One of phenomena emerging from the resurgence of religionism in this country is the frequency with which religious topics engage the attention of legislators, either with a view of making legislative pronouncement on these topics, or of enacting statutes on the subjects. An example is the insertion of a religious phrase in the pledge of allegiance to the flag to the extent that “this nation under God.”
In the last Congress, for instance, Concurrent Resolution 88 was introduced by Republican Styles Bridges and Democrat Earle Clements, two days before Congress adjourned. It went almost unnoticed in the press, but it threw the Congress into something of a parliamentary tizzy. It was a simple and brief document, proclaiming that “The Ten Commandments, as a primary moral force, behind the three great religions of today, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, should be reaffirmed as the ethical code governing the lives of men and are the means of bringing about lasting world peace and a solution to the many problems of mankind.”
Apparently religious-minded friends had urged upon the two senators the introduction of such a resolution, and, as Bridges explained, was designed to stimulate spiritual thinking.
The trouble was that the First Amendment plainly states in its first clause that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion…” This clause was not intended to discourage religion but to assure that there would be equal freedom for all. It has been held by the courts to be the basis for keeping separate church and state, and Congress is an arm of the latter, and while Congress has authority to consider just about every known topic, this does not include religion.
The last portion of the resolution, however, read, “Resolved … that we hereby proclaim our faith in the word of God and thereby perpetuate renewed observance throughout the world, by nations and by individuals, of the Ten Commandments.” In view of the fact that it included the word “world” and “nations,” the parliamentarian of the Senate ruled that it could be assigned to the Foreign Relations Committee. But he soon had a call back from a startled clerk asking, “Since when did we have jurisdiction over the Ten Commandments?” And there the resolution died. It will probably come up again in the new Congress, and will again go to the Foreign Relations Committee. Unless constitutional lawyers advise the committee of objections to it, there is likelihood it will be approved and sent to the House for concurrence, and if approved, Congress will have declared formally its faith in God and the Ten Commandments.
Now all of this looks harmless, to some, even desirable. However, there are some serious and sober reflections that arise upon analysis of the situation. The First Amendment plainly means what it says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and the Ten Commandments are the basis of at least the Judaic and Christian religions. This would seem to rule out such action by Congress as contemplated by Resolution 88. Moreover, aside from the legal question, there is one of policy. If Congress can legally formally pass such a resolution affirming the Commandments today, may it not go further and endorse the Methodist discipline or the Presbyterian catechism tomorrow? And from there it is but a short step to an established religion. Then there is the question of good common sense. The Ten Commandments need no endorsement from a relatively puny body such as even our great Congress is. A religion that needs legislative bolstering is weak indeed, and if it requires mortal enactments in a legislative mill to give it vigor and substance, such enactments are futile and the Commandments are on their way to becoming of no effect.
Obviously, in the light of our constitutional system that has stood the test of the years, or our tradition of no meddling in religion by Congress, and in view of the meaningless effect of such a resolution, it would be well for the Senate to observe individually and collectively the words of the Master when he said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Some time ago President Eisenhower created, by executive order, the Committee on Government Contracts, charging it with improving and making more effective the non-discrimination provisions of government contracts. Among those provisions is one prohibiting employment on the grounds of religion. Now it develops that the administration is engaging in religious screening of personnel serving in Saudi Arabia, and thereby barring Jews from American installations in Arabia. Obviously, this discrimination against Jews is in direct conflict with the directive given the Committee on Government Contracts. Perhaps this is a case where the administration should ignore the biblical injunction and at least let its right hand know what its left hand is doing.
The moving picture “Storm Center” stars Bette Davis as a librarian who refuses to remove a book called The Communist Dream from her public library when the city council tells her to. When it opened in New York some time ago, the National Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization, condemned it, and defended its action by saying it was done “as a protection to the uninformed against wrong interpretations and false conclusions.” As for the film itself, it has received mixed reviews. Some critics have found it lacking in sophistication and dramatic effect, while others have hailed it as a strong argument for the freedom to read. But all this is beside the point. Here is an influential organization, no doubt sincere in its dedication to principles of decency as its members see those principles, but setting itself up as a self-appointed censor of what pictures people may see. As for its statement that it took such action only as protection against the uninformed against wrong interpretations and false conclusions, well, the legion itself is saying in effect that “only my interpretations and conclusions are correct” and we will permit you to consider only them. And as to being uninformed, how is one to get information if he is denied access to it, and this includes access to pro-communist as well as anti-communist materials. To assume otherwise is to assume that common, ordinary people like ourselves do not have sense enough to see, hear, read, and determine for ourselves the truth or falsity of a statement, whether it be in a film, a book, or from the words of someone with whom we converse. Censorship in any form is anathema to democracy, and this is just as true when it comes from a quasi-religious group as when it comes from anyone else.
A recent letter to the president of the United States reflects not only something of the dire conditions prevailing in Hungary at this time, but also something of what the United Sates means, or could mean, to oppressed peoples. It is from Cardinal Josef Mindszenty and reads as follows:
“As a shipwreck of Hungarian liberty, I have been taken abroad by your generosity in a refuge in my own country as a guest of your legation. Your hospitality surely saved me from immediate death.
With deep gratitude, I am sending my heartfelt congratulations to your excellency on the occasion of your reelection to the presidency of the United States, an exalted office whose glory is that it serves the highest ambitions of mankind: God, charity, wisdom, and human happiness…. May the Lord grant you and your nation greater strength and richer life…. I beg of you do not forget this small honest nation who is enduring torture and death in the service of humanity.”
We can read this letter with only the deepest humility as we realize how far the world structure of things at present permits the powers that be to stop the butchery of the Hungarian murders. And it makes this reporter at least wonder again when or if the peoples of the world are going to demand through their united voices that the outworn, outmoded, helpless system of balance of power is going to be tolerated. President Eisenhower not long ago affirmed his belief in law governing nations as well as individuals. Until such law is a reality, enacted by a world law-making power, we shall go on having our Hungarys, our Suez Canal debacles, and we shall continue to have the flights of Cardinal Mindszentys. It is about time that soul-searching effective reorganization is substituted for the present nationalistic chaos.