David Klinghoffer is worried about “the atmosphere of secularism” that “rains down like nuclear fallout, spreading contamination” and offers the Ten Commandments as a “desperately needed diagnostic tool” to combat it. In Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril, Klinghoffer uses his city of Seattle as a snapshot of a ailing culture in need of a back-to-spiritual basics retreat. Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and former literary editor at National Review, recently took questions about the book, his city, and our culture from National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s so sick about Seattle?
David Klinghoffer: Imagine secularism as a religion without a deity. You could hardly find a city more pious in its secularism than Seattle. That’s why I use the Pacific Northwest, where just 30 percent of the people are religiously affiliated, as a case study. I ask what happens to a culture when it detaches ideas about right and wrong from any grounding in a belief in God. The answer is, you get a place like this where, for example, people can’t explain why murder is wrong. My friend Dan Sytman did a series of street interviews on this. Sample reply from a guy standing outside the Federal Building: “Good and evil and right and wrong are simply another way of saying ‘like’ and ‘don’t like.’ So I say, when you ask me about murder, I would say ‘I don’t like murder.’”
Lopez: Is it sicker than New York City, where you previously lived?
Klinghoffer: Yes, isn’t that amazing? I lived in New York under Dinkins and Giuliani, so I saw the moment when New Yorkers got fed up with the rule of the street by the Youths, that wonderful euphemism. In Seattle, the city government — an extension of the citizens — doesn’t believe it has a moral right to clean up the street outside the building where I work. It’s right smack in the middle of the top tourist district but it’s a gathering place of all the city’s scariest Youths, along with meth addicts, crack dealers, stumbling drunks, crazy people, and so on. This neighborhood, in terms of tourist traffic, is the New York equivalent of that stretch of Fifth Avenue from St. Patrick’s up to the museums. New York would never tolerate letting that corridor become the way Seattle’s Pike and Pine Streets are.
Lopez: What could the Ten Commandments do for Seattle?
Klinghoffer: Primarily, teach us how to order moral priorities.
Here’s a vignette of Seattle. The other morning an work-colleague of mine got off the bus at 8:15 — in the A.M., mind you. This was a couple of blocks from our office. First thing she saw was a couple having sex against the side of a fountain across from Westlake Center. She then walked a few feet and saw a huge, shaven-headed, tattoo-covered guy screaming at and threatening a man who was holding a briefcase. She walked a few more steps, and saw a cop. What was the cop doing? Writing out a parking ticket.
Lopez: On that point, explain your statement: “If you want to gauge the moral health of a society, look at its policemen.”
Klinghoffer: The Ten Commandments explain the basis for the authority we need to see, but increasingly don’t find, in politicians, parents, and police. It used to be that these people felt infused with an authority that came from a source much greater than themselves, greater than the government, greater than people. I mean God. The Chinese phrase for this is, “the mandate of Heaven.” In a secularized culture, authority figures such as cops lack confidence in their authority. It’s like a magical spell has been broken. People don’t listen to them, at least not the people who really need to be listening — the bad guys. That’s what you find in Seattle, and elsewhere too of course.
Lopez: What’s “moralesque”?
Klinghoffer: A burlesque of morality. No society can do without a code of rules to live by. It’s our nature. So when they turn away from the ancient code of the Bible, a substitute needs to be found. That’s the code of moralesque. It makes things like health and diet — which traditionally would have been left to personal discretion — into these very, very heavy moral commandments. Being fat isn’t just unwise. It’s a moral offense. Same for smoking, drinking, etc. This is the Purell culture, the peanut-free school culture. Health becomes a substitute theater of moral action, taking the place of the things that really matter.
Lopez: What’s the point of a First Commandment protest rally?
Klinghoffer: Oh, I attended one, though it wasn’t spoken of explicitly. It was a rally for Richard Dawkins, the atheist Darwinist bestseller guy, at Seattle’s town hall. The First Commandment — “I am the Lord your God…” — really sticks in the craw of materialists like Dawkins, much more so than any other of the Ten Commandments. Everyone was bundled in flannel and they were applauding him for applauding them for being such a bunch of sophisticated geniuses who can explain the existence of everything in the universe in purely material terms. This is what Darwinism, a sort of secular religion, is all about. The First Commandment is the focus of the conflict between secular dogma and the more open-minded view that’s willing to entertain the possibility that God’s hand may really have left evidence of His work in the heavens, in our bodies.
Lopez: What happened to Jason Gilson?
Klinghoffer: Gilson is the disabled 23-year-old Iraq veteran who was booed and called a “murderer” by a rabid liberal crowd at a Fourth of July parade on Bainbridge Island, an affluent Seattle suburb directly across Puget Sound. So you see what meaning that word has for some Seattlites. For whatever it’s worth, the mayor of Bainbridge subsequently apologized.
Lopez: What could the Ten Commandments do for Britney Spears?
Klinghoffer: You may wish to consult the cover story of Us Weekly for its excellent coverage on that (“Brit’s Nannies Tell All”) and other celeb dish. Or are you prompting me to discuss the culture of gossip, which falls under the heading of the Ninth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your fellow”? A great example of how people think they know what each of the Commandments means, but really don’t. Thanks for asking, Kathryn, as they say. What I show in my book is that the Ten Commandments is not only the simple list of do’s and don’ts that people assume they’ve got down flat. It’s more like a table of contents for the whole of Biblical wisdom, which in turn, according to a midrashic tradition, is nothing less than a blueprint of moral reality. So in the Ten Commandments we have the most incredibly terse and succinct picture of the universe as God sees it, of God’s mind.
What’s that I was saying about Brit’s nannies?
Lopez: Sam Harris?
Klinghoffer: The celebrity atheist who thinks that because lots of scientists are atheists, therefore nobody needs religion to be a good person. Oh for goodness sake. It’s true that plenty of atheists are perfectly nice and functional people. But the question is what an entire society would be like, hollowed out spiritually, lacking any ability to account for, in a serious way, the rightness of its morals. A famous philosopher, Jonah Goldberg, once wrote on this very website, “If I get my morality from a can of chicken-and-stars soup, you shouldn’t care until that morality drives me to commit evil.” I have no beef with chicken soup, but it’s impossible to imagine a society nourished morally on anything other than a transcendent basis for its conceptions of good and evil. That idea is represented visually by the Ten Commandments being carved on two tablets, the first describing our correct relationship with God, the other with fellow human beings. The Decalogue is put on two tablets to remind us that, in the long run, you can’t have one without the other.
Lopez: John Edwards?
Klinghoffer: He should review the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet.” The speech he’s best known for, the “Two Americas” oration — “One America that does the work, another America that reaps the rewards,” etc. — is nothing more than a piece of incitement to coveting.
Lopez: How is it worse for a man to gossip than a woman? I just can’t help myself?
Klinghoffer: Kathryn, I’m sure you don’t gossip. However, a point I make is that according to the oldest Biblical interpretive tradition, the two tablets are arranged to match up to each other, with one Commandment on the first tablet lining up horizontally with its mate on the second tablet. Those on the first tablet bear an if-then relationship to those on the second. So, for example, if you grasp the spiritual meanings of the Fourth Commandment, Sabbath observance, you are less like to violate the Ninth. The sabbath is about community, of which gossip is a way of creating a cheap, phony simulation. Dishing about your co-workers or friends, you feel momentarily closer to the person you gossip with. Women are better at creating real communities, real relationships, than men are. That’s why men often stop making close friends once the reach a certain age, which isn’t true of women. But the flip side of that is women’s weakness for gossip. Gossip has a feminine side to it. So in that sense, it’s even less becoming for a man to dish.
Lopez: How will it help me to give up my Blackberry on Sundays? (Did I say me? I meant “my friend”! I meant Rich Lowry!)
Klinghoffer: Oh, yes, Rich should give up that Blackberry on Sunday. I’ve wanted to tell him that and now you’ve give me the opportunity. Many a time, I’ve spied on him in Starbucks when he wasn’t looking, or I would have done so if we lived in the same city, with his head ducked in his lap continually typing away at that thing.
Why on Sunday? Now I don’t say this in reference to Rich or you, of course, but the Sabbath is meant to knock our hubris down a notch or two. When you don’t work on Sunday you are affirming that the world can get on without your creative contribution. The Blackberry says the exact opposite. It says, the world absolutely cannot get along without me, not for a minute. Just chuck it.
Lopez: So who needs to start a return to the Ten Commandments? Are we so bad off drastic measures are called for? Should a Mormon wage a presidential campaign based on them? What’s the plan?
Klinghoffer: The plan is for conservatives to stop feeling so shy about God talk when we discuss what’s wrong with the culture, with politics. That’s a big reason I wrote this book, to give people some courage about applying Biblical wisdom, openly, not only to our private lives — and I could use some more of that myself — but to our public lives as well. Conservatives get all nervous, like someone’s going to accuse them of being a theocrat or an extremist or a would-be mullah. Yes, we will be accused of those things. But just for a change, let’s take the offensive and change the terms of the debate, because we’re not exactly winning the argument right now.