Public schools should not post the Ten Commandments

Schools should post the Proclamation on the Family instead.

Now it’s true that several generations of American children went through years of schooling with the Ten Commandments posted on the wall and seem to have turned out reasonably well, or at least as well as can be expected from Generation Lead, the Me Generation, Generation Untreated PTSD and Generation Childhood Trauma, but there’s a meaningful distinction between “we’ve just always done this” and “after 60 years of First Amendment jurisprudence, now we’re going to stick it to the unbelievers.” I’ve sent my children to foreign schools where religion was more directly involved than we were used to (in Europe and South Carolina), and it really wasn’t that big of a deal. You just accept it as one of the quaint features of life in a foreign country. But “Hey, this isn’t your country, so deal with it” seems like the wrong message to send to Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, nones, and other citizens who don’t see the book of Exodus as divine revelation.

Also, have you read the Ten Commandments? Even among Christians, there’s disagreement about what it means to have no gods before God, to make graven images, to take God’s name in vain or which Sabbath day to keep holy (“disagreement” here spans the range from “subject of vigorous discussion” to “has led to religious warfare and execution of heretics”).

And has anyone thought about the consequences of posting “Thou shalt not commit adultery” in an easily readable font where first-graders can see it? I remember causing my Primary teacher some serious consternation for utterly mysterious reasons when I kept telling her that I did not understand what “thou shalt not commit adultery” means, and that none of her explanations were making any sense.

Of course, it’s also true that schools teach moral lessons and inculcate values, and the citizens who fund schools and the parents who send their children to them should have some say in what those values are, and “Trust us, we have Ed.D.s” hasn’t always worked out well. I just don’t think totemistic posting of the Ten Commandments is the right solution.

Instead, schools should post The Family: A Proclamation to the World. Look at the advantages:

  • Fifteen times as many prophets were involved.
  • Instead of some terse divine statements from roughly 3500 years ago, it’s a relatively recent document created in response to contemporary issues.
  • The Family Proclamation avoids a lot of interdenominational theological controversy. It mentions “God” a lot, of course, but doesn’t require creedal agreement about the nature of God or the definition of what constitutes a “graven image.” (The third paragraph, about the premortal realm and holy temples, may need a few footnotes, however.)
  • It mostly uses positive formulations instead of negative prohibitions. The Family Proclamation tells people to get married, have children, and be good spouses and parents, rather than just not stealing.
  • It offers useful guidance on how to get there. Instead of just telling people to “honor thy father and mother,” for example, the Proclamation on the Family lists specific ways to strengthen families, such as “respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.”
  • It addresses current issues of acknowledged importance. Providing a stable home for the next generation is serious business. Challenges to family formation or the discrepancy between the number of desired children and actual children born are real problems. In contrast, public debate over graven images has fallen off in recent centuries.
  • It’s a detailed statement in smaller type. Teachers won’t have to explain what “chastity” and “procreation” mean until students are at least in fourth grade.
  • It’s already formatted and available in small poster formats for public use.

Now, you may object that the lines about gender as an essential characteristic of eternal identity, fathers presiding in the home, and mothers having primary responsibility for nurturing children are incompatible with posting in schools. I disagree – I think these lines in particular will be well received in the states that are inclined to post the Ten Commandments.

It’s true that the Family Proclamation’s language about “marriage between a man and a woman” has been superseded (civically, at least) since Obergefell v. Hodges. But that shouldn’t present an insurmountable obstacle. If the Louisiana state legislature can remove phrases from Exodus 20 – words that were literally spoken by God and written in stone! – then it shouldn’t be an issue for other states or localities to drop lines from the Family Proclamation as needed to adapt it to public use. And unlike Moses, the apostles are available for consultation.

8 comments for “Public schools should not post the Ten Commandments

  1. My question with posting the 10 Commandments, does that mean that teachers are no longer allowed to use any visual media in schools? Are we authorizing 1st graders to become Iconoclasts and destroy the alphabet pictures that include apples, etc., since they could be considered graven images?

  2. I’d be more than happy to allow socially conservative states to post the Ten commandments, as long as they agreed to only vote for presidential candidates who actually kept them.

  3. Chad, not all Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions treat all images as sinful. We are only authorizing some first graders to destroy the posters in their classrooms.

  4. You think explaining adultery to a bunch of 1st graders is troublesome? Try telling a bunch of 8th grade boys why they shouldn’t covet their neighbor’s ass.

  5. To be clear, those first graders will be allowed, encouraged even, to destroy everyone’s posters. That’s religious freedom, right?

  6. You’ll have to be more specific than that, Lefthand. Do you mean schools should post the Ten Commandments, or that they shouldn’t post the Proclamation on the Family (suitably edited, of course)?

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