When I saw yesterday’s Non Sequitur cartoon, it reminded me of something that I run up against regularly in class:
For today’s students, the Ten Commandments have always been ten “recommendations” or “suggestions.” No matter how strongly they were ingrained in them from an early age, they have not had the status of law – apart from those universals on which human legal codes consistently overlap, prohibiting murder and theft, for instance.
But it is typically a challenge for students, and indeed any modern readers who have not looked into the subject in detail, to think about the Ten Commandments as ten key laws by which the nation of the Israelites was to live, and by which they were to be governed.
The different context in which Americans live today, one in which religious freedom is sacrosanct, means that the Ten Commandments in their entirety could not become law. The first one or two (depending how you number them) are unconstitutional, requiring one religion and prohibiting others. That is the opposite of not making a law with respect to establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
And so even when most Americans today talk about the Ten Commandments, they may be talking about the same words as are found in the Bible. But because of the changed context, the meaning and significance of those words is very different. Few, if any, are advocating that the Ten Commandments should not merely be important to people, but have the significance as law that they apparently had for ancient Israelites.