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Americans don't really believe in the Ten Commandments.

If news items were flowers, the Ten Commandments would be a hardy perennial, coming up with reassuring regularity. The reason for this is no mystery. On the one hand, a lot of people, including some public employees and political officeholders, support the idea of displaying the commandments in public places such as classrooms, courthouses, and capitals. On the other hand, doing so is held by most legal experts to violate the separation of church and state required by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The most recent controversy of this kind centered on Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's refusal to remove from the state judicial building a two-and-a-half ton granite monument inscribed with the decalogue. Eventually, on the order of a federal court, the monument was hauled out and Justice Moore was removed from office. But a CNN-USA Today poll found that 77 percent of those polled disapproved of this ruling.

The overwhelming majority of those who support public displays of the commandments identify themselves as Christians. Yet what is odd about the debate surrounding the Ten Commandments isn't the weakness of the case for exhibiting them in public. What is truly bizarre is that so many people think it a good idea to post a set of rules that so few people take seriously. My point here isn't that champions of the commandments are often hypocritical--although that may well be true. My thesis is simpler: that the overwhelming majority of people in our society, including folks like Moore, don't actually believe that we should follow most of the commandments.

This is generally overlooked because when people hear the phrase "the Ten Commandments" they tend to conceive of them en bloc and rather abstractly as a set of basic moral principles that any right-thinking person would naturally endorse. If, however, we bring the individual commandments into focus and consider their literal meaning, it becomes obvious that most of them aren't rules that people truly find right to obey and wrong to break.

The first commandment (by the usual Protestant numbering) says we should "have no other gods before" Yahweh, the God who helped the Israelites escape from Egypt. The precise meaning of the term before is unclear but has been interpreted almost universally to mean that we shouldn't worship any other gods--we shouldn't bring them "before the presence," so to speak, of the one true God. But who nowadays believes that folk who practice other religions like Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, or one of the tribal religions indigenous to Africa or the Americas are doing something morally wrong? Enlightened opinion today is almost universally on the side of respect and tolerance for diverse religious beliefs. Indeed, an opinion poll released by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that only 18 percent of American adults polled believed their religion to be the "one true faith," and 48 percent of white evangelical Protestants thought that many religions could "lead to eternal life."

The second commandment dictates, "You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." It also prohibits bowing down to any such images or serving them. The first part of this commandment seems clear: we shouldn't make any sort of representational images, including most drawings, paintings, sculpture, photography, and film. The rule is violated by every movie, magazine, catalogue, billboard, website, picture book, dollar bill, and child with a crayon. Furthermore, when the Taliban set about destroying ancient Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan, no one in the United States defended these actions as being true to the spirit of the second commandment.

Now, if anyone thinks this is a bizarre interpretation of the commandment, they might note that it accords with a venerable tradition in both Judaism and Islam--which is why mosques and synagogues allow only abstract decoration and why Jewish and Islamic scriptures are never illustrated. They might also try explaining how "you shall not make for yourself any likeness of anything" can be interpreted differently. In the United States, the obvious candidate for the role of false idol is the flag. It isn't a representational image but attitudes toward it border on religious: it shouldn't be flown upside down; it shouldn't be soiled; it shouldn't touch the ground; it should be folded carefully and never crumpled; and allegiance is sworn to it every day in the public schools. Obviously, virtually no one any longer respects this commandment.

The third commandment tells us to avoid taking God's name in vain. The simplest and most specific interpretation of this is that we should avoid saying things like "Oh, God!" or "God only knows" in nonreligious contexts such as when we can't find our car keys. We should also avoid expressions like "goddamn."

This rule is extremely easy to follow. We aren't tempted to use these expressions the way we might be tempted to commit adultery or kill the boss. One can, after all, simply substitute alternative expressions without depriving oneself of whatever satisfaction such expostulating brings. But few bother to do so because few care anymore. If a character in a primetime television drama says "fuck" (which violates no commandment) the phone lines hum within minutes. But no one so much as clucks a tongue at hearing someone say, "My God!" or "Lordy lordy!"

There is, of course, a more profound way of taking the lord's name in vain and that is to invoke God cynically when campaigning for a secular cause such as an election one is trying to win of a war one wishes to wage. But this, too, is so commonplace as to go largely unnoticed.

The fourth commandment concerns the sabbath, saying that we should work for six days and should rest on the seventh. Putting aside the tricky little question of which day should be counted as the sabbath, it is again quite obvious that hardly anyone thinks we should obey this rule. If you do believe this, then you believe it is wrong to take off both Saturday and Sunday; would support reinstatement of "blue laws" that once required all factories, workplaces, malls, stores, restaurants, and recreational centers to be closed on the sabbath; and view job-sharing, flextime, and overtime as morally suspect. Today, far from respecting the sabbath, we pride ourselves on working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And in many places the only trace left of respect for the sabbath is a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sunday morning (about which, of course, Moses said nothing).

The fifth commandment says we should honor our parents. The problem with this imperative, as with some of the others yet to be considered, is that it is put forward without qualification. What if my father is a racist, sexist, lying, cheating, abusive slimeball? How should my behavior toward him differ from my behavior toward other people of that ilk? In the past the respect I showed another person was determined primarily by his of her social standing and my relation to them. These considerations remain important in our culture but nowadays our whole way of thinking is far more egalitarian and meritocractic. To say a person deserves respect purely because he or she is your parent (of your elder or social superior) smacks of a traditionalist outlook. Nowadays respect is either something to which every human being is equally entitled or is something that should be given where it is deserved.

Our cultural values have also changed in another way that runs against the import of the fifth commandment. Honoring one's parents is a specific and especially important instance of honoring one's elders. In tradition-based cultures this is a normal and sensible expectation. But in a dynamic, self-critical, and forward-leaning culture, youth comes to be valued over age. This seems increasingly to be the priority in U.S. society. The shift manifests itself in the demand for cosmetic surgery, in the youth of our "idols" (largely found in television, film, music, or sport), and in our willingness to shunt old people into institutions rather than make room for them in our busy lives.

The commandment that probably comes most readily to mind is the sixth: "Thou shalt not kill." Some people accept this rule in its stark biblical form--they are called pacifists. Most people, though, aren't pacifists, so they don't accept the commandment as it stands. The majority hold that some killings are morally justified--for instance, when one kills in self-defense or when fighting a just war. An increasing number of people also now countenance euthanasia in certain circumstances. Of course those who would like to see the commandments on display are likely to oppose euthanasia. But the same conservative base that often professes allegiance to the commandments also tends to support capital punishment. And according to a Gallup poll in March 2003, 59 percent of Americans supported the preemptive war on Iraq--in which thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed. The same poll showed that support was even higher among self-defined evangelicals and members of the religious right. In general, religious believers were more likely than nonbelievers to support the war.

As for the commandment against adultery, again, it would be easy to decry the hypocrisy of political and religious leaders who trumpet the commandments while their extracurricular exploits help sell tabloid newspapers. But here too, the main point isn't that vocal defenders of the commandments are hypocrites but that few people today really view the commandments as binding principles. Adultery is voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than his of her spouse. Most of us certainly do condemn adultery when it involves a betrayal of trust. But suppose a man neglects, abuses, and eventually leaves his wife, yet for some selfish reason refuses to give her a divorce. If, in the meantime, she and another man fall in love and make a long-term commitment to one another, is it wrong for them to have sexual relations? The seventh commandment implies it is, for such relations clearly constitute adultery. But how many people would condemn as immoral a sexual relationship in these circumstances? What we disapprove of nowadays isn't adultery itself but actions that violate trust or cause pain. Adultery is often an action of this sort, and when it is we condemn it. But when it isn't, most of us don't automatically deem it unethical.

The tenth commandment says we shouldn't covet any of our neighbor's possessions. If this means I shouldn't desire the kind of thing my neighbor has, then the rule is absurd--the entire U.S. economy is built upon this sort of desiring. I may see the lava lamp in your living room and go buy myself one. Yet even if the rule means I shouldn't desire the particular items you own, it is still absurd. I may see your autographed Rush Limbaugh poster, desire it, and make you an offer. Is that sinful? Does anyone really think we should outlaw yard sales?

The tenth commandment also prohibits desiring your neighbor's wife. (The commandments are, of course, irredeemably sexist.) But how many married individuals could honestly say they would prefer it if no one other than themselves ever felt any sexual desire for their spouse? Part of the purpose of makeup, hair styling, jewelry, and fine clothes is to make oneself sexually attractive. Far from condemning the desire this creates, we encourage it even in our spouses, saving our condemnation for societies in which women are required to cover themselves with veils or burqas.

The two commandments not yet considered are the ones that prohibit stealing and bearing false witness. These, I grant, are accepted by most people. Telling lies about other people, whether in court or elsewhere, is generally condemned. So too is stealing, although it is worth pointing out that both author and audience of the original commandments were much less concerned with private property and its protection than many latter day believers--whose moral-religious beliefs are interwoven with the values of capitalism.

Nevertheless, eight out of ten is surely enough to prove my point: that we are a stiff-necked and ridiculous people. A majority support public displays of the Ten Commandments, yet an even greater number don't really think there is anything wrong with breaking at least five of the ten rules (those concerning monotheism, image-making, swearing, the sabbath, and coveting). And of the other five commandments, three would only be endorsed by most people after significant qualification. This is true even among conservative Christians.

The only viable conclusion is that the Ten Commandments have, quite literally, become a fetish--that is, "an inanimate object eliciting unquestioning and irrational reverence"--and the attitude of people like Moore thus borders on idolatry. The reverence is irrational because the Mosaic laws were designed for a world and a community very different from today's. In Moses' time, the children of Israel perhaps needed some easily remembered dos and don'ts to help them forge an identity and build a functioning society. Back then the prescriptions may have been helpful, even necessary. But three thousand years later we need to get off the tablets.

Emrys Westacott is an associate professor of philosophy at Alfred University in New York. He can be reached at
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Author:Westacott, Emrys
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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