An atheist could speak all day long about the Constitutional rationale for
the separation of church and state, and would probably sway few of the 76% of
Americans who seem to oppose this principle.
So let’s listen instead to the voices of two proponents of breaking down the
church/state wall. Taken together, they offer a persuasive argument for keeping
as much distance as possible between governmental authority and religious
Both men disagreed strongly with last week’s column, "The Godless
Commandments." Briefly summarized, it held that the Holy Bible was wholly
the work of man; and that, if we’re going to post the Ten Commandments on
government property, we should also include the Bible’s various other
barbaric laws (stoning rebellious children and adulterers to death, forcing some
rape victims to marry their attackers, etc.).
First, Pastor Joseph Grant Swank, Jr., of New Hope Church (Windham, ME).
"There are 26 stipulations in the Old Testament by which Jehovah gave command
to put to death…The biblical stipulations were given by a civil deity
establishing a civil culture called the Hebrew culture…Jehovah had to establish
a civil culture with barbaric cultures surrounding it…These punishments may
appear unreasonable to some today for we live in a culture with laws, courts,
judges, juries…[T]hose who believe the Bible to be divine revelation
understand the cultural backdrop to the various sections of the
This illustrates why religious leaders prefer the concept of "blind faith,"
because Pastor Swank - while attempting to argue with logic and
cultural/historical references - has stepped into the quicksand of
What Mr. Swank seems to be suggesting is that God’s laws - with the apparent
exception of the Ten Commandments themselves - are temporal in nature, that they
were not intended for use in today’s world. While they may have been barbaric,
they were excusable because they were employed during a barbaric time. He makes
it clear that God’s punishments, and man’s obligations to enact those
punishments, changes from year to year, from culture to culture. Mr. Swank would
no doubt rebel at the notion, but he (and, by extension, his god) clearly
embraces the concept of moral relativism.
Mr. Swank therefore embodies the essence of the need for church/state
separation: He feels he can pick and choose which of God’s laws still apply, and
which do not. He seems to have personal knowledge of God’s intent, which the
rest of us are not privy to.
According to Mr. Swank, we need not linger on God’s antiquated laws calling
for brutal punishments far in excess of the offense - we should instead focus on
the Ten Commandments. He closes with a swirl of rhetoric: "…the United States
needs to be reminded of that marvelous, powerful ten. And our culture needs to
abide by them throughout all time; they keep us in line, even the
Yes, Bible Belt schoolchildren and atheists alike need to be reminded daily
not to covet their neighbor’s ox and slaves.
How marvelous, how powerful.
And now, to the words of R. P. BenDedek.
Citing Deuteronomy 22:13-21 - which holds that a woman who has lied to her
husband about her virginity must be stoned to death by the male townspeople -
Mr. BenDedek seems to have no problem with such savagery: "…promiscuity leads to
massive government handouts for single mothers, health care for same…" His
premise is a little apples-and-oranges, but his perspective is clear.
Regarding the Biblical order that adulterers be likewise stoned, he believes
"it would sure save a lot on community property splits, divorce lawyers, and the
ever increasing desire for litigation." (One senses that fiscal matters figure
prominently in Mr. BenDedek’s moral scheme.)
Should we uphold the Biblical decree that those who work on the Sabbath be
put to death? "Anyone who doesn’t spend one day a week in quality time with his
family ought to be shot!" Should rebellious children be put to death? "[W]e
could certainly reduce general crime rates if we re-introduced this law and
And there you have it: Two defenders of breaking down the church/state wall
offer vastly different interpretations of the Holy Bible and its meaning.
Pastor Swank suggests that God’s more brutal decrees are a legitimate part of
the past, but not relevant to today’s world. Mr. BenDedek makes it perfectly
clear that his religious view embraces societal barbarism, which would create a
"society of DECENT PEOPLE" (his emphasis).
The U.S. Constitution empowers both these men to hold, and express, their
differing viewpoints - just as it protects the expression of the beliefs
contained in this column. The point that Mr. Swank and Mr. BenDedek conveniently
miss is that the Constitution also expressly forbids the government from taking
sides in this debate.
That is, unless a right-wing U.S. Supreme Court decides to abolish a
fundamental cornerstone of American freedom.