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Thursday, August 12th, 2010
Monday, September 14th, 2009
THIS WEEK IN MOSES: Gays in the military.
In Ted Kennedy’s new memoir, being published today, the Senator describes his first meeting with Bill Clinton in the White House. The new president had stumbled into a firestorm about gays in the military and invited the Democratic members of the Armed Services Committee to a meeting. All of the senators went around the room giving their opinions, so much so that the meeting lasted a whopping two hours, costing Kennedy a seat at the ballet that night. Kennedy spoke in favor of lifting the ban; Robert Byrd spoke against. Finally, the president spoke up. Here is Kennedy’s telling:
President Clinton stood up. His response was short and sweet. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘Moses went up to the mountain, and he came back with the tablets and there were ten commandments on those tablets. I’ve read those commandments. I know what they say, just like I know you do. And nowhere in those ten commandments will you find anything about homosexuality. Thank y’all for coming.’ He ended the meeting and walked out of the room.”
Clinton was technically correct. The Ten Commandments do not mention homosexuality. But the Five Books of Moses do, in ways that have plagued homosexuals for centuries. Leviticus 18:22 says, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman.” Leviticus 20:13 says this “abomination” is punishable by death. Conservative Jews and Christians have long cited these two verses in their condemnation of homosexuality, though more liberal-minded believers have claimed these verses occur in the context of idol-worship or other passages that render them irrelevant to current conventions. In any event, many offenses for which the Bible calls for the death penalty have not been punished in that way for millennia, if ever.
Clinton’s quoting Moses to support his softening of the ban of gays in the military recalls another use of the Hebrew prophet. In 1948, Harry Truman issued an executive order integrating the U.S. military. Noting that polls showed 82 percent of American were against the policy, Truman wrote in his diary: “How far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt?”
From the pilgrims to the founding fathers, the civil war to the civil rights movement, American leaders have used Moses in the face of staunch opposition to advance the cause of justice. Obama, though, might have a trouble quoting Moses to support his policy toward gays in the military. Just last month he cited Moses in support of his health care plan.
Monday, August 24th, 2009
THIS WEEK IN MOSES: Harry and Louise meet Moses.
In a conversation with religious leaders last week, Barack Obama hit back against some of the more outlandish attacks against his health care proposals. Responding to rumors of “death panels” that would “decide whether elderly people would live or die,” he referred to the “Great Words of Sinai,” the Ten Commandments. “There are some folks out there who are frankly bearing false witness,” he said.
The dictate against “bearing false witness” first appears in Exodus 20:16, when Moses climbs to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments after leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. The line reads: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
Obama deftly didn’t mention which of the Ten Commandments this is, as different traditions count the commandments differently. In the Jewish, Protestant, and Orthodox tradition, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor” is commandment number nine. In the Catholic and Lutheran traditions, it’s number eight.
Despite harsh criticism that Obama is injecting religion where it doesn’t belong, “bearing false witness” has a long presence in American jurisprudence, as do most of the Ten Commandments. A Connecticut law from 1642 promised death “if any man rise by false witness.” Similar laws appeared in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. As recently as 1988, the Supreme Court of Mississippi cited the Ninth Commandment in reproaching prosecutorial misconduct:
When the State or any party states or suggests the existence of certain damaging facts and offers no proof whatever to substantiate the allegations, a golden opportunity is afforded the opposing counsel in closing argument to appeal to the Ninth Commandment. “Thou shalt not bear false witness . . . ”
More striking: Obama’s use of the Ninth Commandment echoes Kay Hagan’s use of the same line to hit back against claims by Liddy Dole in last year’s Senate campaign in North Carolina. That Democrats are now using the Ten Commandments as a weapon against Republicans continues a longstanding tradition that has been appalling absent in recent years: The Bible can be used by used by both sides in the culture wars.
Specifically, Moses, wielded by presidents from Washington to Reagan, Lincoln to Obama, may be the one figure in American history who transcends Red and Blue. The question of the moment is whether he’s strong enough to take on the forces that include Blue Cross & Blue Shield.