September 2023 Church & State Magazine - September 2023

Keep this commandment: Our political leaders need to learn: ‘Thou shalt not mix church and state’

  The Rev. David M. Felten

Hooray! Yet another Christian Nationalist effort to strangle American values has gone out with a whimper. This time, it was a Texas Senate bill that, if passed, would have required the Ten Commandments to be displayed prominently in every classroom in the state. 

Once again, conservative legislators, egged on by their frenzied evangelical base, tried to impose that which they don’t understand onto those they don’t consider worthy of having a say in the matter. A key witness in the hearings, Christian Nationalist David Barton, argued that displaying the Ten Commandments would “return morality to Texas classrooms” (like a poster will remind the third graders to stop with all that murder and adultery they’re committing).

(Photo by Jana Birchum/Getty Images)

And it’s not the first time that pious politicians have thought such idolatry would “whip some values into them!” In the afterglow of World War II, a juvenile court judge in Minnesota asked a youngster he was passing sentence on if he knew that he’d broken the Ten Commandments. The kid said he didn’t even know what they were. Shocked at such ignorance, the judge set out to put the commandments up in courtrooms throughout Minnesota “to show these youngsters that there were such recognized codes of behavior to guide and help them.”

As a member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE), the judge sought funding for an expanded project that included Ten Commandments plaques in every juvenile court in the country. However, before he was able to leverage support from the FOE, the immutable sacred text burned into the stone by the fiery finger of God would need to be, well, “zhuzhed.” Since the Jewish, Catholic and Protestant traditions differ in numbering and interpretation of the Commandments (depending on whether you use the text from Exodus or Deuteronomy, among other things), a version was developed that was just vague enough to be deemed non-sectarian. 

But even gauzy non-sectarian allusions to God were better than none. After all, this was the middle of the Cold War. Putting up plaques honoring God would really stick it to those godless communists in the USSR. Remember, this was about the same time Congress voted to put “In God We Trust” on our money and add “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. It wasn’t some sudden spiritual awakening but your typical and still run-of-the-mill anti-communist political posturing.

At about that same time, Cecil B. DeMille was making a little movie. You might have seen it. It’s called “The Ten Commandments” — and in the FOE’s fledgling effort to spread biblical holiness through wall plaques, the movie mogul saw a unique opportunity.

Accounts differ as to just how involved DeMille really was with hatching what became an ingenious publicity scheme. But in partnership with the FOE, the simple plaques envisioned by the FOE got the full DeMille treatment, being transformed into substantial granite monuments. What could possibly be wrong with exploiting the Bible and people’s irrational veneration of selected passages in order to hype a Hollywood epic? 

According to some counts, the FOE placed as many as 4,000 Ten Commandments monuments around the country. That’s 80 per state! Add churches, homes and the ubiquitous mobile device to that count, and you’d think that people who really need a Commandments fix would be all set. 

Unless it’s not really about the Commandments at all. What if it’s more about imposing a superficial symbol of the culturally dominant belief system on the minorities in a community? (Y’know, just like Jesus taught!)

Maybe if the folks who are so worked up over the Ten Commandments were actually familiar with them, they’d be less enthusiastic about defending them. In the 2015 Ten Commandments dust-up in Oklahoma, a local pastor representing the Christian Ministry Alliance said that the commandments are the voice of morality and “the thread of the fabric that has held many nations together.” Uh-huh. But not OUR nation. Many of the values embraced and enshrined by the Ten Commandments have actually been rejected by the United States as immoral (or inconvenient).

It doesn’t take much of a close read to realize that the commandments not only approve of slavery but endorse the practice as the norm. The Commandments also assume that women are chattel property. And if one takes into consideration that the commandments are specifically directed at men (remember, women don’t count), the charge to not commit adultery doesn’t apply to women. Whoops! And what about that fuzzy Sixth Commandment? Is it “Thou Shall Not Kill,” or is it “Thou Shall Not Murder”? Those are, uhh, kinda not the same. Neither the United States NOR God follows either interpretation.

 “But hang on a second!” someone might exclaim. “The Ten Commandments are enshrined on the façade of the Supreme Court!” Uhhh, no. Moses and the Ten Commandments do indeed appear in a frieze adorning the Supreme Court, but he’s in the company of more than a dozen other “great lawgivers of history,” including Mohammed, Confucius, Hammurabi, Solomon, Draco, Caesar Augustus and even Napoleon. Not only that, but Moses is in procession dutifully following BEHIND the Pharaoh Menes and the Babylonian Hammurabi.

If the Ten Commandments were truly the primary basis of American Law, then why is Moses merely one of many lawgivers, a clear suggestion that American law is a fusion of Greek, Mesopotamian and many other influences?

Some will point to the tablet emblazoned with the Roman numerals I through X situated between the graven images of the “Majesty of the Law” and the “Majesty of Government” as clear reference to the Ten Commandments. But alas, the sculptor himself made it clear that they refer to the ten AMENDMENTS of the Bill of Rights and NOT, in fact, the Ten Commandments.

Ironically, arguments over the placement of Ten Commandments monuments, posters, or the primacy of Moses at the Supreme Court all fall afoul of the First and/or Second Commandments (depending on how you number the commandments). As a focus of zealous reverence and worship, Moses and the Ten Commandments can themselves become the very idols that the commandments warn against — turning pious evangelicals and legislators into what the Bible calls brazen idol-worshipers.

Far from being a simple set of rules to follow that will make all things right with the world, the Ten Commandments are the product of an archaic cultural setting separated from the American experience by thousands of years. They need study. They need interpretation. And that is the purview of our religious institutions — not our public spaces. And because the United States is in a period of rapid transformation, the inevitability of America’s diverse and pluralistic future is crashing down around the ears of those who are desperately trying to keep reality at bay.

And here’s one of the truths that evangelicals, fundamentalists  and their legislative cronies are in a panic about: One of the most distinctive and exemplary characteristics setting the United States apart from other nations is its religious diversity. From the very beginning, Thomas Jefferson acknowledged that we weren’t a “Christian nation” and established the principle we now know as the separation of church and state precisely to keep any one faith from imposing itself on everyone else.

The framers even went so far as to make the very first commandment — uhh, I mean AMENDMENT — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Theologian Paul Brandeis Raushenbush points out that this “establishment clause” was “specifically created so that there would be no ‘one’ way to be religious, or NOT religious, in America.” 

On the campaign trail in 2016, United Methodist Hillary Clinton was questioned about how her religious beliefs align with the Ten Commandments. Without hesitation, she expressed her disappointment with conventional Christians who showed harsh judgment of those neighbors who had different experiences and beliefs, rather than showing a loving respect for all. “Being respectful of people who’ve had different life experiences is part of my faith,” she said. 

So, sorry, conservative Christians. In-your-face displays of the Ten Commandments forced into public spaces are nothing more than theological bullying. You’re gonna have to learn to get along with others without trying to impose your beliefs on them. 

And remember, there’s a word for people who think “religious freedom” means having permission to intimidate one’s fellow citizens and impose one particular religion on everyone else. And that word is un-American.  

The Rev. David M. Felten is pastor at The Fountains, a United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, Ariz. His website is www.davidfelten.com. This article is reprinted with permission from progressingspirit.com. 

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