Unconstitutional or not, are the Ten Commandments in line with American values?

A new Louisiana law demands that school classrooms and state-funded universities display the biblical Ten Commandments on a poster-sized display in a “large, easily readable font” in every classroom by next year.

Is this a violation of the Constitution? And more interestingly, do the Ten Commandments reflect values we want to uphold as Americans?

Of course it’s unconstitutional

The very first words of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution are “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Case law has clearly extended this to apply to state laws as well. While there is plenty of room for argument about the meaning of clauses in the First Amendment, the “establishment clause” is pretty clear. Government is not supposed to mandate religious activity.

There’s plenty of precedent. The Supreme court declared a similar law in Kentucky unconstitutional in 1980. A federal judge ordered the removal of a monument featuring the Ten Commandments from an Alabama courthouse in 2003. And the Supreme Court ordered the removal of the Ten Commandments from Kentucky courthouses in 2005.

This law seems intended to generate a highly visible political and legal conflict, not to actually change what appears in schoolrooms. It gives advocates of religion in schools a fight to talk about.

Are the Ten Commandments in line with American values?

As it turns out, there are actually multiple versions of the Ten Commandments. They appear in the Bible in Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13 and Deuteronomy 10:4. Jews, Catholics, and Protestants use slightly different versions and numbering. (By favoring one version over another, the Louisiana law not only establishes religion, but indicates which religion is to be considered most fundamental to American history.)

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s stick to the version listed in the Louisiana law, and see how each commandment aligns with values we’d like our children to admire as Americans. What follows includes scriptural interpretation, which is far outside my expertise; feel free to chime in with your own scriptural interpretations if you have some.

I AM the LORD thy God. 

Not a commandment, but still mandated to be included by law.

  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

    The founding fathers considered the entanglement of religion and the state to be one of the fundamental weaknesses of systems of government in places like Britain. Many colonists came her to escape religious persecution. It’s no coincidence the law prohibiting an establishment of religion is the first sentence in the Bill of Rights. The First Commandment is in direct conflict with the First Amendment, since it would prohibit polytheistic religions like Hinduism. So this commandment isn’t in line with the founding fathers’ values, or the values of a modern secular America.

    2. Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven images. 

    The biblical context is essential to understanding this commandment. After all, many Christian churches include images of the crucifixion, which is clearly a graven image of a heavenly figure. But the loophole is that it’s okay to make such images so long as you don’t worship the idols, but the actual God they represent. There’s not much idol worshipping going on in 21st century America, unless you count people worshipping sports mascots or golden Trump statues. So I’d call this one borderline irrelevant.

    3. Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain. 

    This appears to be about swearing, but apparently, it’s not. It’s about using the name of the Lord to justify secular, non-religious activities. That’s pretty common these days (you might even say that the Louisiana law is an example). Taking the Lord’s name in vain is therefore the most commonplace of American values.

    4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 

    There are a bunch of activities that are biblically prohibited on the Sabbath, especially work. Orthodox Jews, for example, refrain from using switches that control electrical equipment, kindling fires, driving, and so on, on their Sabbath, which runs from Friday evening through Saturday evening. The idea of refraining from work on Sunday (or whatever day is sacred for your religion) is for the most part contradictory to American practice today. Otherwise, every admired Christian NFL player is violating this Commandment.

    5. Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. 

    Sounds great. Honoring your father and mother is certainly in line with American values.

    6. Thou shalt not kill.

    Most modern translations render this as “You should not murder.” But the Louisiana law doesn’t say that: it mandates the commandment “thou shalt not kill.” Our military and police have to kill people all the time, as do gun owners acting in self-defense. Killing with justification is an American value contrary to this commandment.

    7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

    Probably a good and admired idea, at least in theory. There are not many people publicly in favor of adultery.

    8. Thou shalt not steal.

    Stealing is absolutely against American values.

    9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. 

    Lying is also against our common values.

    10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house. 

    Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.

    The entire capitalist practice of marketing and advertising, which is American as you can get, is based on the idea of coveting things. You are supposed to want what other people have and you don’t, whether that’s a house, a car, a smartphone, or a Hawaiian vacation. So this commandment is pretty far out of line with the way America sees itself.

    Let’s tote up the score

    • 5 commandments are at odds with American values (1st, 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 10th)
    • 1 commandment is currently irrelevant to American values (2nd)
    • 4 commandments are in line with American values: (5th, 7th, 8th, and 9th)

    So we’re pretty far from a society acting in line with the Ten Commandments, and in truth, we don’t want to be. It would be outright unAmerican to outlaw polytheism, citing God to justify things, working on the Sabbath, killing, and coveting.

    In my opinion, it would be a great exercise for classes in history, civics, ethics, law, philosophy, and economics to discuss the relationship between the Ten Commandments and the founding principles and current values in practice in our nation.

    But I don’t think that’s what the authors of the law in Louisiana had in mind.

    What do you think?

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    1. An excellent analysis of the madness in our country. The constitution is very clear on not combining religion and government.

    2. Considering that our American (read: flawed human) values shift with the sands of fashion and culture, it’s difficult to make comparisons between what is (or was) intended to be primary laws for civilization and the steady erosion of these values in real life, mostly because so many of us have neither the incentive nor the courage to stand up for those laws and values. It’s hard to compare the values of a block of steel with a block of Jell-O.

    3. If they were what we actually value, we wouldn’t need someone to command us to adhere to them. We wouldn’t need small-minded, fearful opportunists (Landry is a poster-child), to command and control us. He and his ilk are shaping what we talk about and where our attention gets diverted. Meanwhile they change the rules to “fix” the system in support of wealthy interests and against the will of the majority. It’s interesting to me how much some of these guys want us to forget that we are a nation of immigrants and that we should pride ourselves for our ability to integrate world cultures, religions, art and thought into our rich American tapestry (rich in every sense of the word). I think what people like Landry value isn’t even religion, so much as it is the the classic “strict father” logic outlined by George Lakoff: “The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality (the strict father version), and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be (and traditionally has been) a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate. The hierarchy is: God above Man, Man above Nature, The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak), The Rich above the Poor, Employers above Employees, Adults above Children, Western culture above other cultures, America above other countries. The hierarchy extends to: Men above women, Whites above Nonwhites, Christians above nonChristians, Straights above Gays.” You don’t need to believe in a religion’s moral codes, but you need them to justify the need for strict authority.