American Atheist Home

Magazine Home

Print Edition

On Target!



Web Supplement

American Atheists

Flash Line


What's New


On Target

A Not-So-Modest Proposal --

by Conrad F. Goeringer
May 27, 2020

“It’s the Ten Commandments -- not the 10 Suggestions ... When God says it, it has the moral authority of the creator of the Universe...”
-- Pat Robertson

Ever since a series of Supreme Court cases ended the practice of compelling youngsters to recite prayers or verses from the Bible during the school day, a debate has raged throughout American culture over the role of sacred texts and symbols in the public square.

Much of the acrimony in recent years has focused on the volatile issue of displaying the Ten Commandments in classrooms, courthouses and other buildings identified with the power and authority of the state. The Decalogue is cited as reminders of the alleged “religious origins” of American society, or a prophylaxis against a rising tide of juvenile lawlessness and social disfunction. No sooner had the shootings at Columbine High School ended than Rep. Bob Barr (R- GA.) suggested that posting the Commandments may have stopped the teenage gunmen from their bloody killing spree. In Alabama, former Etowah County Judge Roy Moore belligerently defended his decision to display a hand-carved plaque representing the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, and parleyed his image as a sort of religious populist into successfully being elected as the state’s Chief Justice.

Congress has gotten into the act as well. Those “conservatives” who boast of their skepticism regarding big government and the intrusive powers of the state display a penchant for abandoning any ideological consistency when religious groups and practices are involved. In 1999, the House of Representative passed a measure encouraging states to promote the display of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. The measure was grandly dubbed “The Ten Commandments Defense Act,” and sponsored by a vocal supporter of Judge Moore, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-ALA). Arguing passionately for the legislation, Aderholt took to the Congressional floor and blustered that the nation “was founded upon Judeo-Christian principles.” He reminded those of us questioning the constitutionality of such state-sponsored religious cheerleading, “We have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”

While display of the Commandments has been cited as a potent instrument in fostering respect for legal and moral values, this seems not be the case with a number of school districts and Decalogue display supporters who have become defiant, even rabble-rousing over the issue.

Five public schools in eastern Kentucky thought they might circumvent a Supreme Court ruling concerning the display of the Commandments by allowing “volunteers” to post and maintain copies of the Decalogue in school classrooms. This was their way of attempting a shabby legal end-run around the historic STONE v. GRAHAM decision rendered by the high court in 1980, which coincidentally found a Kentucky statute mandating display of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms to be blatantly unconstitutional. The justices, seeming to anticipate many of the arguments floated by Commandments supporters, noted that they were “an undeniably sacred text” and “do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one’s parents, killing or murder...

Pat Robertson, the man who founded the Christian Coalition and has declared America’s need to install a Christian government founded upon his version of godly religious principles, is also a blustery supporter of displaying the Commandments. He compares the culture war over displaying the Decalogue to a populist revolution, and during an broadcast of his popular “700 Club” program informed viewers:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to say this very clearly. If the people of the United States -- all across America, in their churches and in their civic groups and in their legislatures -- decide that they’re not going to allow the Supreme Court to dominate their lives in the fashion that it has been in this nation, the Supreme Court does not have the power to change that. They are not going to be able to overturn the will of a hundred million American people. And I think the time has come that we throw off the shackles of this dictatorship that’s been imposed upon us.

“We had a war in 1776 that set us free from the shackles of the arbitrary rule of the British crown, and I think what’s going on in Corbin, Kentucky, boy, those people like to live free. And I think the time has come that we do that...”

Rallying around the public display of the Ten Commandments or other religious symbols has become de riguer for many religious causes, and politicians who see the issue as one which appeals to a consistent and energized voting block of sectarian supporters. The congressional representative, senator, mayor, school board member or other official who dares vote against displaying the Decalogue is portrayed as unwholesome, un-American, or some kind of secular humanist (or, “God” forbid, an Atheist!).

There may be a solution lurking here, though, that might appease any and all sides of this contentious issue.

Let’s post the Ten Commandments -- proudly, prominently and conspicuously -- along with the Godly penalties for disobeying them! Why do anything with anemic half-measure? If we wish to remind youngsters in schools, defendants in court or public officials contemplating issues of the Commandments’ true worth, let us also caution those who stray from the path of righteousness of the severe wrath they might risk.

We first, of course, must settle on which version of the Commandments to display.

Frank Zindler examined this predicament in an American Atheist Magazine article aptly entitled “The Ten Commandments -- Hang ’Em All!” There are not only competing versions of the list which has become known as “The Ten Commandments,” there may be even more to display, a third-set of cultic instructions found in Exodus. It contains orders to the faithful in how to deal with heretics, unbelievers and those of other religions, instructing the righteous, “But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down thy groves.

Another one of these “other” Commandments reminds us: “Every first birth of the womb is mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male.

The precise numerical sequence of the Commandments is even in question, a point made by Cliff Walker, Editor of Positive Atheism Magazine, in a delightful article, “Which Ten Commandments?” Protestants, Roman Catholics and Hebrews all differ over the number, sequence and content of their respective instructions from God.

But why let that stop us? Pick a set of Commandments -- any version -- and let’s get ’em up like Frank says with a list of the penalties. If school boards and legislatures cannot agree on the version, post them all if necessary. Let them be displayed in classrooms and courthouses and in front of government buildings everywhere, throughout the land. And let us not hesitate to post with these divine instructions the god-decreed punishments for transgressions!

Praise Jehovah, and pass the stones, whips and hanging ropes!

Let us also appreciate the fact that the God of the Ten Commandments and the Old Testament is not the whimpy, all-loving, pencil-necked savior who most people like to envision, and who ostensibly preached a doctrine of forgiveness and compassion. This deity is a Promise Keepers kinda’ guy -- strict, authoritarian, stern, and demanding allegiance and unconditional worship. From the very start of his to-do list passed on to Moses -- and this includes the fist set which Moses smashed in a fit of rage because his fellow Israelites chose instead the sybaritic lifestyle and worship of pagan images -- Jehovah says that he, and he alone is to be the one, true object of uncritical human adoration. This becomes clear in both the Protestant and Catholic versions of the Commandments, although in the Hebrew edition, God saves the “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” diktat as the second point.

Taking the standard Ten Commandments though as Pat Robertson or the local Archbishop might have them posted, death and destruction await those who disobey eight of them.

The billions of Moslems, Hindus, Shintoists and various pagans and heretics, for instance, worship other deities “save unto the Lord,” and in Exodus 22:20 are given the fate of being “utterly destroyed.” Blasphemy against the Lord means that the transgressor “shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 31:15),and those uppity youngsters who refuse to obey the instructions of parents “shall be surely put to death” as well. Even cursing an abusive parent, or striking a parent (perhaps in self defense?) warrants the penalty of death as well, proscribed in Exodus 21: 17-19.

Catholic and Protestant versions of the Commandments have a discrepancy over the status of killing. “Thou shalt not kill” is number six for the Protestants, while Catholics place this prohibition at number five on their list. The ancient Hebrew sequence reflects the Protestant numerology. There seems to be no penalty, however, for killing, which surely is a serious affair if even done in the service of preservation or just cause. It could be that this absence is explained by the fact that killing is a penalty for disobeying so many of the Commandments. Was Jehovah immersed in his own personal rage when he handed Moses this instruction, that He missed the inconsistency?

Two other violations of Biblical law, homosexuality and adultery follow next in the various tables and Commandments provided to Moses, and both of these warrant death as well. It has become fashionable in some denominations to explain away the prohibition in Leviticus 20:13:

“If a man lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall purely be put to death.”

It really requires some verbal gymnastics and doctrinal legerdemain to explain this, how Christianity -- presumably the inspired word of the God of the Universe -- does not condemn homosexuals, and the issue has divided denominations throughout the country. The spectacles of gays and lesbians worshipping in the confines of a church, or being ordained in some “inclusive” ministry puzzles me to this day. Wasn’t it W.C. Fields who said that he would never join a group that did not want him?

What a sequel it would make for “Cheaters” or “Fatal Attraction” if a godly society carried out the instructions of the sixth or seventh Commandment (again, depending on the version you choose)! No sooner is Divorce Court concluded than the will of Jehovah is executed in accordance with Leviticus 20:10. “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” One wonders of the fate of an unmarried woman, or the single guy.

Theft is prohibited by the Commandments, but we seem at a loss for a proscribed penalty. Why? There is a punishment for bestiality, since in Exodus 22:19 we are reminded, “Whosoever lieth with a beast shall surely be put to death.” Is Jehovah more concerned with the potential spread of animal molestation than he is with thievery?

Mark 16:16 gives us a penalty for a transgression that may be derived from assorted Commandments, like not honoring the Sabbath. “He that believeth not, shall be damned.” Bible verse devotees may wish to argue how this penalty shall be enforced, and by whom. God personally gives a peculiar punishment, though, for slacker priests. Malachi 2:1-4 speaks for itself: “And now, O ye priests, this commandment is for you. If you will not hear, and if ye will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name ... behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces.

Owning Up To Biblical Penalties

So far, the chorus of groups, political leaders and religious activists demanding that the Ten Commandments be displayed widely in the public square has ignored the need to also have God’s penalties popularized as well. Many Christians fret over the “morality of the death penalty,” despite the fact that as a punishment, it is replete throughout the Old Testament. Ideological consistency requires that if we acknowledge the legitimacy and power of the Ten Commandments in our society, we also pay heed to the punishments.

The Catholic Church has popularized the notion of a seamless garment, a theological tapestry which considers all life, from that of a fetus to the rampaging serial killer on the prowl, to be equal and valued in the eyes of God. I’ll stay out of the death penalty argument here, at least from a secular perspective. There is one group of Christians, though, who take a consistent if not draconian view of the Commandments and the punishment they demand of civil society, and they are known as Reconstructionists.

Prior to the demise of the Y2K hysteria, airways and internet sites were filled with warnings from assorted survivalists and apocalyptics. One of the most visible was Gary North, who fuses a conservative social message that at times is so extreme that it shares an intellectual tradition with the Unabomber, and Biblical fundamentalism. North is the son-in-law of J.R. Rushdoony, the patriarch of the Christian Reconstructionist movement, and notes that his version of a Bible-basec culture would include wide use of the death penalty and public executions. Rushdoony says that in Reconstructionist culture, “God’s government prevails, and His alternatives are clear-cut: either men and nations obey His laws, or God invokes the death penalty against them.”

Commandments Death-Wish?

Christian Reconstructioinism calls for the death penalty for a long list of behaviors, including “apostasy, heresy, blasphemy, witchcraft, astrology, adultery, homosexuality, sodomy, incest, striking a parent, and in the case of women, unchastity before marriage.” There is some relief in all of this for taxpayers, since in a Reconstructionist utopia there would be no need for costly legal appeals, prisons and execution chambers. A piece in Public Eye magazine noted that Mr. North “prefers stoning because, among other things, stones are cheap, plentiful and convenient. Punishments for non-capital crimes generally involve whipping, restitution in the form of indentured servitude, or slavery.”

One Reconstructionist screed by Rev. Gregory Bahnsen, “By This Standard,” declares: “We ... endorse the justice of God’s penal code, if the Bible is to be the foundation of our Christian political ethic.”

So there!

My proposal, to include the brutal Bible-decreed penalties whenever and wherever the Commandments are to be posted, may help resolve this divisive issue for many. Perhaps Ten Commandments enthusiasts may wish to revisit their belief that displaying the Decalogue will lead to a more just and considerate society. Others of a sterner and more -- shall we say “crotchety” persuasion? -- may come to accept the need to constantly be threatening youngsters, gays, religious skeptics, bestiality-fans and those men and women casting a philandering eye in hopes of address social ills. I personally think that the Commandments are not inspired by any God, that they serve no humane purpose, and their display in the public square is clearly religious and violates the separation of church and state. If we are going to display them, however, do so blatantly and unabashedly! Many churches and political groups, and not a few elected officials, have endorsed the “Hang Ten” campaign sponsored by the Family Research Council. Any Ten Commandments tableau should also include, in equally large type with citation from the “good book,” the specified penalties for those who transgress and disobey.

After all, if we hang the Ten Commandments, shouldn’t we also advise those who disobey that they, too, may end up hanging?


Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.