Why are conservative Christians so concerned about displaying the Ten Commandments in public and especially in courtrooms?
Conservatives and their lawyers claim that the Ten Commandments are (or, should regain their position) at the heart of American jurisprudence because the Decalogue represents our commitment to Rule of Law. And, they have made these arguments in cases like McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky (in which the ACLU challenged the legality of displaying framed copies of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courtrooms) and Van Orden v. Perry (involving a challenge to the legality of a Ten Commandments monument displayed as part of a statehouse exhibit). Immediately after the Supreme Court decided these two cases, Mat Staver, the conservative Christian attorney who argued the McCreary County case, stated
The Ten Commandments have become a universally recognized symbol of law because of its [sic] influence on our law and notions of right and wrong. The Court should recognize the Ten Commandments are more than an historical relic. The Founders would be outraged that we are even debating the constitutionality of the Ten Commandments. That the Ten Commandments would be deemed unconstitutional is an insult to the Constitution, to our shared religious history …
While the Supreme Court decisions released this week in these two cases did little to resolve the issue of religious displays, they elevate the issue in the American culture wars while obscuring a broader set of questions that we should consider: Are the Ten Commandments really a building block of American society, and a representation of our preference for order? If they are, should they be? Given our culture, tradition and values, should we display the Ten Commandments publicly as a sign of reverence for our institutions?
Frankly, I doubt it.
I am certainly not against religious displays in public. But, I would be much more in favor of the idea if conservatives were arguing for the public display of what should be the set of tenets at the center of Christianity and its influence of society – the Beatitudes. In pursuing this discussion, it is easy to get off track, and onto a kind of argument that is not particularly productive – the appropriateness of displaying religious documents in public forums, or appropriate standards of review for governmental policies implicating religion. I hope we don’t, because I want to raise an issue related to the questions I posed above, one that I find much more interesting. It’s time for conservative Christians to decide – who do you like better, Moses or Jesus?
It can’t possibly be both, because as we know from St. Paul’s letters that Jesus freed us from the Law (promulgated by God through Moses, in the Christian and Judaic traditions). Jesus’ Beatitudes are a “new law” of redemption leading to freedom, peace, charity and happiness. The word beatitude itself comes from the Latin beatitudo (meaning happiness). Jesus’ mission to the world was to preach that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” He did not tack on “and, God is really angry so there’s going to be hell to pay.” In short, Jesus’ message was not one of retributive justice carried out by a set of state institutions that enforce a religious code for living. So why are conservative Christians, the heirs of Jesus’ mercy and love, supporting Moses over Jesus?
Rejection of the Ten Commandments by courts has contributed to disaffection with the society, belief that Christian values are under attack, and sustained political and legal action on the part of the conservative Christian social movement. Certain, not all conservative Christians would side with Moses on this score, but they are the exceptions to the rule. If others thought about it, they would realize that they are backing the wrong horse, and could make a better argument using the Beatitudes. I would like to see courts argue against a public display of words like “blessed are the peacemakers,” or (even better) “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” I’m certain courts would insist that such words would have to be placed within an historical context. But, can you see courts today objecting to consideration of the beatitudes and “blessed are the merciful” before sentencing, as they did recently when they overturned the decision of a jury that considered the Old Testament during deliberation?
So, why then is the punitive justice of Mosaic Law equated with Christian principles when Jesus himself preached peace and mercy, not “an eye for an eye?” The answer is not that conservative Christians are uncomfortable with a legal status that places them on the outside. Conservatives of all stripes actually feel much more comfortable on the outside of the system then the inside. Once they gain political power they have just as much trouble as any other winners in managing the state and maintaining their principles. The strange part is that they would want to win at all. The images of Mosaic Law are the armies of Israel conquering Canaan, and later the armies of Christian Europe conquering Jerusalem. The image of the Beatitudes is of the suffering Christ on the Cross, put there by the state. If conservative Christians today feel that they have been cut off from government (and their values shunted aside), isn’t that what is supposed to happen? “Blessed are ye when [men] shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.”
Even more perplexing, if conservative Christians did manage to dominate the institutions of government, why would they want to put the principles of Moses into practice rather than those of Jesus who superseded him? The Ten Commandments are the symbol of a system that while claiming to be Christian (if not in origin, then in practice) in no way resembles the work of Christ. This system endorses a way of living that shows little of the respect for human dignity that is at the heart of Jesus’ work. Yet its adherents claim to be followers of Christ. So, why do they endorse the “eye for an eye” logic that Christ himself refutes when constructing a state based on Christian principles?
I think the answer lies in ideology and authoritarianism. People prefer the easy answer to the question of who is good and who is bad. Mosaic Law provides the most parsimonious response to both criminal conduct and behavior outside the mainstream. In fact, Mosaic Law (or, at least those parts of it that we like to keep around – the “stone my mother at the gates of the city” part is a bit passé) is applied much more easily and consistently (particularly within the state) than Jesus’ mercy and peace. From that standpoint, it is more coherent, and almost scientific in its application. There is action, and there is reaction. Law becomes routinized, predictable, and consistent. It is a man-made list of proscriptions, but it ultimately takes on the form of a natural and undeniable force applied unthinkingly and automatically. You do the crime, you do the time. Punishing those whose behavior is offensive makes logical sense from a self-centered point of view. It’s supposed to make us feel better when the state carries it out. Retribution restores our faith that, if we behave as the state wants us to behave, we will be protected. For those who behave against the authority of the state, there will be retribution. People demonstrate the same kind of faith in the systems’ ability to pass judgment in the economic sphere as well. Americans conflate economic success with personal virtue.
The difficulty with the legal paradigm based on Mosaic Law is this – it is not the work of Jesus. Under the Mosaic Law, justice is imputed – citizens are not called upon to evaluate the effectiveness of the system in achieving justice, or its usefulness in establishing social arrangements and distributions of power, wealth, or status. Furthermore, citizens are not required to think carefully about themselves in relation to others. In promoting consistency and uniformity, the law asks no one to be unselfish, to turn the other cheek, or to set aside asserting one’s rights against someone else in favor of forgiveness and community with others.
This is a way of thinking about life characterized by atomism more in line with scientific theory than with religious doctrine. Unfortunately, in America alternative modes of thinking are difficult to defend in the abstract – mainly because they are abstract and have no adherents to defend them. Social scientists recognize this. Jennifer Hochschild argues that we have “individualized” even personal responsibilities and duties to community. In other words, there must be some individual benefit for Americans if they will endorse policies that require recognition of others’ rights or needs. Placing the Ten Commandments in courtrooms merely reinforces our ideological attachments, rationalizes a type of justice that is distinctly unchristian, and focuses our attention on what is best for self rather than what is most useful for building the rich human interaction that is the basis for any productive society. Law-abidingness (even when that law is clearly unjust) is considered a sign of virtue, merit and innate goodness. The Ten Commandments are the very embodiment of this kind of justice – losers deserve to lose and criminals to be punished, and those who do not conform should experience punishment because nonconformity is a purely personal failing. That is the essence of democratic authoritarianism. As Hochschild notes, there is no absolute reason for envisioning life in this way, it is “simply an epistemological choice … But to the degree that the focus carries a moral message, it points to a weakness at the very heart …” of Americanism because we have been deceived into believing its universality.
This leaves us few options for evaluating the usefulness of our system of justice. It also explains why it is so hard to argue for the Beatitudes, and why conservative Christians see an ancient law, outmoded by the work of their own savior, as embodying the central tenants of their faith. We can, however, draw two conclusions. First, the tenets of conservative Christianity are based in part on socio-cultural norms and preferences for behavior. Perhaps if conservative Christianity endorsed Christ as its central figure it could make some legitimate claim to universality. But, it has failed to do so. Furthermore, conservative Christianity fails to endorse all Mosaic law, picking and choosing which laws to follow and enforce based solely on what is socially acceptable. Thus, all that can be said about this is that conservative Christians favor a culturally derived sense of justice, that they represent this cultural derived sense of justice as both universally good and related to Christ, but that it actually emanates from the Ten Commandments, a law outmoded by Christ himself. If we can agree on this (and I doubt we will), then perhaps we can begin a public dialogue about what social arrangements and definitions of justice are most useful for promoting social good.
Second, conservative Christian social activism could in fact be very useful. It is not the activism that is the problem, but the inconsistencies in the principles underlying that action. Perhaps there is a way to endorse the idea of social change, but fundamentally reshape the values that underlie it. However, this project holds little chance for success because conservative Christians deride the idea that social good should ever be a basis for our decisions. This brings us back to the first conclusion – the values espoused by conservative Christians supporting the display of the Ten Commandments are culturally derived and time bound despite claims to the contrary.
In the end, conservative Christians are fighting the right battle (for social change) using the wrong list. The Beatitudes at their core are pragmatic. Unlike the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes are distinctly lacking in authoritative commands, dogmatic principles, or rigid standards. Take for instance that portion saying Blessed are the poor in spirit, and Blessed are the meek. Poverty in spirit and meekness are qualities of humility, not dogmatic certitude. One cannot imagine the poor in spirit and the meek leading a crusade to kill the infidel – they could never be so certain. Thus, both suggest that lacking dogmatic belief and certitude are appropriate characteristics for followers of Christ. They might read “blessed are the humble, who are not so arrogant to believe that they know everything and have the right to impose that knowledge on others.” Under this mode of thinking, any religious conviction that cannot tolerate uncertainty and that fears open critical self-examination is a form of idolatry. Thus, the Beatitudes supplant the Ten Commandments by introducing an approach to living that contradicts the old list at every point.
Even more strikingly, the Beatitudes imply that if you want to be successful you cannot act as the Ten Commandments dictate – you cannot angrily persecute non-adherents from a list of dos and don’ts. In fact, such persecution is precisely what those who follow the Beatitudes should expect for themselves. Furthermore, Blessed are the merciful presents us with a range of potentially pragmatic behaviors applied across social institutions. Those who show the mercy of Christ are blessed, not those who impose authoritarian power to punish, or those who impose their ideas about right religion on others or even themselves. Unfortunately, the word righteousness in blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness is too often taken to mean the dogmatic form of religiosity. But, in context with the other Beatitudes, it seems to imply that taking the pragmatic stance (characterized by the qualities of mercy, peace, and poverty in the face of uncertainty) is truly to seek after righteousness, and righteousness itself is seeking the best in life despite its ever changing nature.
 Supreme Court Docket No. No. 03-1693. See American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky v. McCreary County, 354 F.3d 438 (2003) for the sixth circuit decision below.
 See Van Orden v. Perry, 351 F. 3d 173 (2004) for the fifth circuit decision below.
 Staver, Mat. “Supreme Court Issues Split Decisions Regarding The Ten Commandments.” Liberty Counsel Alert, Washington, DC: June 23, 2005.
 Quite the contrary actually. I’m on the side of Texas in the Van Orden case, especially as the state responded to concerns about displaying only the Ten Commandments by morphing the monument into a broader educational display about the law.
 Critical analyses of religion in public forums abounds. For popular reviews of attitudes among the religious, particularly conservative Christians, see Wolfe, Alan. “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind.” Atlantic Monthly 286, no. 4 (2000): 55-76, or Cox, Harvey. “The Warring Visions of the Religious Right.” Atlantic Monthly 276, no. 5 (1995): 59-69. For academic analyses of the New Christian Right, jurisprudence and religion in public, see Steven P. Brown’s Trumping Religion, this author’s The Culture of Conservative Christian Litigation (forthcoming), Greg Iver’s Redefining the First Freedom: The Supreme Court and the Consolidation of State Power. New Brunswick, PA: Transaction Publishers, (1993). For a broader review of the New Christian Right as a social movement, see Wilcox, Clyde. Onward Christian Soldiers? The Religious Right in American Politics. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press (2000), and Moen, Matthew C. The Transformation of the Christian Right. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press (1992).
 Such disputes are typically “politico-moral” in nature. The Court has struggled to define appropriate standards that safeguard religion from governmental influence while maintaining the free expressive rights of citizens. Beginning with Engel v. Vitale (1962), the Court continued to refined First Amendment religion clause jurisprudence. Engel and its progeny treat various areas of religion in public life, including public displays such as the one at issue in McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, but also public policies on religious observances by state institutions, state support for religion in public schools, support for religious educational institutions, and recognition of religious beliefs of citizens.