I bring you ten - no, five - Commandments

Jonah Goldberg
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Posted: Aug 29, 2003 12:00 AM

It's probably too late, now that Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's monument to the Ten Commandments has been wheeled out of the state Supreme Court's rotunda. But I have the perfect solution for this whole brouhaha. Ultimately, the spat launched by Moore is a political controversy. So let's do the political thing: compromise. If the ACLU et al. won't accept Ten Commandments, how about five?

Surely "Thou shall not steal" doesn't bother anybody. If it did, the ACLU would be suing to have laws against theft repealed (I know, I know: Don't give them any ideas). And a prohibition against bearing false witness shouldn't raise eyebrows now that Clinton's out of office.

Honoring thy father and mother is still considered "uncool" by much of the Hollywood crowd, but, really, where's the harm? And covetousness - at least in the forms of greed and materialism - has always been one of the left's biggest peeves, so no problems there. Also, going by the left's rhetoric on war and the death penalty alone, I have to assume they're not going to complain about the whole "Thou shall not kill" thing.

Hey, look at that, that's five right there.

Yeah, of course, we'd be giving up some good ones. "Thou shall not commit adultery" would hit the cutting room floor. But that one's been on the way out since the 1990s, anyway.

Let's admit it: The "No graven images" commandment was always confusing. And, depending on whose version of the Ten Commandments you're fond of (the wording, meaning and numbering of the Big Ten varies from faith to faith), we've been ignoring it for a long time already.

We even made a graven image of sorts - the film, "The Ten Commandments" - depicting God telling Moses not to make any such images. Perhaps the more appropriate movie reference here is Mel Brooks' "The History of the World, Part I," in which Brooks plays Moses coming down from Mount Sinai. He declares, "I bring you these 15 ." - and then he drops one tablet, breaking it - "Ten! I bring you these Ten Commandments."

Anyway, the church-and-state zealots only really get peeved about the commandments mentioning God. In most versions, that's only the first four. Commandments 5 through 10 are generally rules on how people should treat each other.

So, if we take black electrical tape and cross out the commandments dealing with His existence ("I am the Lord thy God ."; "Thou shall keep the Sabbath ." etc.) at least everyone will get something. To paraphrase Solomon: Let's cut the baby in half.

Of course, both sides would be furious at my Solomonic suggestion. But that fury would be instructive. Yes, the folks praying outside the Alabama courthouse would fairly complain that God's Word cannot be abridged like a Reader's Digest story. But they'd really be angry because their favorite parts had been cut out.

Meanwhile, the hired-gun atheists and hypersecularist lawyers who've descended on Alabama would be irate because God would still be the Man behind the curtain. They'd still be His Commandments, just a politically correct condensed version. And any public hint that our laws are derived from God drives such people bonkers.

Justice Moore recently argued in The Wall Street Journal that all sides of this debate agree that the central question here is whether the state can acknowledge God. And Justice Moore wins this narrow argument hands down. Our money, our official oaths, our state seals, our Pledge of Allegiance, most of our constitutions - state and federal - make direct or indirect reference to the God in whom we trust and swear by.

The Alabama Constitution itself appeals to the "favor and guidance of Almighty God." Our presidents start their terms by swearing, with one hand on a Bible, "So help me God," and end their farewell speeches saying, "God bless America."

But, the role of God is not the only issue here. Justice Moore is wrong is when he decided that being right empowered him to break the law by defying federal courts. I think the Feds should have stayed out of all this. But they didn't. And Justice Moore was obliged to obey a judicial order.

Still, I like my Five Commandments idea. It would teach an important lesson that gets lost in the pro- and anti-God talk. Whether you like it or not, the Ten Commandments, in whatever form, are not only the backbone of Judaism and Christianity they are the seed stock of our legal system. Wishing that our laws were conceived by Fabian Socialists will not make it so.

As a constitutional matter, Justice Moore might have gotten away with his monument if he'd placed it alongside a nice plaque or bauble paying homage to the Code of Hammurrabi and, say, the Magna Carta. Why? Because that would make the monument "educational" instead of "religious." And, I have to assume it's still constitutional to teach the truth - even if God accidentally shows up somewhere in the lesson plan.