Thou Shalt Not


by John Tyler Connoley

February 24, 2004


For the past few years, the news has been peppered with stories of lawmakers and judges placing statues and plaques of the Ten Commandments on public property, and of civil rights activists fighting to have them removed. Last fall, there was the brouhaha in Alabama, where Judge Roy Moore placed a 5,000-pound stone sculpture in the rotunda of the state courthouse. And this January, City Councilor Vernon Robinson of Winston-Salem installed a granite monument in front of City Hall. Meanwhile, all over the United States, yard signs have cropped up, stating "We Support the Ten Commandments." The question I always want to ask is, "Whose Ten Commandments are we supporting?"


Two millennia ago, Jewish Rabbis taught about the Ten Proclamations of Exodus. For them, the first of these was "I am Adonai your God, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slavery." Later, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches renumbered the Ten, so that the Jewish first was lumped into the prohibitions against idolatry that follow it. (They also separated the last commandment into two, so there would still be ten.) But this Catholic numbering system is not generally the version that's on the yard signs or the statues. The yard signs don't include the statement, "I am the Lord your God, Who has . . ." They begin, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," and then follow the Jewish numbering for the last nine commandments. This way of presenting the Ten Commandments is peculiar to one branch of protestant Christians.


I believe the yard signs hold the key to the battle raging on our courthouse steps. It is not a widespread Judeo-Christian movement, but a movement of a Christian minority. It's also not about expanding the public's understanding of the roots of our legal system. If the Ten Commandments advocates wanted to do this, they would include their monuments within the context of a broader historical exhibit (something the Supreme Court has said is Constitutionally permissible). Instead, these monuments are about forcing one interpretation of the Bible on the American public. They are about putting a Christian god above all others in this land. They are about saying, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."


But, in a pluralistic society like the United States, we simply can't have the government advocating worship of one particular god. Even if you lump together Roman and Orthodox Catholics, mainline protestant Christians, Baptists, Quakers, and all the other Christian groups (a pretty big lump), you still have hundreds of other religious people who are not included. You still have hundreds of other gods being worshipped.


Now, imagine that you're a Hindu entering a courtroom, and up on the wall you see a government-sponsored plaque that reads, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Would you expect a fair hearing? Or, imagine you're a Wiccan who has to walk past the stone monument to the Ten Commandments at City Hall on your way to pay your taxes. You read, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," and realize why your religion still doesn't have tax-exempt status.


I grew up with a belief that Christians would someday be persecuted to the point that we would no longer be able to practice our faith publicly. I was told that in the "end times," Christianity would be forbidden. This view made sense, when I looked back on the history of the Church. The early Christians were thrown to lions and tortured because they wouldn't practice the state-sponsored worship of Caesar. Later, my protestant ancestors were drowned and burned at stakes, for their refusal to bow to the Pope. They fled to the United States, but even there, Mary Dyer was hanged on the Boston Commons for her beliefs as a Quaker. You would think that Christians, of all people, would understand the dangers of state-sponsored religion.


And, in fact, the Judeo-Christian founders of our country did understand this danger. It was partly because of the tragedy of Mary Dyer that the first amendment to the United States Constitution was written. That amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." While the founders looked to the legal codes of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, along with other religious documents, for inspiration in framing our laws, they rejected the idea that one religion should reign supreme. Recognizing the bloodshed that religious states had wrought, our founders set out to create the first secular republic in the history of the world.


Whatever their personal beliefs, the framers of our nation's laws did not include the words, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" in our legal documents. They took from the religious codes only those portions they thought appropriate for a secular state, and they left the rest. They didn't adopt the Ten Commandments, they adapted them, and I think we'd be wise to follow their lead. However you number them, the verses found in Exodus chapter 20 belong in the realm of the religious. The phrase "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" has no place in the courthouses or city halls of a secular and pluralistic nation.


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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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