American Wahabbis and the Ten Commandments

By William Thatcher Dowell
[This commentary appeared in the
LA Times and TomDispatch
on March 8, 2005]

For anyone who actually reads the Bible, there is a certain irony in the current debate over installing the Ten Commandments in public buildings. As everyone knows, the second commandment in the King James edition of the Bible states quite clearly: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth below, or that is in the water under the earth." It is doubtful that the prohibition on "graven images" was really concerned with images like the engraving of George Washington on the dollar bill. Rather it cautions against endowing a physical object, be it a "golden calf" or a two-ton slab of granite, with spiritual power.

In short, it is the spirit of the commandments, not their physical representation in stone or even on a parchment behind a glass frame, which is important. In trying to publicize the commandments, the self-styled Christian Right has essentially forgotten what they are really about. It has also overlooked the fact that there are several different versions of them. The King James Bible lists three: Exodus 20:2-17, Exodus 34: 12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Catholic Bibles and the Jewish Torah also offer variants.

If the commandments are indeed to be green-lighted for our official landscape, however, let's at least remember that Christianity did not exist when the commandments were given. It might then seem more consistent to go with the Hebrew version rather than any modified Christian version adopted thousands of years after Moses lived. Since the Catholic Church predates the Protestant Reformation, it would again make more sense to go with the Catholic version than later revisions.

It is just this kind of theological debate which has been responsible for massacres carried out in the name of religion over thousands of years. It was, in fact, the mindless slaughter resulting from King Charles' efforts to impose the Church of England's prayer book on Calvinist Scots in the 17th century which played an important role in convincing the founding fathers to choose a secular form of government clearly separating church and state. They were not the first to recognize the wisdom in that approach. Jesus Christ, after all, advised his followers to render unto Caesar what was Caesar's due and unto God that which was due God.

The current debate, of course, has little to do with genuine religion. What it is really about is an effort to assert a cultural point of view. It is part of a reaction against social change, an American counter-reformation of sorts against the way our society has been evolving, and ultimately against the negative fallout that is inevitable when change comes too rapidly. The people pushing to blur the boundaries between church and state are many of the same who so fervently back the National Rifle Association and want to crack down on immigration. They feel that they are the ones losing out, much as, in the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalists fear they are losing out -- and their reactions are remarkably similar. In the Arab Middle East and Iran, the response is an insistence on the establishment of Islamic Law as the basis for political life; while in Israel, an increasingly reactionary interpretation of Jewish law which, taken to orthodox extremes, rejects marriages by reform Jewish rabbis in America, has settled over public life.

In a strange way, George Bush may now find himself in the same kind of trap that ensnared Saudi Arabia's founder, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. To gain political support, Saud mobilized the fanatical, ultra-religious Wahabbi movement -- the same movement which is spiritually at the core of al-Qaeda. Once the bargain was done, the Saudi Royal Family repeatedly found itself held political hostage to an extremist, barely controllable movement populated by radical ideologues. Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has found himself in a similar situation, drawing political power from the swing votes of the ultra-orthodox rightwing religious and fanatical settler's movement, and then finding his options limited by their obstinacy to change. President Bush has spent the last several months cajoling evangelicals and trying to pay off the political bill for their support.

In Saudi Arabia, the Wahabbis consider themselves ultra-religious, but what really drives their passions is a deep sense of grievance and an underlying conviction that a return to spiritual purity will restore the lost power they believe once belonged to their forefathers. The extremism that delights in stoning a woman to death for adultery or severing the hand of a vagrant accused of stealing depends on extreme interpretations of texts that are at best ambiguous. What is at stake is not so much service to God, as convincing oneself that it is still possible to enforce draconian discipline in a world that seems increasingly chaotic. We joke about a hassled husband kicking his dog to show he still has power. In the Middle East, it is often women who bear the brunt of the impotence of men. Nothing in the Koran calls for the mistreatment of women or even asks that a woman wear a veil. What is at stake here is not religion, but power, and who has a right to it.

The Christian Right, the evangelical movement that provided the added push needed to nudge President Bush past a tight election, is equally prone to selective interpretations of scripture. The Ten Commandments are used as a wedge to put across what is essentially a cultural protest against social change, but in the bitter disputes that have followed these seemingly ridiculous arguments the message of the commandments is usually lost. The Christian Right pretends to be concerned about the life of an unborn fetus, but expresses little interest for the fate of the living child who emerges from an unwanted pregnancy, and is even ready to kill or at least destroy the careers of those who do not agree with them. Although the commandments prohibit killing, and Christ advised his followers to leave vengeance to God, the fundamentalists seem to delight in the death penalty, and in reducing welfare support to unwed mothers who are struggling to deal with the results of pregnancies that they could not control and never wanted to have.

In the United States as in the Middle East, the core of this Puritanism stems from a nostalgia for an imaginary past – in our case, a belief that the U.S. was a wonderful place when it was peopled mostly by pioneers who came from good northern European stock, who knew right from wrong, and weren't afraid to back up their beliefs with a gun, or by going to war, if they needed to.

The founding fathers, of course, had a very different vision. They had seen the damage caused by the arcane disputes which triggered the religious wars of the seventeenth century. They preferred the ideas of the secular enlightenment, which instead of forcing men to accept the religious interpretations of other men, provided the space and security for each man to seek God in his own way.

The idea that religious values should affect, and indeed control politics, is something that you hear quite often in the Islamic world. But perhaps the strongest rationale for separating these two dimensions of our daily lives is that politics inevitably involves compromise, while religion involves a spiritual ideal in which compromise can be fatal. The conflict is easy to see in contemporary Iran. Iran's rulers have had to choose whether they consider politics or religion to be most important. Ayatollah Khomeini himself once stated that if forced to choose between Islamic law and Islamic rule, he would choose Islamic rule. The effect of that decision was to betray Islamic law and ultimately God. Iran's genuine Islamic scholars have found themselves under continual pressure to change their understanding of God in order to conform to political realities.

The appointment of Ayatollah Sayyid al Khamenei to replace Khomeini as the supreme guide, is a case in point. Khamenei's credentials as a religious thinker are comparable to a number of other Iranian ayatollahs. But his real power stems from his political status. Because of that, he is in a position to affect and ultimately censor the religious writings of religious scholars who may be more thoughtful than he is, but whose thinking is considered threatening to Khamenei's vision of a theocratic state.

Politics inevitably trumps religion when the two domains are merged. Religion, when incorporated into a political structure, is almost invariably diluted and deformed, and ultimately loses its most essential power. Worse, as we have seen recently in the Islamic world (as in the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch trials in the Christian world), a fanatical passion for one's own interpretation of justice often leads to horror -- as in the obsession of some practitioners of Sharia law to engage such punishments as amputations or stoning women to death.

The fact is that, as Saint Paul so eloquently put it, "Now we see through a glass darkly." We have a great deal of religious experience behind us, but only God can understand to the full extent what it really means. Men have their interpretations, but they are only human and, by their nature, they are flawed. We see a part of what is there -- but only a part. In that context, isn't it best to keep our minds open, the Ten Commandments in whatever version out of our public buildings or off our governmental lawns, and to lead by example rather than pressuring others to see life the way we do. As Christ once put it, "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"

--New York, March 8, 2005