WASHINGTON - Among the few advantages of changing residences is going through stuff you have saved, believing it might someday be useful.
While moving, I found a box with a nearly 30-year-old Associated Press story that has particular relevance in light of the continuing legal, social and religious debate over symbols such as the Ten Commandments on public property in Alabama.
In the midst of the furor over Watergate and the Vietnam War, when public trust in government and cynicism about almost everything ran deep, Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon introduced a resolution for an unofficial "national day of humiliation, fasting and prayer" that would set aside April 30 (1974) as a day to "repent of our national sins."
The Senate then got into a debate over the meaning of "humiliation." Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona said that a "spirit of humbleness and gratitude for the many blessings we have is one thing, but if there is any suggestion that we as a nation and people should feel humiliated, I can't agree." Mr. Goldwater added he was particularly concerned that "someone in a godless country [might] think we are ashamed of our country."
Sen. Lawton Chiles of Florida responded that the resolution was not intended to make Americans ashamed of their country but "to show a little humility before the Creator."
It's worrisome when Congress thinks it needs to defend or proclaim faith, especially when it has difficulty solving the temporal problems members have been elected to address. And I worry more when people who say they serve a King and Kingdom that are "not of this world" call upon government to proclaim their particular faith. My worry is not for the reasons stated by those bringing lawsuits to cleanse the public square of any reference to God. It is for the believers who are distracted from the main and more difficult task their heavenly Commander-in-Chief has called upon them to do.
Some reporter should have asked today's Alabama protesters how many of the Ten Commandments they could recite. Probably not many. The protesters say American law is based on the Commandments. A reporter should have asked, "All of them?" There are only two commandments that relate to secular law (not counting the one about adultery, for which you cannot legally be deprived of life or liberty, property being a matter for divorce courts). One prohibits murder, the other outlaws stealing. The rest are about relationships between God and man and between humans. Do the protesters want laws that force people to honor their mothers and fathers, or not "covet" their neighbor's property, or "honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy," or worship only their God?
Another question a biblically literate reporter might have asked is, "Why are you proclaiming the Ten Commandments when you believe no one can live up to all of them?"
The street theater in Alabama was really less about the Commandments than about fund raising and the continued public visibility of certain organizations. Conservatives worry that their contributors will think all is well with George W. Bush in the White House and people might stop sending them money. So, they create new controversies and send out alarmist direct-mail solicitations to help them fight the spread of "godlessness." It is phony and it is injurious to the greater and more life-changing (to say nothing of culture-changing) message Christians are called to proclaim.
In the old AP story, Sen. Harold Hughes of Iowa, who was preparing to leave the Senate and become a lay Christian worker, said, "There is a great need to repent, to seek God's guidance. We have come to rely more on bitterness and hatred than on love for our fellow man."
Mr. Hughes, who had fought and won battles against alcohol and depression, realized after a successful political career that government has the lesser power. He once told me: "I'm not leaving the political structure because of a lack of faith in the political system. I'm leaving because of faith in a greater system."
In spending moral capital on symbols such as the Ten Commandments, the Alabama protesters settle for a lesser power and squander the life-changing power that is uniquely theirs to proclaim.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at www.calthomas.com.