A recent letter to the editor (Daily News, Aug. 30) decried the lack of visible Ten Commandments in the public square, and attributed such absence to people’s willingness to steal, etc. The author asked, “Why would anyone want them (the Ten Commandments) not taught to kids in all schools everywhere?” With recent public discussion of “Liberty State,” which promises to install Christian rule over eastern Washington, it is worth looking at this question more closely.
The primary answer, of course, is that you are free to teach whatever you want to your children, but the state is not; hence the lack of the Ten Commandments in the public square (and public schools). Freedom from state interference in matters of conscience is codified in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Nevertheless, what can we learn from this list, also called the Decalogue, from the Old Testament? According to the King James version, the first three commandments tell us that Yahweh was a jealous god and diverse ideas about supernatural beings are not permitted. Clearly, this god is not the inspiration for the First Amendment. He also doesn’t care for graven images, which is a problem for the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
Commandment four refers to keeping the Sabbath holy; some people think that is Saturday, others think it is Sunday. Personally, either one works for me because when people are hanging out at their places of worship, stores are less crowded and it is a good time to get weekly shopping done. I don’t have any “servants” who can relax on the Sabbath, but unlike many Americans I just happen to own a donkey. Donkeys are specifically granted rest on the Sabbath. Of course, my donkey doesn’t do anything the other six days so another day off would not be a great burden.
Commandment five tells us to honor our father and mother. Great idea except is really misses the complexity of family dynamics, particularly over holiday dinners when Democrat and Republican family members have to come up with something safe to talk about. Commandment six (no murder), seven (no adultery), eight (no stealing), and nine (no lying) are largely borrowed or shared with numerous other philosophical and religious sources so there is nothing particularly novel here. Commandment 10 concerns not coveting your neighbor’s wife and related “properties.”
Returning to the assertion that the absence the Decalogue from the public square leads to bad things, I looked at the proportion of federal prison inmates who are self-declared atheists. According to one report from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (2013), this works out to about .2 percent, whereas the Pew Research Center found that atheists make up 3.1 percent of the U.S. population. Self-reported data like this can be sketchy, but there appears to be 10-fold fewer atheists in federal prison than would be expected by random chance alone. Assuming all atheists ignore the Decalogue, one might wonder about unintended benefits?
On the other side of the coin are the religious institutions themselves. How do they fare? Joking aside, the statistics range from grim to inhumane. More mundane things include relatively frequent theft by religious leaders (e.g., Kenneth Hogue, pastor at a Pentecostal church in Montana, stole $288,000 from his church; reported by Lewiston Morning Tribune, Aug. 31, and President Trump lying or making misleading statements over 12,000 times since starting office. Things get a lot worse when you consider the tens-of-thousands of sexual abuse victims associated with major denominations (e.g., Catholic Church and Southern Baptists). Judging by the predatory behavior of the people involved, exposure to the Decalogue does not do much to prevent egregious sins.
Maybe it would have helped if the Decalogue was longer so more rules could be added or maybe the first three could have been collapsed into one for the jealous god, leaving 30 percent more space for commandments about caring for children, immigrants, healthcare, access to higher education, justice, and a host of other significant and timely topics.
Unfortunately, it appears that supernatural foresight couldn’t get much beyond Bronze Age ethics and narcissism.
Whatever version of the Decalogue you claim as your guide, the evidence indicates that it isn’t a panacea for anything. As such, we are probably better off displaying text from the First Amendment in the public square to remind ourselves that in the United States “free thought” should be cherished and we are free to pen irreverent commentaries; you get to decide to read them or not.
Douglas Call is a microbiologist. He and his family have lived on the Palouse for more than 20 years.