Things are going so well in the final year of the Pax Clintonia, says Chicago Tribune columnist John McCarron, that presidential candidates have little to talk about. "The Republican hopefuls," he writes, "have been reduced to calling for such things as the posting of the 10 Commandments in public school classrooms."Like many pundits, McCarron seems unable to smell the serious cultural decay that worries so many Americans. The effectiveness and the legality of posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms can be debated. But the pungent odor of moral decay is undeniable. The move to post the Ten Commandments—mainly as an effort to stop this kind of moral decay—got its serious start in 1995 with the case of Alabama circuit court Judge Roy Moore, who fought to keep a copy of the Decalogue on his courtroom wall. Since then Judge Moore has been speaking to citizen groups around the nation, urging them to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms. The Columbine High School massacre gave the movement a strategic boost. State and local governments have moved to post the Commandments (or something like them) in or near schools, and civil-liberties watchdogs have brought suits to keep the threat of religiously-based righteousness out of such tax-funded public spaces.
Is this another Christian fad—a kind of commandment mania? Gold-plated Ten Commandments charm bracelets ($17.99 at iBelieve.com), bumper stickers, and T-shirts are among the hottest religious trinkets.Or is a serious moral crusade afoot? The headline on a January 7 Associated Press story claims, "Ten Commandments replacing abortion as key Christian issue, scholar says." That is not quite what the article quotes religious-studies scholar Frank Flinn of Washing ton University in St. Louis as saying, but it is a thought-provoking claim. Is the Ten Commandments crusade now conservative Christians' main issue? Does this crusade rise to the level of earlier Christian reform issues such as the abolition of the slave trade or women's suffrage? At least in its current form, the answer is no.One reason the movement does not rise to this level of significance is that posting the Ten Commandments lends itself to tokenism in religion. In an era in which we are struggling to find the proper place of religion in a pluralistic society, we must be careful neither to crusade for nor to accept mere symbols. Wall plaques rarely provoke deep moral reflection—especially in an increasingly cynical student body.Some proponents of posting the Ten Commandments feed the tokenism with specious arguments. Robert Hooker—a school superintendent in Scott County, Indiana—redrafted the Ten Commandments as Eleven Precepts, in an effort to avoid a lawsuit from the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. The precepts included "Save sex for marriage" and "Respect authority." But the first precept was "Trust in God," and strict separationists cried foul. Hooker told the AP that he derived "Trust in God" from the words printed on all U.S. money. Because of this common usage, Hooker said, the phrase is no longer strictly religious. "If Hooker is right, if we have secularized even God, the entire establishment clause [of the First Amendment] is probably moot," legal correspondent Douglas Lee wrote in a commentary for the Freedom Forum. This reasoning, said Lee, "should send shivers down the spines of all believers."Far more helpful than this tokenism, one parent recently told us, would be curriculum materials that accurately reflect the part religion played in shaping our history. Religion played a vital role in the development of modern science and medicine, in motivating democratic movements, and in fostering commerce and exploration. To remove the religious element from classroom accounts of Columbus, Isaac Newton, the Pilgrims, the civil-rights movement, and the fall of East German communism is to distort their stories. Worse, it deprives students of understanding how belief in God has made us who we are. Religion is not just a Sunday hobby, but a whole-life worldview, and education should reflect that.The public policy work has been done (and agreed to by both Left and Right) that clearly makes room for this kind of education. But the cumbersome process of revising textbooks and patiently educating teachers to do this task does not have the political sex appeal of Ten Commandments tokenism.Beyond tokenism, beyond being mollified by the symbolic use of the Decalogue, there is another danger: treating the Ten Commandments as a totem. When something becomes a rallying point for a cause or an identifying symbol for a movement, it runs the danger of becoming an idol. Too often in the history of Christianity one element of the faith has been lifted out of its context, sloganized, and used to marginalize (or even imprison or kill) others, including other Christians. No one is talking about using the Ten Commandments that way now, but their political use could take us down that path.
Christians need to think seriously about what the Ten Commandments really are.First, they are the cornerstone of God's covenant treaty with the children of Israel, designed to show that Israel's newfound identity was defined by the ethical character of God rather than by military power or tribal pride.Second, in all of their concrete historical particularity, the Commandments provide all people with a window into the moral nature of the universe. Living at harmony with nature and nature's God requires adherence to the universal principles that can be glimpsed through these Ten Words. The Commandments are, however, at many points a minimal expression of morality. They prohibit adultery and perjury, for example, but only lay the groundwork for the virtues of chastity and truthfulness. Ripped from the context of sacred history, they provide very limited guidance.Third, they remind us that the legal philosophy currently dominant in our courts, that the law is simply whatever the courts say it is, is vacuous and dangerous. The Ten Commandments are a powerful reminder that moral truth comes to us from outside ourselves.The Ten Commandments are not an easy-to-secularize list of behavioral guides. They are fundamentally and inherently religious. They make little sense outside the context of the covenant God's electing love. They have always been a key element in training Christian children, but outside of the Covenant they seem more like obstacles to self-actualization than like opportunities for growth in goodness. Let parents put these precepts to work where they make the most sense: in home, church, and synagogue. And let their well-taught offspring be the salt that preserves the schools.
One great place to keep updated on debates about the public display of the Ten Commandments is The Freedom Forum's Religion site. Yahoo!'s full coverage areas on education policy and religion news also regularly have Ten Commandments stories, but the Freedom Forum is perhaps the most vigilant.
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