What Would Moses Do?
Copyright © 2005 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
Among their final rulings before adjourning for this term, the United States Supreme Court determined that the Ten Commandments could be displayed in some courtrooms but not others, depending on how explicitly proselytizing, as opposed to merely historical, such displays were. Thus, the plaques in Kentucky had to come down, whereas the granite monument in front of a Texas courthouse, probably one of those distributed circa 1960 by Cecil B. DeMille to publicize his movie The Ten Commandments, could stay.
Much vigorous debate ensued, pitting politicos, legal scholars, and even churchpeople against one another. If we part these roiled waters, however, we may discover that the issue really is, at bottom, moot. It is not just that this tiny portion of 2500-year-old Mosaic law is for the most part unenforceable under constitutional law, as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh has detailed. More significantly, the most red-faced, red-state Republican partisans of traditional values don’t even follow the commandments themselves. Let’s look at them one by one.
I. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. A genuine right wingnut can’t breathe the name of Ronald Reagan without breaking this commandment. We vividly remember sitting on a commuter train across the aisle from some parochial school teens and hearing one tell the others, “Reagan was God,” no doubt reflected his family’s faith. In our time we have seen this state-centered divinity pass to George the W. In the weeks surrounding the invasion of Iraq, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Lutheran Church, and other mouthpieces of God declared the pre-emptive war unjustified and unsanctified — perhaps even sinful. The Right, however, marched lockstep behind their Bush, burning for conquest.
II. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. Setting aside the strict interpretation of this rule we see in Islam, which classically forbids the artistic depiction of any animal or human, this is still one that self-styled conservatives violate all the time. Our national monuments are liberally studded with the images of presidents and military heroes, the divinities of our religion of State. Far worse — set the graven images on our currency up against the biblical directives to succor the sick, weak, and poor, and conservatives go for the money every time. Oh sure, there are committed evangelicals practicing charity in the Third World backwaters of Africa and Alabama, but the noisiest and most political of the wingnut flock praise the Creed but worship Greed.
III. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. Hell, anyone can see that our modern Pharisees have left this one in tatters. Every time they invoke God and religion — especially to justify obnoxious policies like offensive warfare, torture, and slashing aid to the needy — they violate this commandment. Pick up today’s newspaper and find your own example. Time to bring back stoning for blasphemy.
IV. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. There are still isolated communities with blue laws proscribing commerce on Sunday, generally places where the dominant businesses are thrift stores. But you have to look to socialist-labor states like Germany, where religious parties have allied themselves with workers, to find a work-free sabbath mandated by federal law. Our party of piety regards that as an abusive government interference in business (see II. above).
V. Honor thy father and thy mother. This commandment meant a lot in pre-industrial societies where one’s offspring provided the only security one could count on in old age. Perhaps if our sanctimonious greedheads ever succeed in dismantling Social Security and Medicare as we know them, not to mention the pension guarantees for private and public sector workers, they may give us all the opportunity to keep mom and/or dad as dependents again. Especially if one or both lose jobs or benefits prematurely due to downsizing. Typically, those who most publicize their piety want to privatize this responsibility.
VI. Thou shalt not kill. Do we even have to elaborate? Mass murder is a core doctrine of the Bush League and its minions — in their endorsement of war as its primary tool of foreign policy, in their lusty advocacy of the death penalty, in their hostility to any controls over weapons like handguns and automatic rifles designed solely for killing people. There is a grimly risible irony in the Supreme Court decision to keep the commandments in front of the Texas courthouse. This is Texas after all, which has been chastised repeatedly by this Supreme Court over its cavalier imposition of the death penalty. “Texas justice” has replaced “compassionate conservative” as the most blatant oxymoron of our time. The home state of W. and Tom “Scofflaw” DeLay lives by the creed that it is better to execute ten innocent men than to let one criminal go free.
Indeed, George himself started his bloody career, as governor and high executioner of that state, by blithely turning thumbs down on a number of souls. At least one, Jesse D. Jacobs, was publicly acknowledged as innocent by the D.A.s who had prosecuted him and who had already put his sister in prison for the murder in question. Nevertheless, on the advice of Bush’s legal counselor, Alberto Gonzalez, Jacobs was put to death in January 1995 on the grounds that, even though guiltless of the crime, he had had a fair trial-by Texas standards-and thus could be murdered legally.
VII. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Our current crop of Super-Christians takes sexual sins more seriously — or at least gives them more lip service — than any other kind. They complain far more about homosexuality, teen sex, and the scourge of birth control than, say, about the number of dead in Iraq. Of course, none of this has anything to do with adultery, per se. But who can forget their fulminations over Bill Clinton’s lapses, or the impeachment premised on that randy president having lied about his sex life?
Unfortunately, too many have forgotten the genuinely funny last chapter of the impeachment story, in which Republican leaders Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston got caught with their pants down, so to speak, and had to admit to adulterous relationships. They were joined by the self-righteous, if also adulterous, Republican Congresspeople Henry Hyde and Helen Chenowith and Bob Barr and… well, the news media grew glutted before the list could end.
Indeed, add televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert to the list and one perceives a long and hefty tradition among the concertedly faithful of breaking the Seventh Commandment. It is everybody’s Seventh Heaven.
VIII. Thou shalt not steal. Tell it to Ken Lay and all his sticky-fingered billionaire cronies at Enron, Worldcom, etc. — in short, to the multitude of fat cat burglars, caught and uncaught, who regularly raid stockholder dividends and employee pension funds to enrich themselves. Tell it to the corporate robber barons who fund politicians to make their crimes legal. Tell it to Kathryn Harris and Karl Rove and other manipulators of election results. Oh yes, and include the Thief-in-Chief they serve, who heads an administration controlled by those author David Brin aptly calls “kleptocrats.”
IX. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Or how about against veterans who served their country honorably like John McCain and John Kerry, both victims of Rove-inspired smear campaigns when they were running against George the W? Better yet, what about all the distorted and fabricated evidence used to justify the invasion of Iraq? Granted that Saddam Hussein himself did not deserve a break, the false witness obscured the real reason for attacking his suffering nation. He had accepted American support and weaponry during the earlier Reagan-Bush regime and then used it to kill people other than Iranians. And his country had something this administration badly wanted. Which brings us to the final commandment.
X. Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s house… nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.
Oil. Need we say more?
In short, the current fervor over the Ten Commandments is purely symbolic. Since the majority of their champions don’t even follow them, as stone monuments they’ll simply be taken for granite.