The Raving Theist

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Better Know Yourself

July 17, 2006 | 32 Comments

He co-sponsored a bill requiring the display of the Ten Commandments in House and Senate, but could barely name three of them. And so Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland was humiliated by Steven Colbert a few weeks back, in a “Better Know a District” interview now widely blogulating via YouTube.

I have some sympathy for the man, but Westmoreland’s public wounding was largely self-inflicted. While it’s true that legislators often don’t read or understand the bills they support — and even vote for laws they detest — there’s a heightened standard when you’re using something as controversial as religion as the subject matter of your legislation-as-theater. You’ve got to be able to put on a show, particularly if you’re purporting to promote your most deeply held beliefs. You should actually know what those beliefs are. And if you’re just going along with someone else’s agenda, it’s not so hard to memorize ten lines. Westmoreland would have probably come out fine had he managed to recall just six or seven of the Commandments before blurting out “I can’t name ‘em all.”

Colbert’s conduct, however, wasn’t blameless. As it turns out, Westmoreland claims that he did name seven of the Commandments before giving up. The show’s editors made a conscious decision cut out the last four and splice in a shot of Colbert holding up three fingers immediately before cutting to the Congressman’s abdication. I understand that it’s just comedy, but even in that context the tactic struck me as uncomfortably dishonest and unfair. If Fox News did the same thing to an atheist trying to list the Commandments in the course of an explanation of why he opposed the bill, there’d be an understandable outcry.

Google the story and you’ll find many bloggers and commentors boasting that “Even I can name them all, and I’m an atheist.” Upon examination, I discovered something surprising: while all of them did indeed list ten Commandments, in no case did any of them get more than four or five right, with the average being two or three. Yes, I’m making that up — but that’s my point. I’d be rightly criticized if I did something like that without revealing my deception or otherwise making it immediately obvious.

The purpose of Colbert’s piece, of course, wasn’t to demonstrate that a particular Congressman couldn’t name the Commandments. The larger issue was raised by the lawmaker’s inability to think of any “better place” for the display of the Commandments than public buildings. Colbert’s face was fishing for the “obvious” answer — a church — and that Westmoreland was stumped provoked nearly as much laughter as his ignorance of the Decalogue.

But the answer was only obvious if you subscribe to the dubious premise that Colbert’s face endorsed — that religious expression belongs somewhere just because the Constitution says it does, that church/state separation is a self-evidently sensible doctrine. In fact, it’s one of the most unprincipled principles in American jurisprudence. The Constitution takes no position on the truth of the Commandments or any facts regarding their origin, and the courts are forbidden to inquire into those matters. So if Westmoreland can be faulted for demanding that the Commandments be placed in public buildings without caring what they say, the Constitution can be faulted for demanding that they be kept out without caring what they say. And Colbert can be faulted for promoting a doctrine as obvious when it’s anything but.

As I said, I don’t feel sorry for Westmoreland. A reasonable case can be made that his support of the Commandments bill was insincere or even cynical, that his Christianity is more of a facade than anything else. To that charge, though, Colbert needs to answer as well. He asserts that he’s church-going, “devout Catholic” who teaches Sunday School, yet he routinely demeans the sacraments and has referred to Benedict XVI as a Nazi Pope. Even if he merely subscribes to a liberal, personalized version of the faith emphasizing charity and honesty, those qualities were conspicuously absent from his treatment of another alleged believer.


32 Responses to “Better Know Yourself”

  1. June
    July 17th, 2006 @ 1:09 pm

    OMG, RA, do you also think The Daily Show is a newscast? Do you analyze speeches given at roasts?
    These are deliberate, raucous, wildly outrageous exaggerations, lies, parodies, insults, and distortions. The bawdier, the better.

    Colbert is a COMEDIAN (who is often not very amusing). His Schtick is to lead people into foolish positions, and any public person who agrees to be interviewed by Colbert is a fool who deserves everything he gets.

    As for mocking the Pope, you did your share of outraging the pope in your days. It’s too late for you to kiss his ass now.

  2. Erik
    July 17th, 2006 @ 1:14 pm

    “If Fox News did the same thing to an atheist trying to list the Commandments in the course of an explanation of why he opposed the bill, there’d be an understandable outcry.”

    Really? From whom?

    The reason that the Ten Commandments should be kept out of courthouses is pretty basic: if I am a litigant and I walk into the courthouse, I would like to have the impression that the judge will be applying centuries of American and English jurisprudence, developed through legislation, judicial practice and precedent. I do not want to get the impression that the law will be applied based on some other standard. But that is exactly the impression that is given by posting the Ten Commandments. Judge Roy Moore said it himself, something along the lines of him answering to a higher law than the Constitution. Sorry, but coming from a judge, that gives me the creeps.

    It also gives the impression of an inflexible, terrifying power to judge, instead of the impression of fairness and where applicable, equity. So there is, at least to my way of thinking, a very good and defensible reason to keep this crap out of the public sphere (at least the courthouse) and no good reason to put it in.

  3. noah nywno
    July 17th, 2006 @ 1:33 pm

    Let’s get something clear. The constitution doesn’t say anything about public displays of faith. It says “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” It has been interpreted to mean “no expression of faith on the taxpayers’ dime and property,” in so many words and among other things. Whether or not it is an accurate or fair interpretation is up for debate.

    I’ve never heard a serious argument for state and church separation that focused solely on the constitution as opposed to why we need separation of church and state. Ant 7th grade civics student will tell you it’s because religion mixing with politics has almost always resulted in detrimental effects for religious minorities in any given society. If we want to get along in a pluralistic society that respects liberty (which is what we are) we had better make sure we’re not promoting one religion over another when it comes to how we apply the Law.

    Now, are we going too far when we stretch that principal to simple expression of religious faith in public? At this point, I don’t think so. There is no compelling need to display the Ten Commandments on public property. Doing so, with out leaving room for other tradition, does nothing more than hold Christian belief as superior to all others. And that should not be the government’s job. Now, when we are banning prayer groups from public parks, something that doesn’t affect the taxpayer at all, then maybe we can all start to worry.

    For the record: What we’re talking about here is not about public expression, it’s about government endorsement.

  4. Thorngod
    July 17th, 2006 @ 1:40 pm

    “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.”
    –James Madison, 1803.
    Most people today may be too damned historically dumb and mentally challenged to understand why the Ten Commandments should not be posted in public buildings, but Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and other leading founders understood very damned well.

  5. FNA
    July 17th, 2006 @ 1:41 pm

    Anyone mind informing me as to how states such as my home NC can get away with articles in their constitution stating noone can hold the governors office who denies the existance of a supernatural being? Thinking about writting my rep though that wont do much good seeing as though they are xian. I thought states law couldnt interfere with the constitution and this seems to be completely contradictory to the religious test article in the constitution.


  6. Thorngod
    July 17th, 2006 @ 1:46 pm

    You are right, FNA, but until an atheist candidate gets a chance to challenge it the courts don’t have to consider the question. And how soon would you venture that N.C. will have an atheist gubernatorial candidate who’s fool enough to admit to being one?

  7. noah nywno
    July 17th, 2006 @ 1:49 pm


    This is where things get a little tricky. The Constitution says “Congress shall make no law…”. When the laws in your state were ratified, the wording of the Constitution meant exactly that. States were still free to have state religions and religiously discriminatory laws. Since then, Supreme Court precedent has been that the states must be in accordance with the Bill of Rights. So those laws are unconstitutional, but never taken officially off the books. If anyone were to seriously challenge them, they would most likely win right out without even a court case being filed.

  8. Choobus
    July 17th, 2006 @ 2:05 pm

    I agree with RA, sort of. Yes, Colbert is on comedy central and it is not a real news show so comedy is paramount, but video editing is just shite. Would you watch a magic show if you knew it was all done by editing? Even if you don’t believe in magic, it’s still interesting to see the tricks, but if it was mere editing then it’s totally uninteresting. Same goes for humiliating assclown godidiots. It’s easy enough to make fools of retarded god loving shitsuckers, so why ruin it all with such a cheap trick? Fox news is also a comedy channel, so if they did the same thing I would not be too surprised.

  9. June
    July 17th, 2006 @ 2:28 pm

    Imagine what would happen if Congress actually managed to amend the Constitution and establish some branch of Christianity (call it CX) as the new Federal Religion. Judging by how other federal regulations have been rammed down our throat, federal funding for anything would be tied to converting to CX. All non-CX denominations would immediately lose their tax exempt status. Public display of CX images would be encouraged; others would be prohibited and confiscated. All courts and federal offices would have large displays to CX, and the Pledge would become a prayer to CX’s God.

    Public disagreement with CX would be first discouraged, then prohibited, then punished, then treated as treason, then elevated to HERESY. Atheists – being without all decency and morals – would not be entitled to citizenship, civility, or civil rights. How easily that is achieved we saw recently at the Concentration Camp Guantanamo. Finally, atheists (being terrifying to those who believe) would be outlawed as terrorists and shot on sight.

    My estimate for the above scenario is about 80 years, enough time to erase one generation that remembers freedom, raise a generation of CX believers, and eradicate all other forms of Christianity (not to mention minority beliefs).

  10. disappointed
    July 17th, 2006 @ 2:28 pm

    “To that charge, though, RA needs to answer as well. He asserts that he’s concerned with the way religion trivializes American law, an “avowed atheist” who has written over a thousand articles on atheism, yet he has been posting some wishy-washy crap lately and refuses to honestly relabel his blog.

  11. June
    July 17th, 2006 @ 2:56 pm

    I well remember TRA having fun with the fact that God actually issued about 75 commandments (see Exodus 20-23).

    Including this hilarious permission to beat your slave unconscious for two days: “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod …he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two…”
    (Exodus 21:20)

    I am NOT making this up! God is funnier than Colbert!

  12. Pansy Moss
    July 17th, 2006 @ 2:56 pm

    As for mocking the Pope, you did your share of outraging the pope in your days. It’s too late for you to kiss his ass now.

    No it’s not.

  13. EclecticGuru
    July 17th, 2006 @ 3:06 pm

    Thanks for getting back to the basics, RA.

    I miss the straight to the point, no-bullshit style that you used to have though.

    It’s too bad, for some reason, you feel like you can’t come out and say under no uncertain terms that you’re dubious of the separation of church and state because it PROTECTS religion, not because it inhibits it.

    I can only assume it has something to do with that “promise” you made.

  14. June
    July 17th, 2006 @ 3:08 pm

    Oh, I guess I was wrong.
    Go ahead and kiss his ass.

  15. Thorngod
    July 17th, 2006 @ 4:21 pm

    Why should the Constitution have taken a position on the truth of the Ten Commandments? Why should it have concerned itself with that document’s pedigree? It is not a Church Constitution– thank God (so to speak)! I’m not certain, but I’m virtually certain, that our Deist founders did not incorporate the Ten C’s–not in their literal Judeo-Christian form–in their virtually featureless theology, and they no doubt considered themselves up to the task at hand and in no need of interpolating ancient texts.

  16. SBW
    July 17th, 2006 @ 5:12 pm

    ….the Constitution can be faulted for demanding that they be kept out without caring what they say….

    That’s faulty logic RA and you know it. The person making the claim that the 10 Commandments belongs in the courthouse is the only one who bears the burden of proof just as the person who claims there is a god has the burden of proof, not the atheist who claims there is no god.

    If you are making an affirmative statement then you are also the one carrying the burden of proving, using logic, that the statement is true.

  17. Andrea
    July 17th, 2006 @ 5:16 pm

    The editing thing on the Colbert Report is shitty, obviously. Colbert’s point would have been made had they broadcast Westmoreland naming seven commandments. I’m not really sure what the point of this calling-out is though. “Even if he merely subscribes to a liberalized, personalized version of the faith…” But if you want to label Colbert a hypocrite then do a better job finding out what he believes instead of guessing… he “merely” subscribes to some version of Christianity? Are you making a judgment call? Your new no-maligning thing is waning a bit.

  18. Kamikaze189
    July 17th, 2006 @ 7:08 pm

    Concerning Colbert, I think he may be religious, or not. I don’t know. But if he is, he probably understands that messing with people who don’t know their own religion is still funny.

  19. Ranma1/2
    July 17th, 2006 @ 8:03 pm

    Almost all of the daily show interview are edited like this.
    Do you think that when you see the interviewer asking questions that they are asking those questions to the person being interviewed?
    I would almost bet that the responces you get are from other questions or just eddited to those questoins. They literaly can make people say whatever they want.

  20. Nightfly
    July 17th, 2006 @ 11:38 pm

    Imagine what would happen if Congress actually managed to amend the Constitution and establish some branch of Christianity (call it CX) as the new Federal Religion.

    Should it ever happen, June, I’ll be up on the ramparts next to you.

  21. Thorngod
    July 18th, 2006 @ 12:59 am

    Hooray for June and Nightfly! If our misguided, mercenary representatives succeed in passing a ban on flag burning, they’ll have to tear off a corner of the flag to write their bill on. And that’s when we must all begin burning flags!

  22. Falselogic
    July 18th, 2006 @ 1:55 am

    Has anyone bothered to see if what the good Congressman said about the clip was true. As cynical as this sounds, I’d beleive Stephen Colbert before anyone in our federal govt.

  23. RDB
    July 18th, 2006 @ 3:35 am

    A couple of things to remember:

    (1) The Daily Show is a parody of a news show (even though many have come to rely upon it for “real” political news).

    (2) Colbert Report is a parody of a political opinion show (sort of a televised blog?) As such, misleading and downright deceptive quotes and edits should be expected as part of the parody.

    (3) The character Colbert plays on his show is religious (to the point of teaching Sunday school, no less!) But I would not presume to confuse Ciolbert’s character with the real person.

  24. Joe Ellison
    July 18th, 2006 @ 6:58 am

    Is TRA completely ignorant? Or is this blog a joke?

  25. Tenspace
    July 18th, 2006 @ 7:27 am

    Colbert’s show follows the model set by Bill O’Reilly. I see nothing wrong with Colbert using one of the Loofah’d One’s normal tactics. It is possible that Colbert is simply copying a recent O’Reilly story where he did the same thing.

  26. SteveG
    July 18th, 2006 @ 7:44 am

    June: Imagine what would happen if Congress actually managed to amend the Constitution and establish some branch of Christianity (call it CX) as the new Federal Religion.

    Nightfly: Should it ever happen, June, I’ll be up on the ramparts next to you

    Well said Nightfly and ditto. I think more of us than you realize think of the seperation as protection as much as many of you do.

  27. Ryan
    July 18th, 2006 @ 7:15 pm

    Damn, first poster beat me to it.

  28. Thenormalyears
    July 18th, 2006 @ 9:46 pm

    Everyone already knows the daily show and the colbert report do a little video editing. Who cares if he couldn’t name them all. I am an atheist and I CAN. It was a good way of pointing out the hypocracy of politicians who use religion as a way of making people vote by feeling guilty. There is no defense of a bill that would put the ten commandments in the house and senate. The point of America is that people came here to escape persecution from people of other religions. They knew the only way to make sure America didn’t end up the same way was to keep religion as far away from the government as possible.

    You certainly know how to malign the cause you used to represent, you’ve even picked up on the old mannerisms of the christian right.

  29. bernarda
    July 19th, 2006 @ 2:34 pm

    There are actually 14 or 15 so-called commandments and only 3 or 4 of them have any relevance today. Do the jesus freaks still propose prohibiting graven images?

    Then the absurd god of the old testment condemned 3 generations of a non-believer’s family to hell if he didn’t only worship this particular god. Do the jesus freaks ever mention that part?

    For that matter, why do jesus freaks focus on the “10” commandments and not what their mythological creature jesus said? In Latin, Christian and Cretin are the same thing. It is time we use just the word “cretin” for jesus freaks. That is more descriptive and certainly more accurate.

  30. Thorngod
    July 19th, 2006 @ 3:21 pm

    Interestingly, Muslims still obey the Graven Image command.

  31. Godthorn
    August 2nd, 2006 @ 2:29 am

    The silence is deafening!

  32. Latesha
    August 23rd, 2011 @ 9:52 am

    What an awesome way to explain this-now I know evryehtnig!

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