Ten Commandments on display: civic need or religious token?
May 25, 2005
A UMNS Feature
By Marta W. Aldrich*
what may be a showdown between First Amendment principles and the
United States' spiritual heritage as a Christian nation, the U.S.
Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer on the constitutionality
of government displays of the Ten Commandments.
as the high court considers its first ruling on the issue in a quarter
of a century, there is disagreement even within the United Methodist
Church about the place of the Ten Commandments in the public square.
The United Methodist Church declined to file a brief in the case because its Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions
do not offer a clear position on the issue, according to Jim Allen,
attorney for the denomination's General Council on Finance and
calls it "a very dangerous topic because one way to convince the
Supreme Court that it is OK to display the Ten Commandments is by taking
the position that (they) are merely a historical document and have no
religious significance. I didn't think the UMC was willing to take that
The Book of Discipline,
the denomination's book of polity and law, supports separation of
church and state to promote religious liberty, but adds this "should not
be misconstrued as the abolition of all religious expression from
public life." It says "the state should not use its authority to promote
particular religious beliefs (including atheism) … nor should the
church seek to dominate the state."
The great debate
centuries, the Ten Commandments have seemed clear-cut: 10 rules from
God that have provided a foundation for moral living since Moses carried
them down on stone tablets from Mount Sinai.
United Methodist leaders say that, in the realm of church-state
relations, whether government can display the commandments is a fuzzier
real question is: Are we talking about celebrating our religious
heritage, or are we promoting one particular religion over and against
others?" asks Jim Winkler, chief executive of the United Methodist Board
of Church and Society, which monitors social and government issues for
In the United Methodist Church, it depends on whom you ask.
believe the Ten Commandments offer a solution to a society in moral
decay, a beginning point for schools and all of society to help prevent
violent tragedies. They believe the commandments are the basis for all
laws, and that it's difficult to preach good citizenship when there is a
lack of respect for God and other human beings. They wonder why the
commandments should be "censored" simply because of their religious
fear such displays reduce God's word to tokenism or even idolatry. They
question whether posting the commandments will lead to greater
adherence to them. A more effective witness, they insist, would be
Christians everywhere obeying the Ten Commandments and living out their
faith authentically. They cite Deuteronomy 6:6-9, in which Moses tells
the Israelites to keep the commandments "in your heart … recite them to
your children, and talk about them when you are at home and when you are
appreciate the truth of the Bible, but nowhere in Scripture are we told
to make a graven image of the Ten Commandments and put them on
display," says the Rev. Gorman Houston Jr., pastor of Dauphin Way United
Methodist Church in Mobile, Ala. "There are many of us who are very
strong Christians who don't believe posting the Ten Commandments is a
very effective way, or even a biblical way, to address the issue of
is the son of the judge who replaced Roy Moore as chief justice of the
Alabama Supreme Court after Moore lost his job in 2003 for refusing to
remove a Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of Alabama's
judicial building. Houston's father issued the order to comply.
"Images don't make us a holy people," Houston says. "They just make us feel better about ourselves."
Glasgow, a United Methodist in Seaman, Ohio, couldn't disagree more. It
was her idea that led a private group to erect four monuments of the
Ten Commandments in 1997 at four new schools in Adams County, Ohio. A
court later ordered them removed.
the beginning, our government has acknowledged the living God and Jesus
as our savior, and that's what has made us strong. God has blessed our
country. Now we have a couple of generations that want to ignore this
foundation, and our country is fizzling because of it," says Glasgow,
83, a member of Seaman United Methodist Church.
people today don't go to church, don't get spiritual teachings and
don't even know what the Ten Commandments are," she says. "If they are
posted in public, at least people will know what they say."
Rev. Ken Johnson, Glasgow's pastor and president of Adams County for
Ten Commandments, blames a spiritually impoverished culture for violence
and other behavioral problems among U.S. schoolchildren.
wasn't our goal to post the Ten Commandments to encourage people to
become Christians," he says. "It's seeking a respect for God and respect
for each other. I think that's what's needed in our schools."
Up to the court
U.S. Supreme Court last ruled on the issue under the First Amendment in
1980, when it struck down a Kentucky law requiring displays in public
classrooms. The court said the law's purpose was "plainly religious in
nature." This time, another case from Kentucky and one from Texas are
|UMNS photo by Douglas F. Cannon
The Ten Commandments are posted outside the Texas Capitol in Austin.
arguments presented in March, several justices turned the discussion to
questions of national piety. "I think probably 90 percent of American
people believe in the Ten Commandments," said Justice Antonin Scalia,
even though "85 percent couldn't tell you what the ten are."
hope debate over the case becomes a serious discussion about what the
Ten Commandments mean in the lives of Christians.
need far less discussion of where the ten are to be situated and far
more discussion about how we are situated in relationship to them," says
the Rev. John Holbert, a professor at Perkins School of Theology in
Dallas and author of Preaching the Ten Commandments (Abingdon Press, 2002). "These basic claims have been far more honored by the tongue than by life."
an example, Holbert cites the third commandment against using God's
name wrongfully or, literally translated, using God's name "for
nothing." Holbert says the commandment is shattered any time God's name
is used as "the divine seal of approval" on what humans already have
decided out of expedience.
United Methodist leaders expect spirited debate on the case, they do
not believe it will become a divisive issue within the church.
sense that I have is that Americans do not want government to intrude
into areas of personal, moral and religious choices," says the Rev.
Larry Pickens, chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on
Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. "My hunch is that Americans
are more concerned with being free of state entanglement and able to
practice their faith without the compulsion or influence of government."
Joel N. Martinez, who presides over the Southwest Texas Conference
where the Texas case emerged, advises tolerance and understanding in
exploring such issues over which Christians genuinely disagree. "It
would be best … to proceed with caution," he says, "since we are an
increasingly diverse nation with many religious traditions."
*Aldrich is a freelance writer in Franklin, Tenn.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.