In agreeing recently to rule on the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays at the Texas Capitol building and two Kentucky courthouses, the Supreme Court has waded into a controversy that, for religious conservatives, is fast catching up to abortion and gay marriage as one of the gravest domestic issues of the day.
It would seem sensible, then, to be clear on what exactly the controversy is about. Once you understand that it is not really about the Ten Commandments, but only the first two, perhaps you may see the danger posed by ejecting the Commandments from public property.
When they sit to hear the relevant arguments, the Supreme Court justices would do well to contemplate the 7-foot-tall frieze displayed on the wall of their very own courtroom. The frieze, pictured below, depicts Moses carrying the tablets of God’s law. Interestingly, the tablet with the first five commandments is hidden by the second tablet. In Hebrew, we can make out commandments six through 10, starting with Lo tirtzach, “Do not murder.”
By contrast, the displays in Texas and Kentucky, like others being contested around the country, depict all Ten Commandments, in English. But the Texas monument — like an identical one in my own backyard outside of police headquarters in Everett, Wash., which is similarly the object of legal action — gives unique prominence to the First Commandment. In big capital letters, in the center of the man-sized granite slab, we read, “I am the Lord thy God.”
Those words, which go on in the Second Commandment to forbid the worship of other gods, are followed by the Third through Tenth Commandments. The latter deal with ethical issues of general applicability: forbidding false oaths, stealing, adultery and so on — rules to which nobody much objects. Even the Fourth Commandment to observe the Sabbath has its uncontroversial, secular aspect; I’m not aware of any efforts to force the Postal Service to deliver mail on Sunday.
It’s partly for this reason that the Supreme Court’s Moses will never have to be erased from his setting in Spanish marble. Were it not for “I am the Lord thy God,” it seems doubtful the Ten Commandments would be considered problematic at all.
But those six words, asserting that the authority of all ethical precepts depends on God, are key to understanding why the Ten Commandments lie at the foundation of America’s legal tradition. Severing religion entirely from governance threatens the very basis of our tradition — as affirmed not only by religion itself, but even by secular viewpoints.
Illuminating the religious perspective, the Talmud points to a verse from the book of Psalms, “Oh Lord, all the kings of the earth will acknowledge You, for they heard the words of Your mouth” (138:4). And what are those “words” that the kings will “acknowledge”? The Talmud explains that initially, when secular kings and governments hear the first two commandments, they might reject them as sectarian, meant only for the honor of the biblical God. But when they hear the other commandments, especially the fifth, “Honor your father and mother,” wise rulers will change their minds and conclude that really all Ten Commandments are meant for society’s own good (Kiddushin 31a).
As the Talmud realizes, there are two ways to keep a country ordered and peaceful: The people might be restrained either by fear of the government, or out of respect for an unseen lawgiver — God. In areas where law cannot penetrate, such as home life, a society cut loose from the awareness of God will degenerate quickly. First to go will be respect for mother and father, as the people of the officially atheist Soviet Union discovered when it became routine for children to inform on their parents to the state.
Yet even modern scholars who dismiss religion’s claims to ultimate truth will agree that a society needs faith. Arch-secularist Edward Wilson, the Harvard sociobiologist, has admitted that, “the highest forms of religious practice, when examined more closely, can be seen to confer biological advantage. Above all they congeal identity… provid[ing each person] with unquestioned membership in a group claiming great powers, and by this means giv[ing] him a driving purpose in life, compatible with self-interest.” The acknowledgment of God provides a crucial element of group cohesion, without which the “tribe” suffers.
The question now before the Supreme Court is whether a secular government can expect to flourish if the phrase, “I am the Lord thy God” — with all that it represents — is extirpated from the halls of lawmaking and law-enforcement. Tearing down Ten Commandments monuments would not by itself threaten America’s domestic peace. But the intellectual failure that such a ruling would represent — the failure to see that our form of government depends on the First Commandment no less than on the Sixth or the Eighth — is indeed a threat.
David Klinghoffer is the author of the forthcoming “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).