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Ten Commandments on display: civic need or religious token?

 


Ten Commandments on display: civic need or religious token?

May 25, 2005

A UMNS Feature
By Marta W. Aldrich*

In 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.

But 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 Administration.

Allen 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the Supreme Court that it is OK to display the Ten Commandments is by taking the position that (they) are merely a historical document and have no religious significance.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 position."

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

For 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.

But United Methodist leaders say that, in the realm of church-state relations, whether government can display the commandments is a fuzzier issue.

"The 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 the church.

In the United Methodist Church, it depends on whom you ask.

Some 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 origin.

Others 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 away."

"I 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 moral decline."

Houston 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."

Hang ten

Dorothy 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.

"From 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.

"Many 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."

The 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.

"It 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

The 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 under consideration.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
UMNS photo by Douglas F. Cannon

The Ten Commandments are posted outside the Texas Capitol in Austin.

During oral 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."

Theologians hope debate over the case becomes a serious discussion about what the Ten Commandments mean in the lives of Christians.

"We 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."

As 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.

While United Methodist leaders expect spirited debate on the case, they do not believe it will become a divisive issue within the church.

"The 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."

Bishop 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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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