Google News search for "Ten Commandments" at any time, and you will find hundreds of articles about dozens of flaps over the placement of the commandments in public spaces -- courtrooms, schools, parks, etc. The Ten Commandments have become such a monolith of our culture that many assumptions are made about them, the most common being that the United States is a Christian nation with founding documents steeped in Judeo-Christian dogma, and as such the nation was founded on God's law.
While courts continue to argue their appropriateness in courthouses and schools, it seems that we never stop to consider whether or not The Ten Commandments themselves are a useful tool in guiding our morality. The Ten Commandments are something that nearly everyone is familiar with, as a concept, and as a sum of its parts. But so many of us, even many Christians and Jews, could not recite them, even out of order, if our lives depended on it. In 2007, in a survey conducted by Kelton Research, 80% of those surveyed knew that "two all beef patties" were ingredients in a Big Mac, but only less than 60% knew the commandment "thou shalt not kill." Sixty percent of those surveyed could not name five of The Ten Commandments. (If you're feeling self-conscious now, feel free to brush up on them here.)
Even if we could remember The Ten Commandments, how useful are they in actually dictating our morality? We often hear people say things like, "Without The Ten Commandments, people would have no reason not to kill or steal." Comments like that make me wonder about the moral fabric of the people who say such things. Is a simple commandment the only thing standing between them and cold-blooded murder, or a shoplifting spree?
Dan Barker, a former Evangelical Christian preacher, songwriter, and performer, has spent some time dissecting The Ten Commandments and gauging their usefulness. In various writings, including his book Godless, he has pointed out that only three of the Ten Commandments have any relevance to American law: homicide, theft, and perjury. He points out that Adultery and Sabbath laws are on the books in some states, but are artifacts of theocracy.
Commandments one through four (no other gods, graven images, Lord's name in vain, and the Sabbath) have absolutely nothing to do with morality, offering no suggestions on how we should treat each other. We've nearly gone through half of them and have only been told how we can please the Abrahamic God.
The Fifth Commandment, "Honor thy father and thy mother," is the first one that even begins to sound moral. It's decent enough advice, but, as Barker points out, it's vague (how exactly do we honor them?) and in some instances could end up badly (what if your parents are abusive, or terrible advisors?).
"Thou shalt not kill," the Sixth Commandment, is a good one. It took us six commandments to actually get to a moral statement, one that addresses doing actual harm in the real world. Although, Barker notes, it doesn't tell us what we should do about war, capital punishment, self defense, and other ways in which killing is legal in the United States.
"Thou shalt not commit adultery," Commandment seven, is also good advice, but not against the law.
Commandment Eight, "Thou shalt not steal," is good advice, and is the second commandment that actually applies to our laws.
The Ninth Commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness," is also good advice, but lies are only occasionally illegal in America, under very specific circumstances. And although this is generally good moral advice, there are instances when following this commandment would cause more harm than not following it. There is the old thought experiment where you are housing Jews in Nazi Germany, and a Nazi soldier comes to the door to ask if there are Jews in your home. This is a time when our natural empathy and morality trumps any absolute on a stone tablet.
The Tenth Commandment, "Thou shalt not covet they neighbor's wife/house/ox, etc." -- this is ok advice, but hardly something that pertains to American law. Barker points out that without a nation of Tenth Commandment-breakers, "our entire system of free enterprise would collapse."
So, after going through The Ten Commandments, Barker says, we have "four religious edicts that have nothing to do with ethics, three one-dimensional prohibitions that are irrelevant to modern law, and three shallow absolutes that are useful but certainly not unique to the Judeo-Christian system." Barker states that any one of us could very easily come up with a more sensible, thorough, ethical code for human behavior.
It should be clear, after actually examining and thinking about The Ten Commandments, that they serve no purpose in a courtroom (or school, etc.) other than to bolster those who are adamant that America is a Christian nation. A judge could glean no legal advice from any of the commandments, of which only a few apply in any way to US law.
The Ten Commandments are interesting from a historical perspective. It serves a population well to be religiously literate. We certainly are better off knowing and understanding them, and where they came from, than knowing the ingredients of a Big Mac. But if we believe that these are our best moral guide, we are fooling ourselves. We could toss The Ten Commandments as a moral guide, and replace them with one suggestion that, if followed, would provide an actual moral and ethical code: Always act to minimize the suffering and increase the well-being of living things. It is a guideline that does not rely on absolutes and requires that we analyze our actions and weigh the outcomes of each choice we make. And in another two thousand years, it will make as much sense to those still walking the earth as it does today.