What’s Wrong With: Decalogue Monuments?
I’ve blogged often about the problems with “Christian nationers” running around demanding that the Ten Commandments be posted in every public building and on every piece of public land in the country. Since it’s something that repeatedly comes up — because the Religious Right has some kind of fetish over the Decalogue and steadfastly refuses to let go of it, no matter what — I thought I’d outline some of the problems with them, here.
First of all, and most obviously, it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and separation of church and state. Most Religious Rightists counter that there is no such thing as “separation of church and state” in the Constitution (and yes, those exact words are not in the Constitution itself, although the principle is found in an amendment), and that even if there is, it applies only to Congress, not to the states or any other jurisdiction. But they lie when they say this, because the intention behind the Establishment Clause was, in fact, to foster separation of church and state (this is made clear by the writings of James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights); and it also absolutely does apply to the states due to the incorporation provision of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The second problem with any given Ten Commandments monument is that there are different versions of the text of the Decalogue, meaning that any given display must be sectarian, by definition. Most obviously, the Ten Commandments are recorded in three places in two books of scripture (in Exodus 20:1-17, Exodus 34:12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:4-21). The differences between these passages is slight, but these differences have led to there being several different breakdowns of the Decalogue among the various divisions of the Abrahamic religions. Judaism, Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and even different classes of Protestant sects, have different delineations. Any given text of the Ten Commandments would have to follow one or another of them and thus exclude the rest.
Taking the above two points together, there just isn’t any way around it: Posting the Ten Commandments on government property is a use of government to promote whatever wing of the Abrahamic tradition whose text is used. There simply isn’t any other way to view it.
Another problem with putting up the Ten Commandments is that doing so is a form of idolatry. Granted, no one pours libations or waves burning incense over them, or sacrifices goats, cattle, virgins, etc. before them. But those things aren’t the limit of what “idolatry” means. Revering any kind of object and imbuing it with presumed magical power … which is what Decalogue-monument builders do … is “idolatry.” Period. The irony of this is that the Abrahamic deity has clearly and explicitly forbidden his followers ever to engage in idolatry. Scripture is littered with such injunctions, both in the Old and the New Testaments. And in fact, one of the Commandments is, itself, an order never to create idols!
One claim that “Christian nationers” love to make, too, is that the Decalogue is the foundation of the U.S. legal system. This, however, is patently untrue. The American legal system, like that of its antecedent English legal system, is based mostly on common law, which in turn is derived from pre-Christian Germanic tradition. While the English legal tradition also makes room for, and has, statute law as a component, even statute laws are interpreted in terms of precedent, i.e. in accordance with the common law system. The cold fact is that the common law tradition — with its origins quite separate from the Abrahamic religious traditions — has nothing whatever to do with the Ten Commandments. Not. One. Single. Fucking. Thing. The two are not related in any way, even if they do agree on a few points (i.e. having injunctions against stealing, murder, and perjury). These are merely coincidental.
Lastly, constructing any Decalogue display is quite obviously a form of public piety; that is, it makes clear to the entire community that the commissioner or builder of the display worships the Abrahamic deity who handed down the Ten Commandments. This is a particular problem for Christians, because they’ve been explicitly forbidden — by no less than the founder of their religion himself — ever to engage in any kind of public piety. For example, in the very middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared:
Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-6)
Compounding all of this, again particularly for Christians, is that doing all of this in the name of their religion … and in direct violation of its teachings, as explained above … is a form of hypocrisy, which the founder of their religion also explicitly forbid them to engage in:
“Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:16)
“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)
“Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” (Luke 6:42)
I honestly can’t get over the glaring contradiction of Christians being so ferociously eager to break the teachings of their religion — which clearly forbid both public piety and idolatry — by constructing Decalogue idols, the text of which forbids building idols; not to mention the additional hypocrisy that follows from claiming to obey a religion while brazenly violating its teachings. Their own Jesus seems to have known his followers might disobey him, and warned them:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
I suggest these Decalogue-idolators read this passage and take it seriously, lest they imperil their mortal souls.
Photo credit: maorlando, via Flickr.