Every time we read the Decalogue in church, I can’t help thinking about the way the Ten Commandments have unwittingly become a flash point for the culture wars in American politics. When he came down the mountain with the tablets, could Moses possibly have thought that he was starting a process that could lead to endless litigation? It seems as if every time you turn around there is a controversy somewhere in this country about the display of the Ten Commandments in a public space—usually a city hall, a courthouse, or a state capitol building. Just this past month lawsuits have been brought in North Carolina and New Mexico. State senators in Alabama are even now debating an amendment to their state’s Constitution that would legalize such displays.
The Supreme Court has long held that the government may not take any action—displaying the Ten Commandments or the the Nativity Scene on public property, teaching Creationism or mandating organized prayer in public schools—that endorses a particular religion. The Constitution’s First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In its 18th century context, that means two things: the United States, unlike European nations, will not have an established “official” church. And all Americans will be free to pray or not to as their conscience dictates.
You’d think the intent of that amendment was pretty clear on its face, but we Americans have been arguing about what it really means almost since our country’s inception. In recent years, that argument has become much more divisive. Civil libertarians have claimed that any public display of religious teaching violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the separation of church and state. Others have countered that America’s founders meant this country to be what they call a “Christian nation”.
The most recent volley in this battle comes from the publication of a new book just arriving on the best-seller lists: Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family, and Freedom Before It’s Too Late. Authors James Robison and Jay W. Richards maintain that such diverse and divisive issues as abortion, stem cell research, marriage, education, economics, health care, the environment, terrorism, and even free trade can be settled if America will adopt the Ten Commandments as its prevailing set of cultural and ethical norms. To support this argument, they claim that the authors of the Constitution, as believing Christians, would have taken the Ten Commandments as their moral starting point. And, they insist, even non-Christians should agree that the Ten Commandments are an indispensible part of our cultural and legal heritage.
As an American and as a Christian I have to admit that I am a bit conflicted about this issue. On the one hand, my inner civil libertarian agrees that in America no one religion should be given preference over another. I’m sorry to disabuse those who want to portray the Founders as Evangelical Christians, but they just weren’t; in fact those who weren’t Deists like Jefferson were Episcopalians like Hamilton, and neither of those traditions could be described as biblically literalist about religious faith. So we need to take the Founders at their word: all religious traditions—including atheism—are absolutely equal in our national self-understanding.
On the other hand, though, as a Christian I’m deeply troubled by the knee-jerk secularism unintentionally ushered in by the First Amendment. In 1953, the late bishop Stephen Bayne wrote a book called The Optional God in which he lamented the way American culture, in not establishing any religion, made all religion a “personal” choice and thereby optional: As he says,
There is a belief, held commonly enough in our world, that religion is a side issue. We do not readily deny God’s existence . . . but we look at the possibility of God as at best a helpful supplement to the real dynamics of life. It makes no fundamental difference whether He exists or not. . . . In the words I uses as a title, God is optional. [Stephen F. Bayne, The Optional God, 1980, p. xii.]
When Bishop Bayne wrote those words he was making a case that, while God may have been optional for us as Americans, God is definitely not optional for us as Christians. He was not arguing that we lobby to put religious displays in courthouses. He was insisting that we take our faith and its implications into the public square. Putting a crèche scene in a city hall is easy compared to standing up for justice in a civic dispute.
A lot has changed since 1953. The poet Alicia Ostriker wrote a piece in which she asked last month,
Isn’t it clear that our culture is in a post-secular age? Poets—and novelists and playwrights (think Angels in America)—everywhere in America are struggling with matters of the spirit. Matters of spiritual experience, I should say, outside of churches and synagogues, outside of doctrines and dogmas. This renaissance of spirituality has nothing to do with the right wing fundamentalisms that play such a destructive part in our political life. [Poetry, February 2012, pp. 464-465]
In 1953 Bishop Bayne lamented the way the culture pays lip service to Christian values and at the same time relegates them to the private sphere. In 2012, a poet raised by atheist Jews proclaims that we are in a post-secular age. What has happened in the interim?
A lot has changed, but perhaps the most important thing missing from today’s arguments about the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn is our emerging understanding of the biblical idea of covenant. Over and over and over again, the Bible employs the idea of covenant to express the relationship of God with God’s people. The Ten Commandments are the terms of God’s covenant with Israel. They are not presented in Exodus as immutable laws given for all time. They are given as the conditions on which we are called to live if we want to be God’s people.
We’re now in the Third Sunday in Lent, and our Bible readings these Sundays have all centered around the idea of covenant. Two weeks ago we heard the story of Noah, which ends with God announcing his covenant with all creation. After the flood, God hangs his bow in the sky as a reminder to himself that he will let the world continue, even in the presence of great sin. Last week we heard the story of Abraham’s call to follow God, and the making of a covenant between God and a particular people, the Jews. Now this week we hear what happens when, in the middle of the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, God delivers the Ten Commandments as the terms of this new arrangement. God promises to be Israel’s God and to be with them in their history and experience. What God exacts for that promise is a commitment that Israel will live on God’s terms. The Ten Commandments are the conditions of the covenant that God makes with Israel. If you want to be my people, says God, then you will have to live this way.
Now there are two really interesting points here. Point one is that the transaction is a moral one. Unlike all the other gods out there, Israel’s God does not ask for elaborate rituals or sacrifices. Israel’s God asks for a commitment to living life on God’s terms—loving God, loving others. In the context of its time and place, this is a radically different set of demands. Don’t build me a monument, says Yahweh. Live thankfully, generously, and honestly with me and with each other. Those are the terms of the deal.
Point two is this: the terms of the deal are extended to those who have agreed to the covenant. The Ten Commandments are never presented as universal laws. They are presented as Israel’s laws. Like the church, Israel is a covenanted community. You are in it or out of it because you choose to be. Its truth does not pretend to be a general, universal truth. Its truth claims to be a particular, personal truth.
Here then is how I understand what is happening with the Ten Commandments. As a Christian person, as one who through Baptism has joined this covenant community, these Ten Commandments are the rules that I and my community have agreed to live by. They are absolutely binding to me. Although Jesus summarizes them in two—love God and love your neighbor—these ten precepts give shape and content and meaning to what it means to be in covenant with God and a follower of Jesus. They are my truth because the One who speaks them to me is my God. But nowhere in the Bible do I read that God gives me the right to impose my truth on someone else. God didn’t say, “Here are the 10 Commandments. Make sure the Egyptians obey them.” God said, “Here are the 10 Commandments. You obey them. You live them out, and, by your example, draw others into your fellowship.”
On this Third Sunday in Lent, we have recommitted ourselves to the Decalogue and have asked God for mercy, in the words of the old Prayer Book, to “incline our hearts to keep this law,” to “write all these thy laws in our hearts.” All we can do is proclaim and live by our truth. We cannot impose it on others. So how about this for a solution: as Americans, let’s display the Bill of Rights on the courthouse lawn. And as Christians, let’s engrave the 10 Commandments in our hearts. The Ten Commandments are our commandments because they are given to us by One whom we know to be our God. They are no less true for being ours. May we have grace to live them out in such a way that others will be drawn to our witness, so that our God may be their God, too. Amen.