There was a time when "fear of God" meant piety, or at least conscience. Today, it more accurately describes the worldview of secular liberals who get itchy and twitchy at any reminder of our religious roots as a nation.
Thus, we are currently treated to the spectacle of the American Civil Liberties Union dragging the state of Texas into court for the offense of displaying the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state capitol in Austin. The U.S. Supreme Court will decide in June whether a display of the Decalogue violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. This gives "God fearing" a whole new meaning.
"At the very seat of Texas government," thunders the ACLU brief, "between the Texas State Capitol and the Texas Supreme Court, is large monument quoting a famous passage of religious scripture taken, almost verbatim, from the King James Bible." Question: Is there any kind of scripture that is not religious?
The state of Texas argues that the monument isn't so important really. It stands at the back door of the capitol, not the front. It is smaller than several of the other 16 monuments dotting the campus of the capitol. And it contains many symbols found elsewhere in American public life -- such as the pyramid with the eye at the top and an eagle with outstretched wings clutching the stars and stripes -- both of which are also found on the dollar bill. Hard by the Ten Commandments monument are statues and plaques honoring or memorializing the Boy Scouts of America (under fire from the left, as well), Korean War Veterans, World War I veterans, Pearl Harbor, Texas children, the National Guard and pioneer women.
But no religious acknowledgment is too small to escape the attention of the zealous modern God-fearers. The petitioners complain that the monument "expresses an unequivocal religious message: There is a God, and God has proclaimed rules for behavior." We can't have that. Just you wait, the dollar bill -- which proclaims in broad daylight "In God We Trust" is not safe.
The God-fearers are not engaged in a fool's errand. They have good reason to suppose that their protest may be well-received. Over the past several decades, the court's establishment clause jurisprudence has been, well, peculiar. The court has held that a creche could be displayed at Christmastime only if it was accompanied by a requisite number of candy canes, Santas and other non-religious symbols. The court has also ruled that states may constitutionally provide maps (and, in a later decision, computers) for parochial schools, but not books.
The court has held that student-led prayers in a football huddle constitute an establishment of religion. Ditto an invocation offered by a rabbi at a public high school graduation. There, Justice Kennedy explained that asking non-believers to stand and "maintain a respectful silence" was unconstitutional. Respectful silence just isn't the spirit of the age.
The state of Texas urges the Court to adopt the reasonable person standard for evaluating the Ten Commandments monument. Would a reasonable person, seeing this granite slab, assume that Texas meant to enforce a ban on graven images or to force neighbors to refrain from covetousness? The brief did jocularly offer that "no one would reasonably think that the state has adopted a position, one way or the other, on whether the Dallas Cowboys should continue playing professional football on Sundays or whether the Texas Longhorns should continue playing college football on Saturdays (notwithstanding the seriousness, and even religious fervor, with which Texans approach their football ...)."
The real point is that we've lost our grip on any common-sense definition of establishment. The Founders did not want to favor one church over another at the federal level (when the Constitution was ratified, several states did have established churches). By forbidding one national church pre-eminence, freedom of worship would be more reliably protected. The notion that this country, founded firmly in the Judeo-Christian tradition, could not even mention God in public without fearing a subpoena is simply ludicrous.
If the Supreme Court hands down a ruling that the Texas monument violates the Constitution, it will do so in the literal shadow of a frieze on the Supreme Court's chamber depicting none other than Moses holding the tablets in his hands.