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Upon this Rock, Thou Shalt Not Grandstand: The Ten Commandments

Using the government to promote the Ten Commandments is a morally risky gambit - those who seek to impose the commandments are fated to be judged by them.

Judge Roy Moore's defiance of a federal court order to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from his Alabama courthouse has brought national attention to the ongoing debate over whether our government speaks for God or for the people. Since Moore declares he disobeyed the government in order to obey God, it seems Moore agrees with most of us that our legal system, which he has sworn to uphold, is based on our collective will and not on divine dictates.

For now, the impressive rock on which Moore's version of the commandments is carved is locked out of sight. Some Christians protest this "removal of the Ten Commandments," but what was banished was merely a copy of the Ten Commandments, which properly exist in people's consciences and thus can never be removed by any act of government. Clearly, the commandments-in-rock are a symbol. But from Moore's perspective, so are the Ten Commandments themselves. Their importance for him is what they stand for, not what they say. When Moore asserts that the Ten Commandments are the basis for our justice system, he means the idea of the Ten Commandments.

More generally, the laws of Israel's covenant envision a society in which the strong do not violate the rights or dignity of the weak. There is, therefore, no small irony in Moore's using the Ten Commandments as the symbol through which to enlist the power of government to enforce a majority religion (Christianity) on the rest of us.

We do not have laws prohibiting statues (see the second commandment), working on Saturday (fourth commandment), dishonoring our parents (fifth commandment), or coveting our neighbor's donkey (tenth commandment). It is not even against the law to commit adultery - nor should it be. As legal principles, the Ten Commandments are obviously obsolete, as even committed Christians acknowledge. Even as moral dictates, Christianity picks and chooses among them. Only a tiny minority of Christians believe it is immoral to own a statue or work on Saturday.

From the ancient perspective of the Bible, the Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai as the opening stipulations of their covenant with God, who had recently freed them from slavery in Egypt. So, the Ten Commandments are the preamble to a constitution for a nation of liberated slaves. Accordingly, a major purpose of this covenant was to prevent Israelites from enslaving others. For example, "You shall not steal" was primarily a prohibition against kidnapping people for the slave trade. The same Hebrew verb for "steal" occurs in the chapter following the Ten Commandments: "Whoever steals a human being, whether that human being has been sold or is still held in slavery, shall be put to death" (Exodus 21:16).

More generally, the laws of Israel's covenant envision a society in which the strong do not violate the rights or dignity of the weak. There is, therefore, no small irony in Moore's using the Ten Commandments as the symbol through which to enlist the power of government to enforce a majority religion (Christianity) on the rest of us.

The spirit and letter of two of the commandments also cut against the grain of Moore's blending of religion and politics. The second commandment forbids the sculpting of statues (and by extension the creating of any images) that could symbolize God. The original idea behind this is that if we use anything that we ourselves make to symbolize God we might be deluded into imagining that we have some measure of control over God and might, whether consciously or not, use sacred things to advance self-serving agendas.

In the same spirit, the third commandment prohibits using God's name for vain or trivial purposes, such as promoting one's political career. Moore's motives are a matter for his own conscience, but the rest of us are entitled to judge his actions by the very standards he seeks to impose on others.

One more thing: the commandment to cease all work on the Sabbath day. On Moore's rock, that commandment is abbreviated to "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." However, the full text of that commandment in the Bible (Exodus 20:8-11) defines the Sabbath as the seventh day of the week -- Saturday. The biblical text also clarifies how the Sabbath is to be kept holy: by ceasing from all work (there is no mention of the Sabbath being a day of worship). Jews have always understood this commandment to mean exactly what it says: no work on Saturday. I have no idea how seriously Moore takes the fourth commandment, but if he works on Saturday, he has some explaining to do.

David Reingold is an assistant professor of religion at Juniata College.