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Mar 1 2005
Opinion: Cracked logic and the Ten Commandments

Cracked logic and the Ten Commandments

Tue Mar 1, 8:06 AM ET Op/Ed -

By Gerald L. Zelizer

"One reason the Ten Commandments were selected for this monument is because, in fact ... they unite us. Jews, Christians, Muslims, all revere them equally."

That's how the Rev. Robert Schenck, reacting to the removal of a monument depicting the commandments from a judiciary building in Montgomery, Ala., explained their importance during a PBS interview. Schenck has spearheaded a campaign to display the commandments in public buildings.

Judge Roy Moore, who as chief justice of Alabama installed the 5,300-pound statue in the judicial rotunda, said the commandments are the "moral basis of our law."

Despite such assertions, displaying the commandments in the public square does more to divide than to unite. Their meaning is so diverse in each faith that an underlying, shared truth and morality is not achievable.

Like the monument he defended, Moore was removed from his post after defying a federal judge's order to remove the carving. But his case inspired local officials nationwide to display the commandments and force lawsuits to remove them. In fact, though the Supreme Court refused to hear Moore's appeal, on Wednesday it will hear two cases on whether displaying the commandments on government property violates the First Amendment.

One case concerns a display, about 6 feet high and 3 feet wide, on public property between the Texas State Capitol and the Texas Supreme Court. The lower courts allowed the monument to remain.

The second deals with a privately donated display of the commandments in a Kentucky courthouse, along with secular documents such as the Magna Carta that played a role in the development of American law. The lower courts ordered the commandments' removal.

Though not a divine ruling, the Supreme Court's decision will at least settle the legal debate. But the dispute will not be fully reconciled until religions acknowledge more than legalisms: The specific commandments mean different things to different people. As such, they are not heard as a universal voice.

For starters: How many?

Beyond the nuances of interpretation, religions can't even agree on something as fundamental as numbering the commandments. Because there are actually 13 separate statements, each religion arrives at 10 by either ruling some out - for instance, saying that No. 1 is just a preface - or combining others.

When it comes to understanding the spiritual meaning of words, the conflict is even sharper. For instance, the essence of who God is isn't solved in the First Commandment, "I am the Lord Thy God."

Who is the "I"? To Muslims, Allah; to Jews, Jahweh; to Christians, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The core, underlying theology of God in each phrase is distinctive and even contradictory of the others. Some religions do not recognize the commandments at all.

A billboard off the New Jersey Turnpike highlights Islam's core principles, such as compassion and charity. Imagine if Muslims, one of the fastest-growing religions in this country, were to plaster Islamic values on public buildings. Christians and Jews would rightfully complain that these principles, however noteworthy, should remain within the teaching of mosques.

In the 1950s, Cecil B. DeMille's film The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston as Moses, ignited its own movement. Jenna Weisman Joselit, who is researching a book on America's relationship with the commandments, says advocates for public posting, inspired by the film, argued that their display would stem juvenile delinquency.

Today's proponents offer a different, but perhaps just as dubious, justification: a common morality and truth for all Americans.

People of faith should lead

The real impact of the commandments is only within each house of worship. On the public wall or in a judicial rotunda, their message is as useless as a billboard that reads, "Buy healthy food," without advocating a specific diet.

God is in the details.

Irrespective of legal issues now before the Supreme Court, the faith community should restore some sense by lobbying to end this religious exhibitionism in the public square. Pushing the Ten Commandments onto public sites divides us, when expressions of religion in public should unite us.

That unity will occur only when these spectacles are moved out of the town square and into the private space of each church, synagogue and mosque.

Gerald L. Zelizer, rabbi of Neve Shalom, a Conservative congregation in New Jersey, is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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