The Ten Commandments as the Distillation of Tribal Morality

What to make of the continued efforts by the religious conservatives to impose the Ten Commandments onto schoolchildren and passerby in America’s courtrooms? Which part of the First Amendment don’t they understand? Some part presumption and some part ignorance and some part tribal motivations — the need to impose one’s one ideology/story/narrative on others. Two items today.

First: The governor of Louisiana, Republican Jeff Landry, signed a bill that requires the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools. Moreover, he brags that he “can’t wait to be sued” as others who’ve tried to do this have (and lost).

Hemant Mehta makes the first obvious observation.

Friendly Atheist, 20 Jun 2024: Louisiana will be sued over new law forcing Ten Commandments display in classrooms

The bill specifies the language for the Commandment to be posted:

The Ten Commandments
I AM the LORD thy God.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven images.
Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
Thou shalt not kill.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Thou shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.

Note they are not numbered. And there are more than ten. Who’s the genius behind this bill? More to the point, as Hemant explains:

Even beyond that, there are different translations of the Bible used by different kinds of Christians, and the Ten Commandments may change depending on which version you use. (For example, some say not to worship graven images; others say not to worship false idols. Those are not synonymous.) So to say that only one version of the Ten Commandments can go up in schools isn’t just an admission that the government doesn’t care about non-Christians. It’s an admission that the government doesn’t care about most kinds of Christians either.

There are *different* versions of the commandments, in various places in the Bible, never mind the different translations of the Bible.

Further, as I’ve mentioned before, several of these commandments are *not* in fact instantiated into modern law, as Landry’s rationale (“If you want to respect the rule of law, you’ve got to start from the original lawgiver, which was Moses.”) implies.

Mehta goes on with the every-day exceptions to these commandments, for example,

“Thou shalt not kill” ought to be pretty straightforward, but Louisiana is currently trying to expand its options for the death penalty in order to allow for more state-sanctioned murders. Horton herself has said rapists should be executed, adding “I’d love to hang them from the highest tree.” While no one is sympathizing with rapists, her blood-lust is apparent. And the Republicans in elected office clearly don’t care about the “Thou shalt not bear false witness” one since they reflexively defend Donald Trump’s every lie.

The answer of course — though not mentioned in the two articles linked today — is that these commandments were *tribal*. They only applied to members of the tribe aligned with this Hebrew god. It was fine to kill outsiders, and the Old Testament is full of massacres of rival tribes. And apparently, with modern Republicans, it’s fine to “bear false witness” if doing so is in the service of promoting tribal dominance over others. This is all pretty obvious, once you step outside your cultural bubble, and think about how the world might make sense in ways other than through the stories told to you as a child.


The second item I’m linking to on this subject is from NYT opinion columnist David French, who acknowledges that “I’m an evangelical Christian who believes in God and the divine inspiration of Scripture,” which might surprise those NYT skeptics who think the paper is a bastion of anti-religious, leftist or woke, sentiment.

NY Times, David French, 20 Jun 2024: Thou Shalt Not Post the Ten Commandments in the Classroom [shared link]

He opens with this summary of the situation so far.

There is a certain irony in the bravado about the Ten Commandments from Gov. Jeff Landry of Louisiana. On Saturday he told attendees at a Republican fund-raiser, “I can’t wait to be sued.” Clearly, he knows that the Supreme Court previously ruled against mandatory displays of the Ten Commandments in the classroom. In a 1980 case, Stone v. Graham, the Supreme Court struck down a Kentucky law that required the posting of the Ten Commandments, purchased through private donations, in every public school classroom in the state.

A Louisiana law requiring the display of the Ten Commandments in every public classroom in the state defies this precedent, so, yes, the state will be sued.

And indeed, I’ve seen news items today about lawsuits brought against Louisiana. I’m curious to think how Landry thinks he can defy them. Perhaps he assumes God will take care of him.

But Landry’s comments didn’t stop with bravado. He also said something else. “If you want to respect the rule of law,” he told the guests, “you’ve got to start from the original lawgiver, which was Moses.”

Arguably, he’s wrong based on the historical chronology: Hammurabi’s Code appeared about 350 years before Moses supposedly lived. And according to that link, even earlier codes are known.

But the main point is that humanity’s “laws” weren’t handed down from gods; those laws were recorded by ancient civilizations as distillations of tribal morality that had *evolved* over millions of years, as a component of human nature, which survives to this day.

But the killer line in French’s piece is the next sentence:

To teach respect for the rule of law, he’s defying the Supreme Court? That’s an interesting message to send to students.

Because, I think, the evangelicals place themselves above the mundane rule of law. Thinking they have a higher cause. As so many other religions around the world do.

French ends, completing the quote I supplied earlier:

I’m an evangelical Christian who believes in God and the divine inspiration of Scripture, but I do not believe that documents radiate powers of personal virtue. I happened to grow up in Kentucky and went to classes before the Ten Commandments were ordered removed, and I can testify that the displays had no impact on our lives. My classmates and I were not better people because of the faded posters on the walls.

There’s a basic principle here: scolds and moralist try to restrict human behavior, but human nature will always prevail.

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