Thursday, April 12, 2007

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”

There are many people in this country who believe that it is good public policy to place a copy of the 10 Commandments on the walls of our public buildings. I believe that they are wrong.

Proponents of these initiatives make many arguments about why the 10 Commandments should be posted, all of which are based on the proponent’s own religious belief. (I have never heard an atheist argue that they should be posted.) One of the principal arguments made by proponents is that they are good laws to live by.

My initial reaction to this argument is that they’re right – in part. We don’t want people to murder (6th), steal (8th), or commit adultery (7th). Even some of the other Commandments are things that we would like to see in society but are harder to enact into law, such as no coveting (10th) and honoring your parents (5th). However, those are not the only commandments. The first four Commandments deal with man’s relation to God and read in part:

1. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
2. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image....Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them...”
3. “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain...”
4. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
Exodus 20:2-11

These seem like “good rules to live by” only if you are a Christian who believes in the Bible (or are at least afraid of the Christian God). Otherwise, people have reason to keep the Sabbath holy, or to refrain from taking the name of the Lord in vain. For example, a Hindu would most likely be hesitant to worship the Christian God over say, Vishnu. Not only that, but different religions believe in different translations of the Bible. Posting one translation instead of another could send the wrong message.

My second response to the argument that they are good laws to live by is that there are also many other religious creeds that “are good laws to live by.” For example, the 5 (or 7, depending on the sect) Pillars of Islam which call for adherents to fast, pray, give to the needy, etc. are also good practices that people should engage in. In fact, one of the first steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is to acknowledge a higher power, similar to the first Pillar of Islam and the first Commandment. Nevertheless, I feel confident in predicting that if any county wanted to post the Pillars on the courthouse wall, there would be a broad national outcry against it. The same outcry would probably result from an attempt to post them next to the 10 Commandments in the same display.

The 10 Commandments are religious edicts, not public policy and as such do not belong in our public buildings, except in a religiously and philosophically diverse display outlining historical facts, rather than religious beliefs.


Rob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob said...

I'm going to play Devil's (or God's depending your you look at it) advocate here.
Commandment 1: Now, the bible is not specific. It does not say, I am god of christians or jews or muslims or anything of that sort. Man cannot serve two masters, so who/whatever your god is, you should have no other gods, still a good rule to live by, even if your god is science.
Commandment 2: Pointless to worship a likeness of something. Not many people do this anymore, still not a bad rule.
Commandment 3: This is simply talking about respect. And respect for what/whomever you worship is still a good thing.
Commandment 4: I personally would hate to see this rule go away, considering it's the reason for a 5 day work week. To some the sabbath is on Sat, to some it's on Sun. If you like, you can start working a 7 day workweek. This is one you don't see people complaining about.

Daniel said...

I have a few responses:

1. The Bible is specific, see Ex. 20:2 "I am the LORD, thy God...." As you know, LORD is a stand-in word for "Jehovah". The verse should read, "I am Jehovah, thy God...Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Also, in a polytheistic society, how are they supposed to observe this commandment?

2. People still worship the cross, and there are probably religions out there that do worship graven images. Either way, the Constitution protects their right to do so. The Constitution's mandate against establishment directly contradicts this commandment in the public sphere.

3. The commandment may have at its core an idea of respect, but it still says not to take the name of "Jehovah" in vain - see 1 above. If we imply that this commandment is law (which is what we are doing by posting them), we must punish the taking of the name of Jehovah in vain, but have no responsibility to do so for other gods. This sends the message that other gods aren't important enough to warrant protection.

4. I agree with you here. It's a great commandment, and I think that people can get on board with it (assuming that we close shop at sundown Friday night). However, I am hesitant to impose this as law because some religions might choose to observe the sabbath on another day of the week. As a side note, it is actually a commandment you saw people complaining about. Originally, almost every city in the country had mandatory Sunday closing laws for local businesses, all of which were upheld by the Supreme Court. It was the businesses that lobbied to repeal these laws because they were losing money by not being open on those days.

Rob said...

Now your talking symantics. I'm just talking about as general rules. Remove the bible from the context and they're all just fine. Now, I agree with you that they shouldn't be enforced as law, but I also think that all of the fools who believe that taking it off of the courtroom walls where they already are will change anything or that having it on there in the first place is impeding on their rights, should grow up. I'm not talking about new buildings, I'm talking about the ones that already exist. On new buildings, I think people can debate and decide for themselves if it's something they want. But on existing structures, I think you should leave it alone.

Daniel said...

That's true, if the Commandments didn't come from the Bible, they would be good rules and wouldn't cause these ostracizing harms that I outlined. But they did come from the Bible and so they do send that message.

As for the displays that already exist, the Supreme Court agrees with you - the 10 Commandments display in Texas, which was much larger and more prominent than the Kentucky display was allowed to remain because it had been around for 30 or so years.

I'm fine with displays that have been around for awhile. There's not much to be done about them. But I don't want to see any new displays. Personally, it's just another reminder that ours is a minority religion. In places other than Utah, these are not Mormons who want to put up the displays.