I am among the millions of people who claim dual citizenship in the United States and one of the faiths which consider the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament to be sacred writ. With all due respect to Ben Stein, I think that there are compelling reasons for people fitting this description to oppose display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and other public locations. Found in the Hebrew Bible in two variant versions – compare Exodus 20:2-17 with Deuteronomy 5:6-21 – the Ten Commandments (or “Decalogue,” to borrow the Greek equivalent) comprise ten (by most enumerations) of the 613 obligations (mitzvot) which the early Jewish Rabbis considered to be the substance of the Hebrew Law (torah). These ten occupy a special place in the memories of both Jews and Christians; while the story depicts Moses relaying the entire Torah from his epiphany on Mount Sinai (or Horeb in the Deuteronomy version) to the newly emancipated Hebrew community, only the Decalogue is divinely chiseled onto stone tablets. Representations of this early legal code have long been crafted by Jews and Christians alike to memorialize the lawgiving narrative and communicate God’s basic expectations for their human-human and human-divine covenant relationships.
Recently, as is well documented, the public display of the Ten Commandments has become a symbolic battleground in a bitter contest between competing political ideologies, primarily in the United States. Some who believe that institutionalized religion is appropriate for the private, but not public, sphere have fought to remove images of the Decalogue from government property. Conversely, some who consider a “Judeo-Christian” morality to be integral to the fabric of American culture have worked not only to protect existing public displays of the stone tablets, but also to erect new ones. As the debate has taken on a life of its own, it has blurred and obscured the actual religious meanings and political principles which make the relationship between church and state a complex question. This has become a polarizing issue, and far too frequently one’s religious perspective goes hand-in-hand with one’s position on this political issue. Secularists and those affiliated with religions other than Judaism and Christianity – and certainly those with no religious affiliation at all – are expected to oppose the public displays. Jews and Christians, especially those connected to more socially conservative houses of worship, are expected to defend the public display of the Ten Commandments as though their core theological convictions are under attack.
Yet I am not persuaded that fiery rhetoric and clichéd talking points should determine the outcome on this issue. I am equally not persuaded that those of us who consider Exodus and Deuteronomy to be sacred tomes should kowtow to the sentiments of political correctness, to support the removal of the Decalogue (and other religious symbols such as crosses and nativity scenes) from public view simply to be polite and non-confrontational toward those who might find religious displays offensive. Rather, my objections to public displays of the Ten Commandments – particularly in American courthouses – are primarily objections to the rhetoric which largely-conservative commentators use to justify such displays, typically in order to serve some larger political agenda. The following are the five reasons why I, a deeply-committed Christian, am opposed to the public display of the Ten Commandments.
1. Defense of these symbols is often a veneer. In the age of the talking point and reductionist politics, the use of symbols often becomes a convenient way to avoid embodying the principles these symbols represent. When the then-Presidential candidate Barrack Obama was accused of being un-American because he frequently did not wear an American flag pin on his lapel, he responded:
"The truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11…that became a substitute for, I think, true patriotism…I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest. Instead I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe what will make this country great and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism."
As anyone who has been cut off in traffic by a car with a “Jesus fish” on its bumper understands, symbols are no substitute for character. Gandhi once quipped, “Your Christians are so unlike your Christ;” Saint Francis approached evangelism with the maxim, “preach the Gospel at all times; use words if necessary.” The use of religious symbols and evangelical language is shallow and hypocritical if not accompanied by integrity, morality, and character – these latter virtues are far better testimonies to the merits of religion than the defiant public display of a handful of bible verses.
2. The claim that America was founded as a “Christian nation” is at best a gross over-simplification and at worst a myth fabricated in order to manipulate contemporary sensibilities. Many of the prominent “Founding Fathers,” were in fact not Christians in the sense that contemporary evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic churches understand the term. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and a host of others were Deists, or at least influenced by deist philosophy. They conceived of God as a divine watchmaker – this impersonal, inaccessible deity set the universe in motion then sat back and watched history unfold completely independent of any transcendent intervention, miracles, or divine-human relationships (Jefferson famously edited the New Testament to remove all references to Jesus as a divine miracle worker and render him merely a moral philosopher). The position of these Founding Fathers was far from any orthodox theology of divine immanence.
Further, the idea that the United States could be a “Christian nation” is theologically problematic. The only “Christian nation” which the New Testament envisions is the Kingdom of God, which transcends national, cultural, and ethnic boundaries. Were the United States to be a “Christian nation,” she would have to do more than celebrate Christmas as a federal holiday and display the Ten Commandments in her courthouses. If she were held to the same standards to which the New Testament holds the Christian community, the United States would have to embody Christian principles, including the mandate to love one’s enemy, eschew power, put away the sword, give freely without any expectation of repayment, and – because she is very rich – sell all her material possessions, donate the proceeds to the poor, then take up a cross of discipleship. The consumerism and materialism which characterize so much of the American ethos – Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was a modification of John Locke’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property,” and indeed most versions of the American Dream equate property with happiness – seem to be at odds with most versions of core Christian values. In short, the United States is not a “Christian nation,” and simply displaying representations of the Ten Commandments in public locations does not change this reality.
Tasi Perkins is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church and a third-year Ph.D. candidate in Theological and Religious Studies at Georgetown University. He earned a B.S. from Cornell University (Statistics and Biometry) and an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School, and completed a year of Th.D. work at Boston University.