Commandments Belong In Bible, Not School

11 February 2000

By Stentor Danielson

Thou shalt not kill.

It's a simple statement: clear, uncompromising and, if you remember the context, backed by the authority of God. In light of the recent rise in school violence, some people have decided that such a mandate is just what we need to cure the moral decay of America.

Earlier this week, the Indiana legislature approved similar bills allowing public schools to hang the Ten Commandments as part of a display of documents that have shaped American law.

This law not only violates the separation of church and state, but also will prove to be ineffective against school violence.

The content of the Commandments is undeniably religious. According to the breakdown of Commandments suggested in the New International Version of the Bible, five of the 10 refer explicitly to God. And the religious nature of the Commandments -- not their secular common sense -- is what motivated the bill's passage.

For example, in defense of his vote, Rep. Dean Young said that when he meets God, "am I going to say to him or her, 'Well, God, I thought it was unconstitutional?'" Clearly, such legislators believe that Christianity is the answer to our moral dilemma.

Lawmakers in Indiana have tried to get around the separation of church and state by posting the Commandments as part of a display including documents that helped to shape the American government such as the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence.

But the bill was passed on the merits of the Commandments, showing that the proposal is just a ploy to get religious materials into what would otherwise be a secular environment.

Test displays have included, in addition to the Commandments, such documents as Ronald Reagan's declaration of The Year of the Bible and a statement by Abraham Lincoln about the importance of Christianity -- clearly not formative examples of law, but rather endorsements of a particular religion.

It is difficult to even define what constitutes the Ten Commandments. As anyone who has taken Western Traditions knows, God did not give Moses a handy bulleted list of rules. Instead, Exodus reports a series of paragraphs, which tradition has distilled into a list of ten items.

But different traditions have given us different lists. For example, some sects combine the injunction against graven images into the same commandment as "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," while others make them separate commandments.

Disagreements over the version used would add another dimension to the inevitable struggles with non-Christians over whether to post the Commandments at all.

One could make the argument that those who object to the Ten Commandments being in their school could just look the other way as they pass by the display. That argument is a strike against the legislation, though, because the effectiveness of the measure rests on the Commandments being noticed.

The reason posting the Ten Commandments was proposed was because legislators hoped that seeing the words "thou shalt not kill" often enough would convince potential young killers to leave their guns at home. But those four words derive all of their authority from God. For those who do not believe in the Judeo-Christian God, the Ten Commandments are just recommendations.

Members of other religions have similar moral injunctions in their traditions and many non-religious people follow a comparable code out of decency and common sense. But the immoral atheists that the legislation hopes to target have no reason to fear divine retribution If they don't respect the authority of a judicial system that has a 200 year history of punishing murderers, why should they respect the authority of an invisible being whom they don't believe exists?

Supporters of posting the Ten Commandments are looking for a quick fix for what should be a long journey of personal development. They hope that posting the Ten Commandments will help to return America to an idyllic time when Christianity ruled and, consequently, morals were strong. But seeing a list of rules on a wall is not going to instill a deep and meaningful religious faith in anyone, especially in this modern scientific age.

A deep long-term commitment to an ethical system (be it religious or humanist) is what makes a person highly moral. Simply looking at the Ten Commandments does not. Having the Commandments in schools will only spark divisive quarrels over their constitutionality. I doubt such fighting was what God had in mind when He spoke to Moses.

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