christianity: Jews and Christians work continuously with a small number of "pregnant texts out of which the succeeding announcements" grow. The Jews especially possessed, Newman said, a "traditional habit of contemplating" their sacred books, one that enabled them to expand the scope of their civilization without detaching it from the stalk. The plant grew larger, the blossoms more brilliant; but the root was ever the same.
The Greeks, too, perfected a technique of enhancing their public life by enlarging on their fundamental texts. Public men played an important part in this civic pedagogy; by applying traditional texts to new problems statesmen like Solon made the latent moral and spiritual poetry of their people active. They used what Wordsworth called the "Visionary Power . . . embodied in the mystery of words" to clarify and broaden the ideals of the polity.
For the Greeks the source of an authoritative language was Homer. For Americans, it is Shakespeare and, even more, the Bible. Some of Abraham Lincoln's most memorable words have biblical origins. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," he said in 1858. The "judgments of the Lord," he said in the second inaugural address, "are true and righteous altogether." But even when Lincoln is not directly citing scripture his moral vocabulary and the rhythm of his sentences reflect the Bible's language.
The judge-mandated removal from the courthouse in Montgomery of the Ten Commandments -- as pregnant a foundational text as the West possesses -- would have seemed odd not only to Lincoln but also to Thomas Jefferson, who employed scriptural motifs in his public work and advocated state-subsidized teaching of the religious principles common to the monotheistic faiths.
Both Lincoln and Jefferson would, I think, have understood what was at stake in Alabama: the preservation of a method by which a people keeps its public life vital, and its moral traditions too. Both men knew that the old words, with roots that stretch beyond the grave, bring the glorious growths. Banish them from the public square, and you deprive the polity of one means of regeneration.
And what about Paul Hill? He went to his death puffed up with righteous vainglory, declaring that he expected a reward in heaven for the murders he committed on earth. The good work that men like Chief Justice Moore have tried to do -- keeping our foundational texts before us -- is mocked when a man like Hill appeals to the same source to justify bloodshed.
Clearly in Hill's case, a conviction of moral superiority -- egotism exalted into a semblance of faith -- destroyed a respect for the rule of law and the sanctity of life. Those who wish to see the nation restore to its public life the moral and spiritual ideals that nourished it in the past have an obligation to denounce barbarism masquerading as religion. The American idea, after all, is to balance religious tradition with civic order. Americans must neither discard the first nor permit fanaticism to trump the second.
This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal Online (link may have expired). Reprinted with permission of the author.