Like the Bible itself, the Ten Commandments are used and abused for a wide range of agendas. They function as a Rorschach test, separating conservative Christians (who want to use them as a banner of so-called traditionalism) from liberal religious people and atheists (who wryly demote them to the “Ten Suggestions”). But is anyone paying attention to what they actually say?
Back in May 2006, Lynn Westmoreland, a Republican Congressman who had been trying to get the Ten Commandments installed in courthouses nationwide told Stephen Colbert, “The Ten Commandments is not a bad thing for people to understand and to respect. What better place could you have something like that than in a judicial building?”
Colbert replied, “That’s an excellent question. Can you think of any better building to put the Ten Commandments in than in a public building?”
Westmoreland said, “No.”
Then Colbert asked, “What are the Ten Commandments?”
Westmoreland looked chagrined. “What are all of ’em? You want me to name ’em all?” He couldn’t do it.
It seems that, for Westmoreland, the Ten Commandments are primarily a cultural icon. Collectively they are one thing to him, and the cultural meaning of that thing far outweighs its content. He wants the Ten Commandments in public buildings because he—like all of us—longs to legitimate the values of his culture, which are not necessarily identical to the values of the Ten Commandments. If the content were what mattered, he would know what the content was.
“You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me”
A commenter on my Facebook page about the Ten Commandments wrote, “My least favorite commandment is #1. God sounds a bit insecure. Is he [sic] intimidated when it comes to competition? Why?” This seems to be the perspective of the modern progressive types of our day. For many of us, the Ten Commandments, particularly the first few, smack of oppression, misogyny, and tribalism. They smell musty and old. They sound cranky and inflexible. Some of them make sense to us; some seem arbitrary. But to the extent that we engage with them at all, we tend to see them as self-evident ethical guidelines that require no religious imprimatur. We reject their authority and, frankly, we dislike commandments in general.
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There are strong moral, yes, moral, arguments to reject some of these commandments. Take the 4th on Sabbath. What is the punishment for working on the day of Sabbath? It is death (Exodus 31:12-15). And what happens to those who do not honor the 1st commandment? They get completely destroyed (Deuteronomy 13:13-18).