Rescuing the 10 Commandments from American Culture

Posted: 2013/10/15 in Christianity
Tags: , ,

Veering off the road to Sunday morning’s sermon and into blogland, I am finishing my sermon series on the Ten Commandments here. Why? Because this last bit is social and political commentary rather than proclamation of the Gospel. This seems a more appropriate place than Sunday’s worship, so, here it is . . .

The Ten Commandments, or Decalogue (from the Greek “deca” – “ten” and “logos” – “word”), either written out in a list or represented by a replica of the stone tablets Moses hauled down off Mt. Sinai, is used as a symbol bearing several meanings within our culture. One meaning is “Christianity is here.” Another is that a particular kind of morality, based in the ethics of Judeo-Christianity, is practiced in the place where the Decalogue is displayed. The irony is that most people, Christians in particular, cannot recite more than one or two of the Ten Commandments.

Regardless of our general ignorance of the content of the Ten Commandments, some people, presumably Christians, become rather upset when their display in a public space (such as a public school, city hall, or courthouse) is challenged. Others, presumably Atheists, become rather upset when the Ten Commandments are displayed in a public space.

My own preference is to rescue the Decalogue from both neglect and abuse by our culture and remove its display from public spaces that are under government control. My reasons for this are as follows:

(1) The first four of the Ten Commandments are explicitly about God as understood by Judeo-Christianity. To place the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, city hall, or public school implies that our government favors a particular religion. This violates the Establishment Clause within The Constitution’s Bill of Rights. This may sound nit-picky, but it goes back the constitutional framers’ concern that there be no state religion in America so that all faiths may be free. Thus, I want our government separated from the Decalogue and Judeo-Christianity as well as from Sharia Law and Islam, and the Noble Eightfold Path and Buddhism.

(2) Ignoring the first four commandments, we do not need the last 6 commandments of the Decalogue to outline the moral basics of a safe and healthy society. Judeo-Christianity does not have exclusive ownership on “Respect your parents,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,”, “Do not lie about others,” “Do not commit adultery,” and “Do not desire other people’s stuff enough to violate one of the other commandments.” These are basic morality in almost every culture. Besides, our culture either neglects or intentionally violates these commandments frequently. Our culture often devalues and mistreats our elders, glorifies violence, gives a wink and a nod to adultery, promotes stealing from poor and powerless in order to enhance profits and shareholder returns, and uses misrepresentation, partial truth, exaggerated marketing and opinion in place of fact and truth. As to the last commandment (do not lust after stuff you do not own)—America’s economy, based in consumerism, is based in stoking desire to have what we do not own (but can purchase).

In other words, why bother displaying the Ten Commandments in public spaces since we, as a society, violate them anyway?

(3) My last reason for getting the Decalogue out of the public space is to keep it from being misused. Some Christians use the Decalogue to symbolize their own preferred religious and ethical views regardless of whether those views are reflected in the Decalogue or not. Rather than being a summary statement of how we should relate to God and each other, some use it as a totem to say, “Christianity and Christian values live here!” The problem is that Christians are (and have never been) agreed on exactly what constitutes Christianity and Christian values. Most notably today, well-meaning Christians have differing views about homosexuality, gender roles, and what constitutes a family. To assume that the Decalogue represents a particular set of values in those areas is problematic. Furthermore, placing the Decalogue in a public space is too often a way of claiming that space for a particular variation of Christian values, thus indicating who is and who is not welcome there.

By the way, if none of these concerns register, consider that the Ten Commandments are not actually a Christian symbol. They represent the whole of the Law given by God through Moses to the Israelites, the practice of which defines them as a people. While helpful to us in knowing the heart of God, we have been freed from the Law (see both Galatians and Romans).

  1. mbraley says:

    I have to agree with you that American culture reflects very little, if any, regard for the Ten Commandments. It’s sad to think of how far and how fast we’ve deviated from the values of our grandparents.

    However, I think the Ten Commandments should be displayed more boldly. The fact of the matter is that God gave the Ten Commandments for the purpose of revealing to us our sinfulness. Using the standards that Jesus presented in His sermon on the mount, we’ve all broken all ten of the commandments. The Ten Commandments give us a quick and clear means of recognizing our flaws, and our inability to stand before a holy God. You mentioned that “we have been freed from the Law.” But “we” are only Christians who have accepted Christ as our savior. Those who haven’t made that decision yet still need the Ten Commandments to see their need for the Savior. They are a useful tool for leading people to Jesus. Without the Ten Commandments, right and wrong become a relative matter where truth is left for each us to define on our own. And that, I believe, is part of why America is in the state of decay that it is.

    I agree with you that we (Christians) need to take a stand to fight against the neglect and abuse of the Ten Commandments. But I believe that the way to do that is to put them out there for everyone to see and then to obey them by living out Jesus’ commands: love God and love your neighbor.

    Thanks for creating this post!

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