Monday, February 28, 2011

Why the Ten Commandments?

The Volokh blog notes a Virginia public high school's prohibition of students' posting the Ten Commandments (but not other, non-religious speech) on their locker doors. The ACLU quite rightly has sent the school an educational, smarten-up-before-we-sue-you letter.

This reminds me of the weirdness of American Christianity.

Posting the Ten Commandments in schoolrooms and courtrooms is a perennial legal issue. An Alabama chief justice had a giant "idol" of the Commandments erected in his supreme court. It's not just Protestants either; my kid's Catholic school has the Commandments posted beside the school office.

Why is no one posting, say, the Beatitudes? Or the Golden Rule? (You do see the latter sometimes, but it's played no role in the culture wars like the Commandments.) Why do the nation's self-proclaimed defenders of Christianity give pride of place to the Ten Commandments?

There could have been some legal basis, i.e. the Commandments are "Judeo-Christian" and thus not "just" Christian; but I don't think current Constitutional law makes much distinction there, if it ever did.

No, I think there's a political message there: society is bad and needs to get back to following the Law of God. The message that the meek and the poor are blessed, by contrast, doesn't serve many people's agendas.


  1. The Ten Commandments are viewed as the fundamental laws from which all other laws which we have today are based. They are laws which were made by God and everyone was expected to obey. They are certainly the foundation for Anglo-American law, although with that said, had our heritage been different we might be posting a different set of commandments.

  2. When one of these rounds of make-them-post-the-10-commandments was before the Mississippi legislature, my friend Rep. Tommy Reynolds moved to amend the bill to require the posting of the Beatitudes, and the whole thing came off the rails as a result. The original bill sponsor was furious with him.

  3. "They are certainly the foundation for Anglo-American law"

    I have never understood what is supposed to be true about that statement. Were prohibitions against murder, theft, etc. unique to the Hebrews?

    Canon law, itself very distant from the 10 Commandments, had some influence on our laws, but I would think that Roman law + pre-Conquest Germanic law were much more influential.

    ... GREAT news re: Reynolds. Wotta hoot.

  4. I was wondering this myself just the other day after making a 10-spotting in front of a down-at-the heels shopping center on the way home (an incongruous setting if there ever was one). I think you're right: the 10 are basically admonitions, which suits the temper of those who want to post them publically, and wonderfully direct -- no interpretive gray areas to deal with, which they also find comforting, I imagine.

    And they're certainly the foundation of Anglo-American blue laws, at any rate.

  5. "no interpretive gray areas to deal with"

    Oh, I dunno. I could discuss "adultery" for hours ....