The Ten Suggestions?

The irony of the new Louisiana law placing the Ten Commandments in its public schools

The state of Louisiana would like us to believe that posting the Ten Commandments in school classrooms will cure the ills of society. 

Even though progressives like myself believe such would be an enormous violation of the separation of church and state to the detriment of both, we might pause to consider a few actual benefits that a fresh look at the ancient code could bring before we entirely dismiss it.

For starters, if we do consider this ancient law to be “Ten Commandments” and not “Ten Suggestions,” shouldn’t we expect our leaders to pay them more than lip service? How is it that the party promoting the Big Ten in public schools is represented at the top by the person most accused of being a serial violator of its provisions?

Would it also not be good to apply the prohibition on coveting a neighbor’s wife, manservant or maidservant (to use the language of the Louisiana law) to elected officials? (To covet, you just have to think it, right? Kind of like the way presidents declassify secret documents.) Webster defines “covet” as “to wrongly desire.” Boasting about grabbing body parts of women to a Hollywood reporter is about as wrongful as it gets. So when did breaking the Ten Commandments become no more than “locker room talk”?

And that leads us to the commandment against adultery. Shall we count the ways? In contrast to the commandment on bearing false witness, at least it might be possible when discussing a certain candidate to quantify the adulterous violations — perhaps.

The governor of Louisiana thinks the Ten Commandments would provide a good lesson for the state’s students. So let’s start with math. On each Louisiana classroom wall will be a poster no less than 11” x 14” stating “The Ten Commandments.”  Below 12 statements will be listed as stipulated by the state law.  

So maybe the first lesson for Louisiana teachers should be to explain how 12 equals 10.

Therein lies the biggest lie of the Louisiana law. They want us to accept that these 12 statements are the one and the same Big Ten etched into stone and handed down by Moses. They are etched into stone all right, not in the Holy Land but in Texas (sorry, not the same thing), and not from Moses but from the Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE).  

Here is the irony. The version that Louisiana law adopts comes not from any ancient text, but from a monument displayed near the Texas state house that was part of promotion of a Cecil B. de Mille movie organized by the FOE of which de Mille was one of its biggest members.  

This is a problem for any number of reasons beyond numerical, not the least of which is that it grossly cheapens the sacred tradition and leaves out some of its more important lessons.  

One example. The scriptural version of the Ten Commandments found in the book of Exodus tells us the reason for honoring our parents as this: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” 

Understanding that text, what it does and does not mean, gets us to the heart of the heart-breaking war occurring there today. That explanation, however, is missing from the FOE version put into Louisianan law.

The lesson for us in this country, where we live on the lands of Native people, would be to examine how that belief of a God-given land morphed into the Doctrine of Discovery to give European explorers absolute rights over the lands of Native peoples as a divine directive. 

I’d like to be in that room where Louisiana students sit down with the elders of the Chitimacha Tribe, the last Native people of Louisiana to still live in a portion of their original homeland, to discuss what that commandment means to them.

And perhaps even more appalling is that in justifying the need for this law condemning false witness, it falsely gives witness to James Madison, citing a quote that has been widely disproven to be his and which runs counter to his well-established support for the separation of church and state. 

To wit, in 1785 Madison published a strong opposition to a proposed Virginia law that would have provided public support for the teachers of “Christian religion.” In it, he wrote that rulers who violate the separation of powers necessary to protect the rights of the people “exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants.”  

Indeed, it is to avoid tyranny that separation of church and state is essential. The Louisiana law is not.

 Dan Bryant is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a resident of Eugene since 1991. The opinions in this column are his own and do not represent any organization with which he is affiliated. 

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