Civil libertarians say the Ten Commandments must not be displayed in public places because this constitutes state endorsement of religion. Proponents counter that reminding citizens of divine law will help rebuild the nation's character.
What's intriguing is that, in theological terms, Christianity should have Six Commandments, not Ten. Jesus deliberately snipped out four of the commandments, endorsing only six. The six he favored are moral standards that could readily be posted in any public structure, without violating the line between church and state. It is the Six Commandments, not the Ten, that ought to be central to this debate.
First the political background. A 1980 Supreme Court decision barred most displays of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, on the grounds that this violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which mandates, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
Since 1980, proponents have been looking for a way around the ruling, as part of a movement that calls itself Hang Ten. The Indiana statute seeks to satisfy legal concerns by saying that the Ten Commandments should be displayed along with other historical documents such as the Magna Carta. If displayed in conjunction with secular documents, the Hang Ten movement maintains, then the Ten Commandments would be received as primarily historical, not explicitly Judeo-Christian.
It is unknown whether the Supreme Court would allow an Indiana-type commandments statute to stand. In recent years, federal judges have warmed somewhat toward faith in the public square. William Rehnquist, chief justice of the Supreme Court, maintains that the Constitution prohibits government only from endorsing religion or restricting free expression by minority faiths: "The Establishment Clause does not require that the public sector be insulated from all things which may have a religious significance."
But even if courts were sympathetic to the Indiana law, test cases and years of litigation would be required. Then, even if a Hang Ten statute were upheld, a backlash would surely result, on the part of those who would rightly fear that what was being hung was really a promotional device for evangelical Christianity.
That's the political rundown. What about the theology?
One irony is that if the Ten Commandments commend to the public a religion, the faith being touted is Judaism, not Christianity. The Ten Commandments are found in the Hebrew Bible--what Christians call the Old Testament--which forms the core of Jewish holy writ.
Christianity honors the Old Testament, but views it as amended by the New--and in the New Testament, Jesus consciously rejects the Ten Commandments, replacing them with the Six Commandments.
The story of the Six Commandments comes when a young man asks Jesus what a person must do to obtain entry to heaven. Jesus replies, "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." (Christ often simply said "life" to mean "eternal life," implying that the spirit world is the reality and the physical world is the veil.) Instructed to "keep the commandments," the young man then inquires, "Which ones?"
"And Jesus said, `You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness. Honor your father and mother. Also, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matthew 19:17-19, New Revised Standard Version. A parallel telling of the Six Commandments exchange is found at Mark 10:17-23.)
Six count `em Six Commandments, not Ten. Can you name the missing four? These are the Commandments that Christ leaves off his inventory: "You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make yourself an idol. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God. Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy." (Compression of Exodus 20:3-8, NRSV. The Ten Commandments are given several times in the Old Testament in slightly different wordings, and the Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant traditions make different choices regarding which wordings to emphasize.)
Because what is significant about the Six Commandments verses is what Christ does not say, the grandeur and import of the passage is routinely missed.
Jesus, the child of God, carefully and consciously discards four of the Ten Commandments, basic precepts of a thousand years of relations between Maker and made. It turns out that the four Commandments Jesus deletes are the ones concurring formal religious practice. The Six Commandments that Jesus endorses are the ones concerning morality, love, and good character.
Jesus, bear in mind, is considered by Christian theology to be voicing the thoughts of the divine. When proclaiming the Ten Commandments, God placed at the top of the list formal religious obligation, exactly what the Establishment Clause of the Constitution forbids government from taking any stand on.
A thousand years later--Moses is believe to have lived about nine centuries before Christ--the Maker, speaking through Jesus, drops the ancient commandments regarding formal religious affiliation, and chooses to emphasize moral behavior and good character, exactly what schools and courts can emphasize without legal constraints.
The Christian denominations have a long history of averting their eyes from the Six Commandments passage, for a self-interested reason--these verses seem to say that denominations are not particularly important, and what denomination wants to call attention to that? Through the course of the Gospels, Jesus makes a number of statements suggesting that God's interest in religious formality has declined, replaced by a divine emphasis on morality and love.
Christianity, as an institution, pays close heed to Jesus's admonitions regarding morality and love, but tries to change the subject away from his anti-religious sayings.
For the purposes of the current Hang Ten political debate, what matters is that the Six Commandments could readily be posted in any school or public structure, because they do not advocate any particular faith, or even advocate religion at all.
Rather, the Six Commandments advocate ethical precepts we all ought to follow and teach, rules that define a life of good character. The teachings of the Six Commandments are timeless, too: even "You shall not commit adultery" does not mean no fun, it means no breaking the vows of marital fidelity. (The original Greek word translated as "adultery,", moicheuo, refers to monogamy, not sex generally.)
The precepts of the Six Commandments are ones embraced by every leading religion: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and every minor one that comes to mind.
Let's reprise the Six Commandments again, and imagine the good that could be accomplished by posting them in schools and public buildings, attributed to the radiant rabbi Jesus:
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness.
Honor your father and mother.
Also, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
In these words are everything we need to ground a revival of public character, without the slightest worry of Constitutional challenge.