The Ten Commandments (a.k.a. the
Posting them in public schools, etc.
This essay includes the following:
||"The problems we face in America are moral
problems, which cannot be solved legislatively or judicially. We need a moral
code to address them. There is no better educational and moral code than the Ten
Commandments." Robert Schenck, founder of the
National Clergy Council, a group which promotes the display of the
Commandments in government offices.
||"The establishment clause [of the U.S.
Constitution] prohibits government from appearing to take a position on
questions of religious belief or from 'making adherence to a religion relevant
in any way to a person's standing in the political community'." State
Judge R. Marley Dennis Jr. of South Carolina, quoting in part the U.S. Supreme
Court's 1984 ruling in Lynch v. Donnelly.
Two very important factors affecting the legality of a display of the Ten
||The first four Commandments (or five, depending upon which version is
used) are purely theological in
content. They refer solely to the Jewish and Christian religions, and are
often quite offensive to non-Judeo-Christians. Unless careful
precautions are made, posting them in schools, government offices, etc. will
violate the principle of separation of church and state mandated by the First
Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
||The remaining six or five Commandments are moral and ethical rules governing behavior, which are
partly accepted by secularists and followers of other religions.
The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, has been interpreted by the courts as guaranteeing that:
||individuals have freedom of religious expression;|
||the government and its agencies will not:
||recognize one religious faith as
more valid than any other;
||promote religion above
||promote secularism above religion.
These principles are continuously in a state of creative tension:
||Many Americans feel that part of their personal religious expression is to
pray in public schools, have the
Ten Commandments posted in their courts, government offices, public
schools, etc. They feel that the United States was founded as a
Christian nation, and remains one to the present time. Religious plaques
posted in government buildings are simply one expression of this heritage. The
right to display the Ten Commandments has become a topic of high priority to
many conservative Christians groups. Some believe that a religious plaque placed
in public schools is constitutional, if private funding is used to cover all
||Most non-Christians, particularly secularists, are opposed to the display
of the Ten Commandments by the government. They feel that freedom of
religion also includes freedom from the dominant religion.
||Others feel that a wall of separation must
be maintained between religion and the government and its agencies. They view
this factor as outweighing any religious considerations that they might have. They object to
all religious displays in public buildings.
Courts at various levels, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have ruled that the
posting of isolated religious texts and symbols in any public buildings is unconstitutional.
The reason given by the courts is that governments and public schools must
remain neutral on religion. i.e. when the government or a school advocates (or
appears to advocate):
||a specific religion, or
||religion in general as preferable to a secular lifestyle, or
||a secular lifestyle in preference a religious lifestyle,
then they are violating the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Whether
the costs of mounting the Ten Commandments is born by the government, school
board or some private group appears to be immaterial. The Ten Commandments are permitted
in certain special circumstances, as in some multi-faith, multi-national displays of ancient
secular and religious laws.
The House of Representatives passed an "Ten Commandments
Defense Act Amendment" to a juvenile crime bill in 1999-JUN. If it had
into law, this act would have allowed the display of the Ten commandments in any
government facility, including public schools -- at least it would until it was
declared unconstitutional by the courts. The law appears to fail all three
criteria which have been proposed to test the
constitutionality of laws with a religious content. Those
representatives who voted in favor of the amendment violated their oath of
office, which included a promise to uphold the U.S. Constitution.
Difficulties in formatting the Ten Commandments
There are three versions of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew
Scriptures (Old Testament). They are at Exodus 20:2-17, Exodus
34:12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Exodus 20 is the
most commonly used set. However, some faith groups may promote one of the other
There are more than 10 verses in the Exodus 20 version.
Jews, Protestants and Roman Catholics have selected different formats for combining the
16 verses into 10 Commandments. A government or public school board may be entering a
religious mine field when
it attempts to reach a consensus on exactly what version and format to select.
Effect of the Ten Commandments on its readers
Assuming that the constitutional problems could be overcome, there is major
support for the posting of the Ten Commandments -- both in schools for
students to follow, and in government offices or court rooms for citizens to
follow. It would be continually before the public. It might act as a deterrent
to unethical behavior. It might strengthen the resolve of individuals to act
responsibly and morally. Since almost 80% of the North
American population consider themselves to have a Judeo-Christian heritage, the
Ten Commandments would be a logical choice. But an analysis of the individual
commandments reveals a number of weaknesses in the Decalogue that might make it
unsuitable for public posting.
In the analysis below, we use the Protestant/Eastern Orthodox format of Exodus 20 from
the King James Version of the Bible. This is the listing that is familiar to most Americans.
This is the likely
version that governments or school boards would select.
If the Decalog were publicly
Catholic and Jewish readers may well be surprised at seeing something other than
their traditional version. This could create religious friction, leading to
feelings of anger and of marginalization. Non-Christians might also feel
alienated because a uniquely Judeo-Christian Biblical passage was posted. These emotions are precisely the root
causes of the Columbine High School tragedy. Displaying the
Ten Commandments has
been promoted as a means of reducing school violence; it might well have the
1st Commandment: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
(KJV) This may well convince the reader that the government or school board
formally recognizes Jehovah as the only valid deity; worship or even showing respect for other Gods and Goddesses
are forbidden. This could cause some Jewish and Christian readers to adopt a
feeling of superiority, and to belittle other religions. This might lead to
religious arrogance, intolerance, and even hatred. Followers of minority religions might
marginalized by the dominant religion. This is probably the most damaging result
of posting the Decalogue: the loss of mutual respect among followers of different
religions, and the
potential for violence. Followers of non-Judeo-Christian religions might feel abandoned by their
government, and feel that they have become second class citizens because of
their religious beliefs. Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists and other secularists, who would observe their
government promoting religion over a secular belief system, might feel the same
||First part: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven
image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in
the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. This
passage could confuse the reader, because it would appear to condemn
photographs, paintings, sculpture, and many other forms of art. Strictly
interpreted, it could disapprove watching TV, reading books, reading the
newspaper -- all pastimes that are filled with images of things on earth and
||Second part: I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the
iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth
generation of them that hate me." This could also confuse the
reader. In this commandment, God promises to
punish children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren for the crimes and unethical behaviors of
their ancestors. That could conflict with most readers' moral
beliefs which hold each individual responsible for their own behavior. In
the days of Moses and the Ten Commandments, innocent
children were sometimes killed because of the sins of their parents.
most do not follow that code today. Most Americans find it repulsive to
punish people for crimes committed by others before they were born.
3rd Commandment: "Thou shalt not take
the name of the LORD thy God in vain..." Until recently, the
phrase "taking God's name in vain" referred to breaking the
terms of a binding contract over which an oath had been sworn. In all probability, the reader would misunderstand
the original meaning of the Commandment and mistakenly interpret this passage as
forbidding some forms of profanity where God or Jesus was mentioned by name. This
commandment is misleading and confusing.
||First part: "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. This
again might cause discord and confusion. Seventh Day
Adventists, and other
small Sabbatarian denominations that worship on Saturday might develop an arrogant
attitude towards other faith groups. The vast majority of Christians worship on Sunday,
the day after the Sabbath. Meanwhile, Christians who are not Sabbath
worshipers might feel guilty for regularly violating God's commandment
whenever they go to
church on Sunday.
||Second part: "...thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy
son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant..." This
could also result in confusion, as many people are aware that manservant
and maidservant refer to male and female slaves. Some might feel that
the Commandment implies that God accepts slavery as a natural part of society. This would conflict with
many readers' belief that slavery is a profoundly despicable institution.
5th Commandment: "Honour thy father and
thy mother: This commandment may well create a sense of confusion and guilt
in those readers who are unable to honor parents who have physically or sexually
6th Commandment: "Thou shalt not kill."
Again, this might well create confusion in the mind of the reader who is quite
aware that all citizens, themselves included, bear some degree of responsibility
for the murder of criminals on death row, and of military and some civilians in
wartime. Others might be confused over whether this passage is restricted to
killing humans or whether it also condemns animal
7th Commandment: "Thou shalt not commit
adultery." A reader might be aware that this originally referred to
men engaging in sexual intercourse with married or engaged women. It did not
prohibit a married man from having sex with a single woman. This may lead the
reader to take actions that could endanger their marriage. They might
conclude that all other sexual activity is acceptable (non-coital sexual
behavior; pre-marital sex between dating friends, inter-marital sex, homosexual
activity, etc). This might not be the message that the government is attempting
8th Commandment: "Thou shalt not steal."
The casual reader might interpret this passage as forbidding all forms of theft.
This is misleading. The original text referred to kidnapping a person and
selling them into slavery. In all probability, the reader would misunderstand
the original meaning of the Commandment.
9th Commandment: "Thou shalt not bear
false witness against thy neighbour." This originally referred to
perjury in a court of law. The reader might be confused and think that it refers
to all forms of lying.
10th Commandment: "Thou shalt not covet
thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his
manservant, nor his maidservant..." Again, the reader might be
confused by God's apparent acceptance of slavery as an acceptable social
institution. The reader may have been taught that the owning of another human
being as a piece of property is profoundly immoral. Also, the commandment
implies that the neighbour's wife is something that he owns; a piece of
property, like his house and slaves.
Are the Ten Commandments adequate and pertinent today?
Traditional Christian belief is that the Ten Commandments were written for the ancient Israelites, perhaps 3,500
years ago. Their society differs greatly from ours:
|Isolated||Becoming part of the global village|
|Warlike neighbors||Peaceful neighbors|
|Single religious faith||Multi-faith|
|Religiously intolerant||Religiously tolerant, mostly|
at least in theory|
|Integration of church and state||Separation of church and state|
|Polygyny allowed||Monogamy and serial monogamy|
|Slavery allowed||Slavery prohibited|
|Concubines allowed||Concubines prohibited|
||No contraceptives available
||No methods to prevent STD
||No treatments for STD
||No knowledge of sexual orientation
||Methods of STD prevention
||Cures for most STDs
||Knowledge of sexual orientation
One might inquire whether the Ten
Commandments are still useful today in their original form:
||They require people to believe in a specific God. They do not make allowance for multiple religions within the country, and
for a bewildering array of denominations and traditions within each major
religion. The theology of liberal and
conservative Christians differ so much that it can be argued they are
following different religions and
worshiping different Gods.|
||Some of the commandments seem immoral by today's religious and
secular standards. Examples are:|
||Punishing descendents for the crimes and sins of their
||Listing a wife as a possession of a husband.
||Many of the Commandments, as translated in modern English versions of
the Bible, have changed meaning of the
original Hebrew text. |
||The Decalogue offers little or no guidance for the great ethical questions of today:
cloning humans, equal rights for gays and lesbians, same-sex marriage, birth
of women, physician assisted suicide. By not defining the point between
conception and birth when human personhood begins, it gives no guidance on
whether women should have access to abortion. There is a no clear consensus within
Christianity whether the 6th Commandment prohibits suicide or physician
||Rabbi Simlai wrote in the Talmud that God gave
613 commandments to Moses to be recorded in the Pentateuch. It is
obvious that when the Ten Commandments were written, they were a very
incomplete guide for human behavior. They required about 590 other
commandments to supplement the 22 or so in the Ten Commandments. |
||A reader may well incorrectly conclude that if a behavior
is not condemned in the Ten Commandments, then it may be an ethical choice.
Pre-marital sex, child abuse, physical assault are three examples of activities
not covered in the Decalogue that some people feel are immoral. |
||As noted above, some commandments may create feelings of dissention,
marginalization, and anger among followers of minority religions. This could
lead to increased violence among students and in
society at large.|
Perhaps courses in ethics, morality, comparative religion and
be more adequate and effective than posting the Ten Commandments in a
school. Alternatively, a simple posting of the school's student code of
conduct might be much more useful, and less divisive, than the Decalogue.
Related essays on this site
Copyright © 1999 to 2001 incl., and 2004 by Ontario Consultants on
Originally posted: 1999-JUL
Latest update: 2004-AUG-01
Author: B.A. Robinson