“We post the Ten Commandments in our school,” said the principal to a church full of people, “as part of a historical display.” Vigorous applause swept through the gathering as he turned to me and said, “We have good lawyers.”
I doubt that, I said silently to myself, thinking no lawyer could be good who advises a client to violate federal law.
My baccalaureate address, square in the middle of “Ten Commandment Country,” had spoken to the issue of church and state, religion and politics, Christian faith and American law.
“Sometimes,” I said, “we think judges trample our rights and distort the law when they tell us that certain prayers, readings, and displays violate the ‘free exercise of religion.’ But protecting the rights of minorities is an important element of the American way.”
It did not connect well with the people, although they were exceedingly polite and gracious at the reception that followed.
I understand why people of faith want to hang the Ten Commandments, and it is a good reason.
The moral climate in our nation is depressing: child abuse at church, corporate greed on Wall Street, steroids at the ballpark, drugs in the mountains, violence at the polls, profanity on the television, and oral sex at middle school parties. What to do?
Posting the Ten Commandments is a protest against this erosion of self discipline and social decency. It is a symbolic act, declaring a desire to stem the tide of immorality that seems to overwhelm the righteous spirit of the American people. I have much sympathy with such sentiments.
There are ways, however, to display the Commandments that do not violate the law, and yet still generate real potential for social and spiritual change. In fact, the Bible itself, while silent about court houses and school houses, names three places where the Commandments ought to be—three places out of the reach of any district magistrate or federal judge.
“Write them on the doorpost of your house and on your gates,” God said to the people, according to Deuteronomy chapter six.
Jewish people obey this directive by attaching a small metal container, called a mezuzah, to the door jam of their home, touching it each time they enter or exit. This highlights the private residence, as opposed to public buildings, as the prime location for hanging the Commandments.
Scripture on the wall at home is not a bad idea. A wonderful adaptation of the ancient doorpost tradition is the high school fad in some parts of the nation of hanging a Ten Commandments card on the school locker, a practice known as “Hang Ten.”
Second, the Bible also tells us to “bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.”
In other words, carry the Commandments with you in some form or fashion. Many Jewish people fulfill this regulation with small leather boxes that they attach by leather straps to their heads and arms when they pray. They are called phylacteries, which are not to be confused with something very different but with an equally odd name, prophylactics (otherwise known as condoms, whose wholesale distribution to young people is another sorry sign of moral confusion).
At the baccalaureate, I urged the students to treasure the small, orange book handed to them by the Gideons as they entered the church. It was a copy of the New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs; and although these texts do not contain the Ten Commandments, they do have enough good stuff to inspire the students to lives of service to God and the community.
It was from these small, orange books that we read together of the third place to post the Commandments of God: “I will hide the word in my heart that I might not sin against God.”
The human memory is, of course, the most important place where the Commandments of God need to be placed; and not only the Commandments, but also the promises and the prayers, the stories and the assurances. For it is from the memory that these precious words can be drawn when, far from the school house, the court house, and even the church house, we find ourselves, like Martin Burnham in a Philippine jungle, in desperate need of a word from the Lord.
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.