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A Modest Proposal on the Display of The Ten Commandments

culture practical theology public theology Apr 28, 2023

The Texas Senate voted to pass a bill (SB 1515) that would require the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public school classrooms.

Weatherford Republican State Senator Phil King wrote the bill which requires the commandments to be displayed on “a durable poster or framed copy” measuring at least 16 inches wide and 20 inches tall and displayed “in a conspicuous place” in every elementary and secondary public school classroom.

The bill even dictates the wording of the Ten Commandments—an abbreviated version of Exodus 20:2-17 from the Kings James Version of the Bible, essentially following the Protestant approach to the Decalogue. Jews, Catholics, and Protestants number the commandments differently, and the way they are worded varies.

King offered his rationale for introducing the bill in a committee hearing earlier this month arguing that the Ten Commandments are part of the American heritage and that it's time to bring them back into the classroom. He said the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for his bill after it sided with Joe Kennedy, a high school football coach in Washington state who was fired for praying at football games.

"(The bill) will remind students all across Texas of the importance of the fundamental foundation of America," King said during that hearing.

Texas State Luitenant Governor Dan Patrick affirmed the bill saying, “Allowing the Ten Commandments ... back into our public schools is one step we can take to make sure that all Texans have the right to freely express their sincerely held religious beliefs.” Patrick called it a win for religious freedom in Texas.

Patrick is only partly right. It's a big win exclusively for the religious freedom of the Judeo-Christian majority. It's a glaring middle finger to the rest of the state and country.

It is the type of arrogant, short-sighted, and self-consumed power politics that Christian politicians are increasingly playing and it leaves religious minorities seething at the selective amnesia of much of the Christian community.

While Christianity certainly played a critical role in the ideological founding of our country, it has also played a role in some of the darkest moments of our history. Much of Christianity (especially in the South) was vehemently against the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, racial integration, and most recently the basic civil liberties of the LGBTQ community.

While The Ten Commandments has long been a symbol of American values and ideals, King, Patrick and their supporters want to flaunt their Judeo-Christian hegemony with a daily reminder of exactly who’s in charge. They do so in direct violation of Jesus’ commands to love even your enemies (Matt. 5:44) and to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12).

The basis of Jesus' Golden Rule is the ability to place yourself in another person's shoes. I can't imagine how my conservative Christian Public School Teacher wife would feel if the state were to force her to plaster on her classroom wall a poster-sized image of the Quran proclaiming Allah to be the one and only true God and the only God worthy of our worship (which is exactly what the first of the Ten Commandments does for the Judeo-Christian God). She would probably quit before complying (and I would support her).

How then do we expect the Muslim high school teacher to feel? What should be the response of the Hindu middle school coach? What about that caring and dedicated kindergarten teacher who is a practicing Sikh? 

In direct violation of the spirit of Jesus' Golden Rule, I seriously doubt that King or Patrick would agree to portions of the Quran being plastered on every classroom wall, even though some form of each of The Ten Commandments is found within its pages.


Senator King's Rationale

King’s rationale for his bill is two-fold.

First, King argues that The Ten Commandments are an icon of the role religion played in our American heritage. King told a committee hearing on the measure that displaying the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms acknowledges “the role that fundamental religious documents and principles had in American heritage and law.”

According to this argument, it is not The Ten Commandment’s Christian roots that should be emphasized, but rather the religious heritage they represent.

Second, King argues that this reminder will be good for the moral development of students. He called the legislation “a good, healthy step for Texas to bring back this tradition of recognizing America’s religious heritage.” Patrick echoed that statement with more explicit language, saying, “I believe that you cannot change the culture of the country until you change the culture of mankind.” Patrick concluded, “Bringing the Ten Commandments … back to our public schools will enable our students to become better Texans.”

According to their argument, this bill is not a ploy to elevate Christianity above other religions, but simply an attempt to honor our country's religious heritage and to nurture the moral fiber of a generation of young students.

Remembering the most excellent parts of our American religious heritage, and nurturing the moral ethos of our young are both excellent goals.

Putting aside this bill’s violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, (which by most reasonable legal interpretations it certainly does), I would like to make a slightly different case based on King’s stated rationale.


Our Religious Heritage

The greatest gift our religious heritage has given us is a profound respect for the religious freedom of all people.

Roger Williams was an early American theologian, founder of the colony of Rhode Island, and pastor of the First Baptist Church in America. He was eventually excommunicated from his community in part because of his tireless advocacy for the religious freedom of the Native Americans.

Williams’ love for religious freedom made him a staunch advocate of the separation of church and state. He was convinced that civil government had no basis for meddling in matters of religious belief. He rejected any attempt by civil authorities to enforce The Ten Commandments. Williams believed that the state must confine itself to only the commandments dealing with the relations between people: murder, theft, adultery, lying, and honoring parents.

Although Williams lived one generation prior to the American Revolution, his writings had a profound impact on the thinking of the founding fathers. In his "Letter to the Town of Providence" (1655), Williams wrote of a "hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world."

Thomas Jefferson later used the metaphor in his 1801 Letter to Danbury Baptists saying, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."

Other founding fathers echoed Jefferson’s thoughts. John Adams, in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, wrote, "The Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." James Madison in a speech at the Virginia Convention on Religious Liberty, said, “Religious liberty is the first freedom in our Constitution. And among the rights of conscience, religious liberty is first."

And the undisputed father of our nation, George Washington, said, “The religious zealots who seek to impose their views on all others, and who would try the patience of even Job himself, are truly children of the Dark Ages."

The founding fathers agreed that this wall of separation that is a bulwark for religious freedom is the greatest heritage that our Christian roots have given to America. Any religious document plastered on the public walls of impressionable young minds, even under the guise of honoring our heritage, should be seriously scrutinized and if having passed the test, should protect and uplift the religious beliefs of all Americans.

Nurturing the Morality of the Young

The Ten Commandments is certainly a profound and enduring testimony to the highest ideals of human morality. Over time, the Ten Commandments have become more than just a religious text; they have, for some, become a symbol of American values and ideals.

However, a closer look at Christian theology would reveal that the commands of Jesus to “love God,” and “love your neighbor as yourself,” supersede the Ten Commandments. Jesus clearly stated that love for God and neighbor summed up the entire law (including The Ten Commandments), making it an overarching and therefore preeminent law. Love for God and neighbor in no way dismisses the Ten Commandments but for Christians, it supersedes them in priority.

When asked to explain himself by defining “neighbor.” Jesus told a story about two men: one a Jew, the other a Samaritan (a foreigner). It was love across the borders of ethnicity and religious beliefs that defined the radical love ethic of Jesus Christ. This, and not the Ten Commandments, is the foundation for all Christian morality.

That radical love is also one of the greatest heritages our Christian faith gifted to the great American experiment.

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants; a nation of foreigners working and striving together. Again, George Washington spoke for all the founding fathers when he wrote in 1783, "The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions."

Jesus said of those who were his true disciples, “… I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in …” (Matthew 25:35)

A more accurate vision of the morality of Jesus might be Emma Lazarus’ words in The New Colussus, which were enshrined at the base of the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

In the words of one of my favorite theologians, Carlos Santana, "America's greatness is built on diversity, or have we forgotten that this land was colonized by English, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Swedish, Italian, Scottish, Irish, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, African, and the list goes on?"

Any lesson on morality should include the highest morality ever offered to humanity: love God and neighbor.


A Modest Proposal

With King’s and Patrick’s sincere and astute rationale in mind, I would offer a modest proposal; a slight tweaking of his proposed bill.

My proposal also violates the "establishment clause," but I figure if we're breaking it anyway, why not go all the way?

Why not plaster on the wall of every classroom a set of laws that embody the essence of the Ten Commandments, honor the greatest parts of our American heritage, uphold the superior law of Christ, and offer a healthy respect for all religions?

I call them “The Twelve Laws of American Life.” I’m open to other titles since titles are not my forte.


The Twelve Laws of American Life

1. “The true measure of a man's wealth is not his possessions, but his integrity and his ability to make others happy." - Hindu, The Laws of Manu; Chapter 4, Verse 241

2. “Do not steal." - Islam, The Quran; Chapter 5, Verse 38

3. “Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children." - Native American Proverb

4. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." - African Proverb

5. “The greatest achievement is to live with purpose." - Mayan, Popol Vuh

6. “The strong should not injure the weak, in order to protect the weak from the strong." - Babylonian, Hammurabi's Code; Law 195.

7. “Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill." - Buddhist, The Tripitaka, Anguttara Nikaya; Vol. 1, 213

8. “The wise man is one who knows what he does not know." - Taoist, Tao Te Ching; Chapter 71

9. “Without the Name of the Lord, life is filled with sorrow and pain." - Sikh, Guru Granth Sahib; Ang 685

10. “He who saves one life, saves the world entire." - Judaism, Talmud; Sanhedrin 4:8

11. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” - Christian, The Holy Bible; Matthew 7:12

12. “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” - Judaism and Christian, The Holy Bible; Exodus 20:12


I hope that State Senator Phil King will consider my modest proposal since it meets the requirements of his sincere rationale and altruistic aims.

I’m not holding my breath.



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