Memo To Congress

You're On Capitol Hill, Not Mt. Sinai

Lately many people have been asking me the same question -- in San Diego where I moderated a debate on vouchers at a national meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union, in Salt Lake City where I spoke to the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly and in casual conversations on airplanes en route. The question: "Do they really believe it?"

"They" in this case is Congress and the belief whose sincerity I am asked to assess is that posting the Ten Commandments in public schools is a cure for youth violence at Colorado's Columbine High School and elsewhere.

On June 17, 248 members of the House of Representatives voted to permit states to allow the Ten Commandments to be put up in all public buildings, including schools. What everyone wants to know is, did the House members who voted for this proposal really think it would help?

I have a basic rule of thumb that about 2 percent of any large group will believe literally anything, no matter how preposterous it seems to the rest of us. Therefore, almost five House members honestly think posting the Ten Commandments will do the trick. The rest, I suggest, just knew a "no" vote would look bad on their next Religious Right "voter guide" separating the "godly" sheep from the "unholy" goats.

I did so many radio and television shows in the 48 hours following the vote that I thought I had been given a job as a permanent guest on some networks. The debates were mesmerizingly bizarre. One spokeswoman for the Family Research Council was so abrasive I had to remind her that although "thou shalt not be rude" was not officially a commandment, it was probably a good standard for TV show debates.

On another show, I asked a Georgia congressman to discuss the meaning of the Second Commandment, which relates to graven images. He began spouting off about gun control, as if I had asked about the Second Amendment. Conservative talk show host Oliver North seemed to think if the First Commandment (barring the worship of "false" gods) was too controversial in some states, it could be eliminated from the posting. "You mean," I said, "we should let the states edit God?" I saved perhaps my favorite quip for the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, telling him that I believe, frankly, that most Americans would be happier if members of Congress just tried to obey most of the commandments instead of launching them as political footballs.

In the midst of these comments, I was able to make this core point for religious liberty advocates: The House of Representatives is wasting its time with foolish grandstanding because this issue is settled. The Supreme Court, back in the 1980 Stone v. Graham case, said the commandments are "undeniably a sacred text" and therefore could not be posted in Kentucky's public schools to promote spiritual messages.

I get tired of hearing the Religious Right claim that the Ten Commandments are merely rules to live by that everyone can agree with. They're not. Depending on which version of the Book of Exodus one reads, four or five of the commandments are profoundly theological in nature.

Consider the commandment that says to keep the sabbath holy. Which day is that, anyway? Most Christians say Sunday, but Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Seventh-day Baptists and others say Saturday. Muslims say Friday. (Does anyone know if there is a group out there advocating for Wednesday?) Who's right? My beliefs on that matter are my own business and none of the government's concern.

Even the allegedly "secular" commandments, such as not coveting a neighbor's goods, are not only open to interpretation but, if you think about it for a minute, are routinely breached when members of the House covet seats that are in the hands of the other party. One commandment says "Thou shalt not kill" (some translations say "murder"). Does that mean we can't fight wars even in self defense? What about the death penalty? These thorny issues of interpretation are best left to parents who are free to consult with the religious leaders of their choosing.

It is perfectly possible that I could sit down with Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association and someone picked at random from the Iowa City phone book and come up with 10 useful, positive values for living to try to teach to young people that do not raise any theological issues, but they would not be the Ten Commandments. These are, instead, Holy Scripture for some of us and a mere historical document for others.

Two weeks after the commandments vote, the House nearly passed a resolution calling for a national day of "prayer, fasting and humiliation" as we approach the year 2000, neatly tying theology to millennial doomsaying. In arguing against the proposal, Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas said bluntly to his colleagues, "Perhaps it is time for us in Congress to preach a little less and practice a little more."

I've seen a lot of good editorials about the commandments vote, and even noted conservatives like Cal Thomas have criticized the purpose and effect of government-sanctioned religiosity. As for me, I have never in history known of a single soul saved nor a single crime prevented by religion force-fed by the august power of any government.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.