When Jesus was pressed to identify the most important commandments in all of Jewish law, his answer was both a summons and a rebuke. There were, quite literally, hundreds of commands to choose from. Yet behind them all, he said, was this: Love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself. "All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments." That's worth keeping in mind as the spectacle in Alabama over the posting of the Ten Commandments plays itself out in the courts.

Indeed, the rhetoric of many activists suggests that a deeply rooted temptation in the Christian church is alive and well: the impulse to reduce the faith to its externals.

Judge Roy Moore is surely right that the presence of the Decalogue in a state courthouse is no violation of the First Amendment. And it's a matter of history, as he says, that the Ten Commandments supplied much of the bedrock of the Western legal tradition. It's hard not to admire Moore's defiant stand for God's moral norms in public life. Yet he and his supporters, nearly all evangelical Christians, are on dangerous ground when they appear to use the posting of the Commandments as a litmus test for the faithful. In defending their willingness to disregard a federal court ruling, they argue thus: "We must obey God's law, not man's law."

Since when did the public display of the Ten Commandments become the eleventh commandment? This style of argument hints at a tension that has shaped Protestant Christianity since the Reformation.

Evangelicals hardly need to be reminded that Martin Luther assailed the Catholic Church for confusing religious observances with simple faith in Christ and his death on our behalf. For every Protestant since, the gospel of grace cannot be identified with mere obedience to the law—not even the Law of Moses. Luther recovered the conviction that the righteousness of Christ belongs to the believer, that his guilt has been swallowed up in Christ, and that this is the bright truth that sets the sinner free. "What man is there whose heart, upon hearing these things, will not rejoice to its depth," he wrote, "and when receiving such comfort will not grow tender so that he will love Christ as he never could by means of any laws or works?" There is no concept more widely shared by contemporary evangelicals.

Nevertheless, the reflex to establish what Christian philosopher Dallas Willard calls "boundary markers"—legalistic cues as to who belongs in God's family and who doesn't—seems just as strong in Protestantism. The Calvinists helped pave the way with their almost manic fixation on the "signs of the elect." Fundamentalist Christians of all kinds have elevated this impulse into an art form. Tithing, affirming the inerrancy of Scripture, speaking in religious buzzwords, leading a church ministry, belonging to a mid-week Bible study—such are considered the tell-tale marks of the faithful.

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As an evangelical, I've tasted (and, regrettably, dished out) this version of Christianity many times. Several years ago I moved into Washington, D.C. and joined a Southern Baptist church. In introducing the church's venerable history, the pastor proudly explained that in the late 19th century the congregation had expelled a man from fellowship over marital problems. Their ruling was singled out as one of the "marks of a healthy church." What we never learned, however, was the ultimate fate of that disciplined member: The Bible's emphasis on the restoration of the fallen believer never entered the conversation. What mattered most, it seemed, was that orthodoxy was defended, the faithful were clearly defined—and the troublemaker was effectively dismissed.

The evangelical left is equally skilled at reimagining the church's borders; it just uses a different set of signposts. Boycotts against gas-guzzling SUVs, complaints over "patriarchal" translations of the Bible, support for welfare spending, peace rallies to denounce American "imperialism"—these are the causes that distinguish the insiders from the outsiders. For several months I attended an evangelical church with a warm heart for social action. Shortly after I arrived, however, conflict broke out between church leadership and the congregation over the issue of race. Their longtime goal of "racial reconciliation" was being thwarted. To the leaders, the mostly white church simply did not look black enough. The reason given was that we (the whites) supported the institutions of racial injustice that pervade American life. How exactly we did this, or what we should do about it, was never made clear.

Protestants always have said that genuine faith produces changes on the outside, as well as the inside, of the believer. Drunks get sober and stay that way. Sunday morning golfers start opting for church. Cheaters decide to play it straight. Nothing written here should leave the impression that Christian discipleship means business as usual—whether it's the movies we watch or the people we marry. In a world at war with its Creator, following Jesus involves much more than being a "resident alien." It means being a subversive, a rebel, an insurgent.

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Yet Jesus reminds us constantly that the life he intends for us, here and now, will utterly transcend the externals. "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." "You honor me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me." "She loves much because she has been forgiven much." Tim Kellor of New York's Redeemer Presbyterian Church points out that the contrast Jesus draws in the Sermon on the Mount is not between the religious and the irreligious person. It's between the outwardly religious and the one whose heart has been transformed by grace. "Blessed are the pure in heart," Jesus promised, "for they shall see God."

Faith-based social conformity does not produce the pure in heart. Boundary markers can't inspire steadfast love and obedience to Christ. The outcome of that approach to spiritual life—the method of the Pharisee—is always the same: It crushes the soul. Only the Lord knows how many pilgrims have fallen into its deadly reef.

An unhealthy emphasis on externals also gives people an impossibly blinkered view of life. A 1934 meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in Berlin offers an extreme example. Delegates had arrived with apprehension about the new German Fuhrer and his Nazi Party. But many returned to America with favorable views. Why? As the Alliance noted: "It is reported that Chancellor Adolf Hitler gives to the temperance movement the prestige of his personal example, since he neither uses intoxicants nor smokes." A year earlier Hitler had burned down the Reichstag, declared a one-party state and imposed laws excluding Jews from government and public life. But Boston pastor John Bradbury gave the Nazis high marks for the enforcement of public morality. "It was a great relief to be in a country where salacious sex literature cannot be sold … The new Germany has burned great masses of corrupting books and magazines along with its bonfires of Jewish and communistic libraries."

Evangelicals are not alone, of course, in their tendency to choose law over grace. Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims—there's plenty of competition from the world's religious communities. More than most, however, evangelicals have the theology and the spiritual resources to resist this temptation. Resisting it, in fact, may prove to be the surest road to renewal.

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation and a commentator on religion for National Public Radio.

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Related Elsewhere:

Loconte earlier commented on the Commandments controversy for National Public Radio's All Things Considered. His commentary was picked up by the Chicago Tribune and other publications.

"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," Christianity Today said in a 2000 editorial. "When something becomes a rallying point for a cause or an identifying symbol for a movement, it runs the danger of becoming an idol."

Christian History Corner earlier examined the history of the Decalogue's place in British and American history.

More coverage of the Alabama Ten Commandments controversy and similar debates are available from Christianity Today's Weblog and past news stories.