What inspired you to write this book?
I have a religious background: my father was a Presbyterian minister, and I went to seminary. I was receptive to using the Bible as a way to find meaning and value in life. But what really inspired me was Krzystof Kieslowski's film, "The Decalogue." It was so refreshing and thoughtful. So I decided to set out and use each of the commandments as a lens or prism to look at this society that I'd been away from for 20 years (working as a war correspondent in over 50 countries) and was now returning to.
How are the Ten Commandments relevant to American life today?
Well, the Ten Commandments are relevant to any society that hopes to nurture and sustain community. They're the basic precepts by which community can be held together. When they're violated, communities disintegrate. That's why they resonate 6,000 years later. If you look at the ethical code that almost any religion creates, they're strikingly similar to the Ten Commandments: the Buddhist Wheel of Life, or the Egyptian Book of the Dead, with its questions about whether you'd lived a good or honorable life.
Many of the measures of [having lived a good life] are beyond law. It's very hard to legislate honoring your father or mother for instance. It's hard to legislate against idolatry. These are the moral or ethical questions raised in the commandments, and I find them particularly interesting because almost all of them are beyond the scope of law itself. I suppose they could be legalized if we allowed people to narrowly interpret them. But that would desecrate the commandments completely. That wasn't their purpose.
You are a well-known war correspondent. But you also have a seminary degree. What is the relationship between the two?
As someone who was raised in a Christian household, I always felt that my role was to empower, or give a voice to, the dispossessed, those people who are neglected and marginalized in our society. At first I didn't see how that fit with journalism. I published my first piece when I was in college, but I went on to seminary to be an inner-city minister because I felt that was a stronger profession of my belief. In my second year of divinity school, though, there was a guy named Robert Cox who'd been the editor of The Buenos Aires Herald, who was also a very devout Catholic. He'd been editor during the dirty war in Argentina, when 30,000 Argentines were disappeared, and every morning he'd put in a box on the front page of the paper the names of the people who'd been disappeared the night before. He showed me in a lot of ways what I think good journalism is and should be. He also pushed George Orwell on me, and so I went off to Latin America with Orwell as my mentor, and the belief that this was as close as my generation was going to come to fighting fascism.
That was really the bridge. I'd come to the understanding that the mainstream church had walked out on the urban poor a long time ago and that liberal Christians would speak on behalf of oppressed people but had very little contact with them. They'd go to Nicaragua for a week and pick coffee, but they'd never get on a subway to the Main Mission Extension housing projects, where people were living in appalling conditions. I found that to be self-aggrandizement on the part of liberal Christians, and not about real commitment.
This seems similar to what you write about in your first two chapters on idolatry. You use the example of your idolizing your own virtue for going into inner-city Boston. You say this form of idolatry gives people self-definition, "frees them from moral choices," and determines right and wrong for them. Do you see that sort of idolatry in other American experiences of religion?
I think so many people go to church to worship their own virtue. That's what they're really worshipping, which is an idol. I had a professor in divinity school who called all these people "honorary sinners." I think there's a feeling of self-righteousness that people get out of [going to church] that I find really repugnant. I very rarely go to church, even though I grew up in it, because I just get so angry at the sermons.
What did you mean by idolatry "frees us from moral choice"?
Many people try to turn the Bible into a kind of manual, by which we no longer have to make moral choices. I think this drains it of its life and power. And part of much of my anger at the Religious Right comes on precisely this issue. They are selling us a kind of civic religion, by which they claim not only to know the will of God, but to be able to act as agents of God. And once you believe that, you become dangerous, not only to yourself, but to everyone around you.