Food For Thought

Remove the Ten Commandments? 

Alabama courthouse drama apparently more 

politically than spiritually motivated

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

I’ve learned one thing for certain in writing this column — if I want to get response mail, then I write about religion or politics. In past articles, I’ve supported school prayer or at least a moment of reflection. I also supported recitation of the pledge of allegiance and the use of the phrase “God bless America” in public schools. Some will then wonder why I agree with the decision to move the Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of an Alabama courthouse to a less prominent place in the building.

I was concerned when I first heard that the Ten Commandments were being removed from the building. When more facts came to light, I realized that the monument and its secretive night-time placement were apparently done more for political reasons rather than to provide the public with a historical perspective of the basis for the laws of this country. So I have to oppose the way the monument was placed in the courthouse, while supporting the concepts exemplified by the words inscribed on the monument.

The Ten Commandments are displayed in the United States Supreme Court as part of a historical presentation, along with other artifacts. Lincoln’s second inaugural address is carved in the wall of the Lincoln Memorial and relies heavily on theology. Few have demonstrated against these words and their placement in federal buildings. How you say something is as important as what you say. Often in my own personal life, I’ve been told that I had support for the basis of a concept, but people voted against the concept because of how I presented the idea. I had a favorite saying when speaking with my students: “You can say almost anything to me as long as you’re smiling when you say it.” 

Before writing this column, I took time to research the historical origins of the Ten Commandments. I assume many of us have this vision of Moses, played by Charles Heston, receiving the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai. My academic mind and research lead me to believe that the Ten Commandments, as we now know them, evolved along a path more complex than most of us realize. My research revealed that the Bible doesn’t contain the Ten Commandments in present-day form. Moses reveals the Ten Commandments in both the Book of Exodus and the Book of Deuteronomy. They are not in today’s popular list form, but in general cover the concepts we now look at as the Ten Commandments. I will leave this topic to the religious scholars to debate in full.

The first four of the commandments center on a religious belief in God. They are — no other gods, no graven images, don’t use the Lord’s name in vain, and remember the Sabbath. The commandments to honor thy father and mother and against coveting are founded in both social and criminal law. The remaining commandments, without question, are a foundation for the laws of our judicial system. It is difficult to believe that the first four commandments don’t exist when judges and juries make their final decisions on guilt or innocence. Judges still use the swearing-in-phrase, “to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”  Wal-Mart may open on Sunday, but I doubt if we will ever hold court on Sunday. Certainly that historical exclusion was influenced by religion.  

I received a form for jury duty this month, which I completed and returned. In talking with a very prominent commonwealth’s attorney at a recent political event, I mentioned the survey and that I seldom get called to a jury because of my profession. He laughed and stated certain groups like educators and social workers have a difficult time getting through the selection process. Too liberal, I guess, for the prosecution. Nothing in the survey ever asked if I believed in God or if I would let that belief and associated teachings influence my decisions. Those who need a monument at the front door to help them determine the correct and just decision shouldn’t be on a jury. The participants in the trial should be prepared intellectually, socially, and spiritually before entering the courtroom. I would not support a monument of the Ten Commandments erected at the door of every school, although I personally believe they are the best set of rules for life on this earth. 

A prominent atheist contends that our heritage was not founded on a strong religious base because only 20 percent of the early founders attended church. I would surmise that a like number would hold true for regular church attendees today. Many people believe in the existence of a higher power but don’t attend church on a regular basis. There’s no question in my mind that this country’s founding centered on a strong belief in God. 

We are becoming a much more diverse nation. The reality of living in a culture that has truly different views on religion is upon us. In my own family, two of my children have married outside their Catholic faith, to a Methodist and an Episcopalian. My friends and fellow workers are of many faiths and from many countries. My son and daughter-in-law are in the process of adopting a child from South Korea. The face of this nation is becoming less monolithic with each passing decade.

In church this week, Father Ciliniski’s homily, based on Mark 7:1-8,14-15, 21-23, emphasized that what is formulated from within a person should take prominence over that seen from the outside. I contend that clothes really don’t make the man if the man doesn’t exist in the first place. Placing the Ten Commandments in the rotunda for all to see does little if those who enter haven’t already prepared themselves for the task ahead.

 

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to: jbonfadi@gmu.edu, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.

 

 

 

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