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The Battle Over the Ten Commandments

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On June 27, the Supreme Court ruled that certain government displays of the Ten Commandments were permitted by the Constitution, while other displays were not. As commentators explained the distinctions, conservative Christian groups announced a national campaign to set up 100 new displays of the Commandments within the year.

And so the battle rages on.

Amid conflicting views of whether such displays should be permitted, a basic question remains: Why the Ten Commandments?

It’s true that these tenets of Jewish and Christian faith occupy a special place in our religious and popular culture. From Sunday School teachers to Cecil B DeMille, the Commandments have been idealized, immortalized, and even (most ironically) idolized.

However, conservative religious activists clearly see the Commandments not just as a milestone in Western cultural history, but as a chance to promote a distinctly Christian moral code in America’s public sphere—or, as the infamous ‘Ten Commandments Judge’ Roy Moore calls it, "God’s law." What’s more, they fervently single out these ten rules, above all other Biblical teachings, as the ultimate guide to Christian earthly conduct.

This is where commandments crusaders start to lose me. After all, the Ten Commandments were given to Moses centuries before Jesus Christ ever walked on earth. If the name "Christian"—as should be painfully obvious—derives from "Christ," and if the claimers of this title worship Jesus as Lord and Savior, shouldn’t the ultimate expression of Christian morality be the teachings of its founding Son of God?

Why are the Ten Commandments seen by so many American Christians as their supreme moral code? Did Christ have nothing to say on morality? Did he simply put his divine stamp of approval on the old stone tablets before he took up the cross to die for our sins?

Far from it.

In the Gospels, Jesus does mention the Ten Commandments, but he is very clear that these laws are not the ultimate guide to moral conduct for those who follow him. In fact, Christ explicitly states what else is needed.

In Luke, a wealthy man tells Jesus that he has followed all of the Ten Commandments and asks if he must do anything further to achieve eternal life. "There is still one thing lacking," Jesus tells him. "Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor…; then come, follow me."

Despite Jesus’ clear pronouncement that the Ten Commandments are an incomplete guide to salvation, I doubt we’re going to see right-wing Christian groups campaigning to post a "socialist screed" of shared wealth and material sacrifice in classrooms and courts anytime soon.

Yet even beyond this teaching, Jesus holds two other commandments as supreme. They are hallowed in Jewish law and repeated by him many times.

In the book of Matthew, Christ says that "all the law and the prophets" hang on these two commandments. In Luke, he tells followers to "do this, and you will live." And in Mark—as Ten Commandments advocates would do well to note—he unequivocally asserts that "there is no other commandment greater than these."

What are these most hallowed teachings, these ultimate expressions of Jewish and Christian morality?

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind."

"You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

The true foundation of Christian moral values is all-encompassing love above all else.

As the Apostle Paul, darling of evangelicals for his alleged claims that faith in Christ is the only requirement for salvation, famously put it: "…if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing… [F]aith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love."

In the recent Supreme Court rulings, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor declared that American Constitutional ideals "have kept religion a matter for the individual conscience, not for the prosecutor or bureaucrat."

As a progressive American Christian, I share her belief that the exclusive posting of one faith’s sacred tenets in public courtrooms and schoolrooms would violate free consciences, no matter how valuable their lessons for moral conduct on earth.

However, those Christians who contend that the Ten Commandments are their faith’s greatest guide for a good society must revisit not only the teachings of America’s founders, but of Christianity’s founder as well. When they do, they will discover that the full extent of Christian conduct toward fellow human beings can only be expressed by the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.

Bryan Collinsworth grew up in Southern California, where he served, at age 17, as an elder in his Presbyterian church. He studied politics and religion at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. Last year he worked as a fundraiser and organizer for progressive groups in the presidential campaign. He lives in Washington, D.c=, where he works on efforts to end the genocide in Darfur. Several of his essays on politics and religion have appeared in print and on blogs.

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