(OPINION) A recent — albeit unsuccessful — attempt to require Texas public schools to post the Ten Commandments put those commandments back into national headlines for the umpteenth time.
I started covering religion in 1990. For three decades, the commandments have regularly resurfaced as a source of contention between those — generally, conservative Christians — who want religion to play a greater role in public life and those who think religion and public institutions should shy away from each other.
I mainly adhere to the separation of church and state, including public schools. History demonstrates that whenever you intertwine religion and any public institution too closely, you end up corrupting both entities.
Texas lawmakers were scheduled to vote in late May on whether to require the Ten Commandments to be posted in every Texas classroom. That bill was one of a half-dozen pro-religion bills before the House that had already been approved by the Texas Senate.
But a crucial deadline went by without a vote on the commandments bill, meaning it didn’t pass — this time.
Trust me: It’ll come around again, not only in Texas but elsewhere.
Efforts nationwide to ramp up the mixing of religion and state are currently more numerous and aggressive than they’ve been for years, observed Michelle Boorstein, the Washington Post’s excellent religion writer.
“Americans United for Separation of Church and State says it is watching 1,600 bills around the country in states such as Louisiana and Missouri,” she wrote recently. “Earlier this year, Idaho and Kentucky signed into law measures that could allow teachers and public school employees to pray in front of and with students while on duty.”
Back to the Ten Commandments specifically: I’ve never comprehended why Christians are so adamant about them.
There’s no evidence that hanging the commandments on school walls curbs rowdy youthful hormones. As a tool for improving schoolkids’ behavior, that’s a zero.
Also, the commandments aren’t even a Christian document, really. They’re a Jewish document. Yes, they’re in Christians’ Bibles, but for us they were superseded by the New Testament.
If you absolutely felt compelled to post something Christian, why wouldn’t you post something straight from the lips of Jesus himself?
Perhaps the Beatitudes. They’re the opening to Jesus’ revolutionary Sermon on the Mount, arguably the most influential spiritual message ever preached.
There are nine Beatitudes. That makes them numerically similar to the Ten Commandments, yet more succinct. You could save a bit of space.
Here’s how they go:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Oddly, I’ve never heard any Christian activist argue in favor of posting the Beatitudes on schoolhouse walls. And they’re the foundational rules of our faith.
They cut past all the legalistic externals of standard religion to lay open the hidden struggles of human hearts. They praise the lowly and suffering, while implicitly rebuking the rich and smug.
I know I can’t judge other people’s motives. Still, I suspect that some of those yelling loudest for the Ten Commandments are less interested in enlightening people’s souls than in beating them into submission. The commandments have become a talisman — a stand-in, a code for asserting one’s own supposed superiority over heathens (whoever those unlucky folks might be).
As I wrote last year, the commandments weren’t meant for giving heathens beatings.
But if you read them in a certain way, they’ll serve that purpose, and that’s how they’ve often been employed.
By contrast, there’s no way to turn the Beatitudes into a cudgel. That may be the problem for some activists.
Disconcertingly, these rules point us to the virtues of spiritual poverty, grief, gentleness, mercy and peacemaking.
There’s not a political advantage to be gained with that message. The Beatitudes tell us the way to true righteousness is never through temporal power but through brokenness, humility and selflessness.
Who wants to fool around with such uncomfortable stuff as that when you could instead slam your opponents with “thou shalt nots” and feel great about yourself?