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On the left hand of God

Church And State Separation Examined As High Court Hears Commandments Case
The case to be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court on whether display of this Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol is constitutional will be manna from heaven for the lawyer-politicians who get to “defend” the commandments.Jana Birchum / Getty Images

If you’re a homeless attorney in the city of Austin, Texas, a good place to hang out is the Texas law library on the sprawling grounds of the state capitol. It’s well-heated in winter, air-conditioned in summer and there is, Lord knows, plenty to read.

Thomas Van Orden was such a person, and as he whiled away the time in the law library he noticed something that bothered him. On the lawn outside the building was a 40-year-old monument to the Ten Commandments. Here, he concluded, was a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of religion. With the help of some University of Texas law professors, Van Orden went to court in 2002 and has been going ever since. He’s lost at every turn; now he’ll get his day at the U.S. Supreme Court on March 2.

It’s a red-letter day for the lucky politician who gets to “defend” the Ten Commandments. He’s Greg Abbott, the 46-year-old attorney general of Texas and protégé of George W. Bush. The Department of Justice knows a PR bonanza when it sees one; it has requested time to help protect the Texas-Moses axis. Perhaps newly confirmed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who served on the Texas Supreme Court with Abbott, will want to join his Texas colleague on this legal Mount Sinai.

Why am I bothering to tell you about the case of Van Orden v. Perry? Because it’s the kind of cultural skirmish that illuminates larger matters: the strengths and weaknesses of the Republican Party as it enters the rococo phase of the Bush years, and the route the Democrats might follow to get out of the desert they’ve been wandering in lo these many years since the ’60s.

By now there isn’t a living American who doesn’t know that the GOP has prospered as the tribune of red state, Bible Belt culture. This alliance — arguably the most fundamental fact about American politics in the last 40 years — was first forged when Barry Goldwater (ironically, pretty much of a libertarian himself) took the Deep South out of LBJ’s Democratic Party in 1964.

Playing to a Bible-respecting nation
This historical arc reached its zenith in South Carolina in 2000, when Bush won the GOP primary there in part by declaring that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. The remark caused gasps in press row and was laughed at by the usual suspects, but most Americans probably thought Bush was stating the obvious. This is, quite simply, a God-fearing and Bible-reading (or at least Bible-respecting) nation. And it has been that way from the beginning. For decades, the GOP piled up easy points by simply invoking our own history.

But that tactic may have reached the limits of its usefulness. For one, we’ve all been reminded — by the horror of 9/11 if nothing else — that we have a heritage of faith and a never-ending need for spiritual sustenance. That message is no longer the exclusive province of “faith-based” Republicans in politics. For another, the GOP has raised sectarian expectations that no secular — that is, constitutional — administration can satisfy and still pass muster in the courts.

Symbolic gestures — court cases about the Ten Commandments — aren’t enough to mollify this crowd. Disgruntled evangelicals are complaining that the Bush White House hasn’t done nearly as much as it had promised to do by way of funneling federal cash to “faith-based” charities around the country. The harder these groups push, the more they risk creating a backlash —  from blue-state secularists, of course, but also from faith traditions competing with each other for the holy pork, not to mention flocks who view the government as evil.

A plague of reticence
As for the Democrats, there’s no reason they can’t make the Ten Commandments, and the Bible, their own. These days everyone wants to talk about values. But there is plenty in the Old and New Testaments — and in the commandments themselves — for them to cite. End Social Security as we know it? How does that “honor thy father and thy mother”? If the Lord wanted to honor His own creation — and wanted us to do so, too — by observing the Sabbath, what should that say about our respect for His handiwork (a k a the environment)? And of course there is a whole party platform in the social ministry of Jesus — if the Democrats would only get over their reluctance to talk about it.

Ironically, the GOP began connecting to the Bible Belt at precisely the moment when faith-based claims were making their deepest impact on the Democrats. In 1964, the emerging conscience of the Democratic Party was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights movement he led was based in the churches. Democrats weren’t afraid of that link then, and they shouldn’t be now.