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The Outsider


There's nothing quite as much fun as seeing politicians get all riled up about religion, particularly when they're trying to use it for transparently political ends.

Let us consider state Sen. John Andrews' bill that would require that a copy of the Ten Commandments be posted in every public school in Colorado.

Putting aside the fact that the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that such an action would be patently unconstitutional, just what does Andrews hope to accomplish here? He figures that it can't hurt, and he'd like to score a point or two with religious folks at the expense of those godless communist Democrats.

As one who attended high school prior to the Supreme Court's school prayer decision, I vividly remember being made to endure five minutes of daily prayer recited by other students, which was piped over the P.A. system every morning. If anything, those morning prayers created scores of lifelong atheists, who resented being compelled to listen to their sanctimonious peers.

Meanwhile, the Ten Commandments, along with the Confederate flag, are sure getting a lot of ink these days. The Confederate battle flag flies from South Carolina's capital building, triggering some world-class waffling from GOP-ster candidates Bush and McCain. And even New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has grabbed on to the Decalogue, linking senatorial opponent Hillary Clinton with 'liberal judges who have banned the posting of the Ten Commandments in our public schools.'

Why fly the Confederate flag? And why post the Ten Commandments? The two are, believe it or not, intimately linked.

My great-grandfather, John Gill, was a Confederate cavalryman. At Gettysburg, he wrote, 'We were deployed in front of Ewell's line as pickets, to remain in our saddles until relieved. ... The dead had been exposed to the broiling sun for more than twenty-four hours, and had already turned black. To add to the horror of the scene and the cries and groans of dying men, in the midst of whom we stood, a terrible thunder and lightning storm broke over the battle-field. The rain fell in torrents ... and the lightning flashed in our faces casting shadows on the dead strewn around us. ...Who can forget that night!'

A Marylander, Gill didn't have to be there. Many young men from the border states declined, because of ties to both sides, to fight for either. But Gill cast his lot with the Confederacy. Why? 'My early education and training pointed in one direction. My family ... had owned slaves, and I had never been taught to believe that slavery was a sin or a crime.'

That education, at Lawrenceville School and at the University of Virginia, was a strongly religious one, whose principal text was the King James Bible. And if Gill had based his convictions upon the Ten Commandments, he would have found nothing there to contradict his belief in slavery.

Indeed, the 10th commandment, which adjures you not to covet your neighbor's property, includes slaves as property. And the next chapter (Exodus 21, 1-11) establishes certain laws governing the acquisition and treatment of slaves.

As a moral guide, then, the Commandments are sadly defective. The whole edifice of slavery, America's 'peculiar institution,' was built upon a religious foundation. In the minds of its supporters, slavery couldn't be wrong; after all, it was explicitly sanctioned by the Bible. Like John Gill, southerners felt that their beliefs were biblically based and morally correct; hence, their willingness to fight a disastrous war.

Those Confederate soldiers were brave and honorable men. They fought to defend what they believed to be right. We can only judge them by the standards of their time, not ours.

But when we consider Sen. Andrews, or the South Carolina legislature, or candidates Bush and McCain, we need to look at them through a different lens. The Decalogue and the Confederate flag are, when placed on public property through governmental edict, symbols of slavery and religious oppression.

No one expects much from state legislators; good ones are as rare as white alligators. But Governor Bush and Senator McCain ought to be held to a higher standard. It's one thing to pander for votes in Iowa by supporting ethanol subsidies; it's another to pander for votes in the South by supporting the Confederacy. But I'm sure that it'd be easy enough to straighten 'em out.

Just lock them in a schoolroom, and make them memorize the Gettysburg Address. They'll find it where it ought to be; posted on the schoolroom wall.


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