Moses Supposes

Sorry, that’s just a line from a song in what’s probably my favorite movie of all time (“Singin in the Rain”).

The issue keeps being raised that “the Ten Commandments are on the U.S. Supreme Court building, so why can’t they be placed in the Alabama Supreme Court building?“, in Chief Justice Moore’s column, and in Jeff Brokaw’s comments below. Andrew Case answered in the same comments, and I thought I’d add a little detail:

This sculpture is a frieze located above the East (back) entrance to the Supreme Court building. Moses (holding blank tablets) is depicted as one of trio of three Eastern law givers (Confucius, Solon, and Moses). The trio is surrounded by a variety of allegorical figures representing legal themes. The artist, Herman MacNeil, described his intentions in creating the sculpture as follows:
Law as an element of civilization was normally and naturally derived or inherited in this country from former civilizations. The “Eastern Pediment” of the Supreme Court Building suggests therefore the treatment of such fundamental laws and precepts as are derived from the East. Moses, Confucius and Solon are chosen as representing three great civilizations and form the central group of this Pediment (Descriptions of the Friezes in the Courtroom of the Supreme Court of the United States and of the East and West Pediments of the Building Exterior, p. 9).

The Courtroom friezes were designed by sculptor Adolph Weinman. These friezes are located well above the courtroom bench, on all four walls. The South and North wall friezes form a group that depicts a procession of 18 important lawgivers: Menes, Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius, Augustus, Justinian, Mohammed, Charlemagne, King John, St. Louis, Hugo Grotius, William Blackstone, John Marshall, and Napoleon. Moses is holding blank tablets. The Moses figure is no larger or more important than any other lawgiver. Again, there is nothing here to suggest and special connection between the 10 Commandments and American law.

The Curator’s office makes the following comments on Weinman’s North and South frieze sculptures:

Weinman’s training emphasized a correlation between the sculptural subject and the function of the building and, because of this, Gilbert relied on him to choose the subjects and figures that best reflected the function of the Supreme Court building. Faithful to classical sources, Weinman designed for the Courtroom friezes a procession of “great lawgivers of history,” from many civilizations, to portray the development of secular law (p. 2, emphasis ours).

Look, Western Civilization isn’t called ‘Judeo-Christian’ for nothing. Our culture has deep roots in Christianity (and Judaism), and we’re better off for it. We’d certainly be far different without those roots, and we can’t and shouldn’t repudiate of them.

But the strongest trees aren’t defined by their roots; it is the branches and leaves, growing and reaching outward. (submitted to the Bad Analogy Hall of Fame)

21 thoughts on “Moses Supposes”

  1. But the strongest trees aren’t defined by their roots; it is the branches and leaves, growing and reaching outward.

    Oh, really? So because a weeping willow has a greater abundance of branches and leaves, it is a stronger tree than the oak, with deep, strong roots? Guess which one will win the battle against a windstorm.

  2. Don’t know much about trees do you? You should revize your analogy.
    A tree without a taproot will fall with the first good wind. Even an oak with a huge ground root system is an accident waiting to happen. Further, the spread of the branches is defined by the root system.
    If you cut the roots, you kill the tree. That is what is happening to our society. The lawyers have been cutting the roots for years, just waiting for the tree to fail.
    Enjoy reading here most of the time.

  3. Well, A.L., I’d never call you Brutus. Nor myself Cassius …

    The starkness of type makes my comment look less friendly than I intended it. But my point was that perhaps the concept you were trying to fit an analogy to was imperfect.

  4. The failure to find a successful analogy implicates the success of the analogize argument? Then we’re all doomed.

  5. Western culture has, in addition to its Judeo-Christian roots, a strong Pagan heritage, particularly from the Greeks.

    That said, the Establishment Clause was almost certainly meant to forbid setting up the equivalent of a Church of England. It’s hard to view it otherwise when you look at how pervasive Christian symbols are in everything the founders did and said.

    The hodgepodge of rulings on Church and State shouldn’t make anyone happy. It’s all too contradictory and hodgepodge.

  6. Re: Judeo-Christian roots

    Well, then we should act like it, and respect those roots. I don’t see much of that going on today.

    These arguments are all well and good, but I find that they carry a strong whiff of sophistry about them.

    Let’s not kid each other – what does Moses represent, if not the Ten Commandments? “18 important lawgivers” indeed, what good are important lawgivers if they don’t stand for the laws they created, and the good that flowed from them? Would we be remembering Moses if he came down with blank tablets? No.

    Why is it that there are no fascists up there? Well, because they were bad people. We don’t want to honor them because we learned their ideas were evil.

    What separates the honored from the not-so-honored is the legacy they left behind. The concepts, the ideas, the way they influenced the way people think.

    We honor ideas in our architecture, and especially in buildings built in those days. It isn’t just architecture and it isn’t “driving modern interpretation” as Andrew C. commented.

    The ideas that anchor our country are Judeo-Christian ethics, the rule of law, and property rights. Everything else flows from those things. Don’t believe me, read Fareed Zakaria’s “The Future of Freedom”, it’s his thesis, not mine, but he is quite right.

    So anyway, back to the point, and I swear I had one when I came in here, it is a bit of sophistry to claim that we are honoring some vague concept of “important lawmakers” without honoring the ideas those people represented to us, because without those ideas, the people themselves are just like you and me.

  7. Jeff:
    So, in your opinion, what is Chief Justice Moore trying to honor more with his display, the actual code of conduct? or God, the giver of the code?

    Or, as previously mentioned, is he just kicking off his campaign for governor?

  8. Jeff raises some points worth addressing: “The ideas that anchor our country are Judeo-Christian ethics, the rule of law, and property rights.” True enough, except that it’s very hard to get people to agree on what Judeo-Christian ethics are. The whole idea of Judeo-Christian ethics is quite recent (relative to the age of the two faiths). One of the great accomplishments of the Enlightenment was cutting away the arbitrary crap from the ethics of different faiths and keeping the common core which was understood in some sense to represent the ethics of Nature’s God. That’s why we don’t kill witches anymore, for example, nor do we stone adulterous women to death, despite the fact that both the Torah and the Bible direct us to do so. In other words, the whole notion of Judeo-Christian ethics is a drawing away from the religious exclusivity of those faiths. The process continues to this day with an increasing awareness that religions like Buddhism and Hinduism share some common core ethics with Judaism and Christianity.

    What Judge Moore is doing is an attempt to reinject religious exclusivity into the common core ethics by emphasising only one of its roots, namely the commandments (which, incidentally, start out with a statement of religious exclusivity). That’s why Moore is wrong – he is wrong because he is using what should be one of many touchstones of our common national ethics as a tool to exclude people who don’t share his particular faith (which includes some christians who take the view that the commandments apply to the Jews alone, a view consistent with the Biblical account which is held by a fair number of Jews).

  9. Andrew –

    Fair enough. But how exactly is Moore attempting to “exclude people who don’t share his particular faith”? By using a single cultural touchstone, is he necessarily making a statement that all others are inferior or useless? You lose me at that point.

    Does a statue of the Ten Commandments say anything more or less than “respect and revere this”?

  10. Jeff –

    Sorry, but a statue of the Ten Commandments IN THE ROTUNDA of the Supreme Court building…not as a part of a ‘wider display of the history of law’, or even as a personal expression of his Christianity in his chambers says pretty clearly that this is a Christian court.

    And that doesn’t sit at all well with me.

    I’ve always been irked at people who challenge Nativity displays or menorahs in parks, because I find that to be well within the tradition of ‘reverence’ I talk about above. Other, similarly celebratory expressions don’t bother me at all.

    But to put it in the courthouse (or the legislative chamber) says to me that this law isn’t the law of the State, but the law of God, and at that point I start to itch pretty badly.


  11. We’ll someone who wasn’t Christian, or even the ‘right’ flavor of Christian, might be given to wonder whether justice is really blind in that court room.

    The man is a rogue. Let him display this idol on his own property. I think I know what his motives are, but why do good Christians think they need the government to help spread the gospel? You’d think the ‘Good News’ would have enough power on it’s own….

  12. A.L. and others –

    Well, I can understand your points, but I don’t really see that they decide anything.

    The rule of law exists independently of your feelings and fears. This rule of law is supposed to counteract any such abuses as you describe.

    Any judge that repeatedly flouted their Christianity over the rule of law would be censured (or recalled, fired, or whatever the local and federal laws dictate) quicker than you could say “1,2,3”.

    I wish I could say the same for the various activist judges handing down their social engineering decisions the last 40+ years.

    We’ve had the same problem you (A.L.) worry about, but in reverse, with liberal (or radical in some cases) judicial activism. Exactly the same problem – judges following a belief system instead of the rule of law, in the interest of making the world more like they envision it.

    Judicial activism in general is what we should all be most worried about, in my opinion. And it sounds like we are, we just see it via different prisms.

  13. Jefferson whose religion clause in the Virginia Constitution was the model for that section of the Federal Constitution said that there should be a wall of separation between religion and government.

  14. Yes Jefferson did say that. A rather vague concept, and how would one apply it in the real world? Anyway, it would appear that our “wall” is pretty damn solid, since we don’t use the Bible as our set of laws like a true “religion is law” government.

    In addition, that one comment does not override the actual U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Jefferson’s writings are not admissible in court; the First Amendment is.

    I keep waiting for somebody to point me to the legal justification that would validate their arguments, which seem based more on “feelings” than anything else. I have yet to see it.

    That’s because …. there isn’t one.

  15. The monument is now being moved, per the news networks. Yet mysteriously, no violence has broken out and the protesters appear to be praying, not hurling Molotov cocktails and the like. I bring this up primarily to demonstrate what I said earlier about Christian fundamentalists (or theonomists as one individual labeled Moore). These people aren’t the moral or mindset equivalent of Muslim fundamentalists or we would already have seen AK-47s being brought to bear.

    Just thought I’d point that one out …

  16. Jeff:
    I like you point about judicial activism. It is well taken.

    But which ruling in the chain going back seventy years is in error? The burden of proof is on Moore to lift this weight of precedence. If this isn’t the rule of law, then what is it?

  17. its so interesting when some christians talk about how we should have greater respect for our judeochristian roots yet often dont know the first thing about judaism and tend rather to treat it as some ancient, irrelevant, outdated, and quaint starting point for christianity. something to be mentioned for its importance in a christian perspective but little else.

    i dont think justice moore is very much interested in the judeo- part of the christian society he desires and sees our entire society firmly rooted in. he obviously isnt the least bit interested in all the other sources of influence that have been so important to the founding and the growth of this nation, as many others have already pointed out quite well.

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