The Ten Commandments have been in the news recently, and their supporters batted .500 victory in two decisions before the Supreme Court. The debate over their display focuses upon the separation of the Church and State, implying that the issue is mainly a symbolic one—not one over their meaning. In disputes like this, however, one should always go back to the basic text. The Commandments are a fascinating cultural document, not least because several of them have proven so impossible to keep even in the most devout eras, and we should analyze the debate over their display in the context of their text. Several of them do, in fact, relate to the most profound divisions in our society today, and raise the question of whether we are going to try to roll back some of the cultural advances of the last forty years. The Bible includes, in fact, three different versions of the Commandments, but I shall use the first one, which begins at Exodus 20:1, from the King James Bible, Revised Standard Version.
1. I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
I have long had the intention, for cultural and historical reasons, of thoroughly studying the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, but I have yet to carry it out. This, however, does strike me as one of many indications in the text that the Old Testament God does not claim to be the only God, merely the only one to whom the Hebrews should pay attention. More importantly, however, this commandment may easily be read to establish religion, rather than politics, as the supreme value, and it therefore bears directly on our current cultural and political debates. Our Founding Fathers, clearly, did not accept religion as the supreme value, and therefore wrote the Constitution without any reference to a deity at all.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
Since men and women love beauty and create beauty out of love, this has been one of the most impossible commandments to keep. Only the most extreme Judeo-Christian sects, such as 17th-century Puritans (who, of course, helped found the American colonies), have taken it seriously. The rest have created numerous images of both earth and heaven, many of which still excite and comfort us after many centuries. This was a commandment to people not to be human, and it has, therefore, been honored in the breech. It is one of the ones that reminds me of Sgt Warden in From Here to Eternity, who explained to his company commander’s wife (whom he was about to seduce) that he had decided not to believe in sin because he did not think God would damn his creations for giving in to hungers he had put into them. “He might penalize them fifteen yards for clipping,” he said, “but he wouldn’t stop the ball game.” This commandment, in any case, has almost no relevance to the ways that human beings have, and do, live their lives.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
As late as 45 years ago, popular entertainment, including movies and television, observed this commandment. The pendulum is swinging back, I shall be surprised if I see it go that far in my lifetime. In any case, men and women have never gotten through stressful situations without swearing, and this commandment, too, seems to be an order to exercise superhuman self-control.
4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.
This commandment has received far more respect over the centuries, but now, under the relentless pressure of the market, it has fallen away. This, I have argued before, represents a deterioration in the quality of American life. Not only Sunday, but nearly every major holiday, has become a working day for many millions of Americans who toil in retail trade. Were today’s religious right willing to make more of an issue of this I would be glad to make common cause with them. To me, to be fair, this is more of a question of honoring our own needs than honoring the deity; but this, still, is one of the principles in the tablets that we should, in my opinion, respect.
5. Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
About twenty years ago I was introduced to the Swiss psychoanalyst and author Alice Miller, whose books (most notably Thou Shalt not be Aware and For Your Own Good) show how much harm this commandment has done. Many of our mothers and fathers do not deserve much honor, and not a few have done more harm than good. Ignoring or denying what our parents may have done to us, as this commandment orders, is a crippling psychological burden. It has been the great cultural change of the last forty years or so that so many people’s eyes have been opened to that point. To religious fundamentalists of all kinds, who rely upon unquestioning obedience to authority, this commandment is, on the other hand, fundamental. They rely upon respect for parents, along with respect for religion, to keep the younger generation in line. The current White House, moreover, portrays itself like a traditional father—omnipotent, omniscient, and incapable of error. More than any other, this commandment straddles the great fault line between those who believe in the personal liberation of the last forty years and those who do not.
6. Thou shalt not kill.
This is, probably, the least arguable of all the commandments, since no organized society can survive broad permission to kill. It expressed a fundamental respect for human life. Yet many fundamentalists, of course, fervently support the death penalty, and some religions even replace the word “kill” with “murder.” Absolute pro-lifers, who oppose capital punishment as well as murder, are not that common, except inside the Catholic Church, for which this is official doctrine. Sadly, we have not outgrown our need for vengeance, so amply documented throughout the Old Testament and in human history.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
While surveys still show that high percentages of married folk still violate this commandment, few societies have taken it as seriously as the United States, and while tolerance for divorce has certainly grown dramatically here, tolerance for adultery has not. Marriage, Tocqueville observed 170 years ago, was a very serious matter in the United States, and in our own way it still is. Even our gay population now seems more than willing to trade a measure of freedom for respectability—but fundamentalists do not want to give them that right.
8. Thou shalt not steal.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
I have lumped these two together because they strike me, simply, as basic rules essential to the functioning of almost any society—even though we need very complex legal systems to try to enforce them, and even though much of the legal profession, one could argue, is engaged in violating (8) without violating the law.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.
And this last commandment expresses the curse of western civilization: the idea that certain feelings are unworthy, dangerous, and must be stamped out. It is of all of them perhaps the most impossible to keep, and it is probably the one that we waste the most energy trying to keep. Feelings, as more traditional societies sometimes understood, do not kill; we need only to find safe outlets for them. Envy and jealousy, about which Nancy Friday has written a truly remarkable book, are fundamental emotions we all have.
We have come here to the crux of our cultural debate, best epitomized in the argument over gay marriage and gay rights. The opponents of gay marriage, as a recent New York Times magazine showed very clearly, know very well that homosexual feelings exist, but they regard them as temptations of the devil against which all means must be employed. To legalize gay marriage will encourage their children to act upon them, and this must be stopped. A few weeks ago, the Boston gay weekly, Bay Windows, featured a very provocative article by Laura Kiritsky, who had surveyed anti-gay web sites and found them obsessed with, and filled with links to, the most extreme forms of gay sex. “One has to ask,” she wrote, “Who are the perverts here?” The opposite view, which I share, holds that a minority of us are gay, and it won’t hurt those of us who aren’t to let them follow their impulses. It didn’t bother my children to know, in high school, that a few of their classmates were gay. If anything I think it made them feel more secure in their own orientation.
The fundamentalist movement and the Ten Commandments both strive to make human beings something other than they are. That is, in fact, a fundamental aspect of western civilization, and quite probably the aspect responsible for the dominance of western civilization over so much of the world. Western man has been trying, for many centuries, to escape himself—an addiction in the literal sense, since the quest never ends. Even rationalism is an attempt to escape ourselves, since we are, at bottom, driven more by our feelings than our brain. During the last four decades many of us have learned that we do not have be constantly striving to be other than we are, that feelings do not kill, and that we can forgive ourselves for being human. Those are the conclusions that the fundamentalist movement is desperately trying to resist. Sadly, so far, no one is articulating the opposite position with comparable force.