Log In


Reset Password
  • MENU
    Columnists
    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    Thou shalt not misuse the Ten Commandments

    Walking through Roger Williams Park in Providence, I came upon a moss-covered monolith listing the Ten Commandments. This was some time ago, but knowing the objections then being made to placing religious artifacts in public places, I thought, "This stone won't be here for long."

    It was removed in 2004.

    My feelings were mixed then as they are now to Louisiana's new law requiring a poster-sized display of the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom. It is being challenged for breaching the "Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment, which requires separation of church and state.

    In 1980, the Supreme Court declared an almost identical law in Kentucky unconstitutional.

    Why do I feel conflicted? Supporters of the posters argue with reason that the Ten Commandments are not only a religious text; they are a historical document and the basis for many of our laws. The first few items make mention of God, but from there on down, the commands are quite non-sectarian — things like thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal and thou shalt not commit adultery.

    The monument in Roger Williams Park was given to Providence by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1963. The group had donated similar tablets to Austin, Texas, and two counties in Kentucky.

    The city wasn't entirely convinced by the ACLU's argument that the display of scripture in a public space was unconstitutional but decided it wasn't worth a costly court battle. The Rev. John Holt, then head of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, had it just right when he said, "The Ten Commandments are part of the moral tradition of this country, but I'm also a firm believer in separation of church and state."

    As for the official mention of God, references these days are barely noticed. Politicians of all stripes routinely invoke God's name, as does the currency sitting in all our wallets.

    The popular culture, meanwhile, has stripped the Ten Commandments of much of their sacred value. Several such tablets were distributed in 1956 as kitschy promotion for Cecil B. DeMille's movie extravaganza, "The Ten Commandments." Aside from the parting of the Red Sea, the most unforgettable scene is Charlton Heston's Moses bringing the tablets down from Mount Sinai in an effort to straighten out the disorderly Hebrews below.

    There was no little irony in seeing the separation of church-and-state arguments play out in a park named for Roger Williams. After the Boston Puritans banished him from Massachusetts in 1636, Williams founded the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations as a sanctuary of religious freedom. He is credited with forming The First Baptist Church in America, in Providence.

    Fights over the "Establishment Clause" tend to ignore that it was written not only to keep religion out of government but to keep government out of religion. It was Williams who called for a "wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the World." He also said, "Forced worship stinks in God's nostrils."

    As president, Thomas Jefferson referenced Williams' "wall of separation" in a letter written in 1802 to comfort Baptists in Danbury, who feared persecution by the Congregationalists.

    The religious conservatives in Louisiana pushing the placement of the Ten Commandments in classrooms do seem more intent on waging a cultural war than improving the moral climate in schools. After all, polls show most of them supporting a presidential candidate who has shown little remorse for cheating on his wives. To refresh, Commandment No. 7 states, "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

    "As it is written," Heston's Moses repeatedly says as confirmation of his mission to impose morality. "As it is ignored" could have been equally applied.

    Froma Harrop covers the waterfront of politics, economics and culture with an unconventional approach. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.