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Monday, February 06, 2006

Ten Commandments debate nothing new

The Georgia House of Representatives by a wide margin last week signed on to a national campaign to promote the display of the Ten Commandments.

House Bill 941, which authorizes county governments to display the commandments alongside other historical documents, drew some criticism, but passed 140-26.

The current wave of attempts to post the commandments in government-owned buildings resembles the 1950s monuments sponsored around the nation by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a nonprofit charitable organization. Decades before that, early "Christian lobbyists" sponsored plaques at public buildings.

The displays are needed, some supporters say, to promote moral and ethical living by reminding people of the ancient code that the Bible relates was given to Moses directly by God.

"The problems we face in America are moral problems, which cannot be solved legislatively or judicially," said the Rev. Robert Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, speaking to ABC News in 1998. "We need a moral code to address them. There is no better educational and moral code than the Ten Commandments."

That point is disputed by some opposed to government involvement in religion. But it has long been a popular view in America.


Jews - to whom the Bible says the commandments were directed - do not refer to them as commandments at all. Jewish religious teaching holds that the Torah - the first five books of the Christian Old Testament - includes 613 equally important mitzvot, or commandments.

Jews use a different term to refer to the Decalogue, the words in Exodus 20 that the Bible says Moses brought down from Mount Sinai on two stone tablets inscribed by God himself.

In the Jewish Torah, these are referred to as Aseret ha-D'vareem, and in rabbinical texts as Aseret ha-Dibrot. These phrases are variously translated as the Ten Sayings, Statements, Declarations, Words, but not as the Ten Commandments, which would be Aseret ha-Mitzvot.

These statements are considered broad categories, under which the 613 mitzvot fall. Incidentally, these rules apply only to Jews in Jewish doctrine; gentiles are required only to obey seven commandments given to Noah after the flood.

Jews, Catholics and most Protestants also disagree on how to divide the declarations in the first 17 verses of Exodus 20. To Jews, the First Statement is "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."

Christians include that statement as sort of a preamble to what they consider the first commandment, barring the worship of other gods. Catholics and Lutherans also include the prohibition of idol worship (graven images) in the first commandment, while most Protestants break it out separately.

Catholics and Lutherans split the Protestant's 10th commandment, against coveting another's property, into separate rules against coveting property and coveting forbidden flesh.

When and where these splits occurred are obscure, as is the scholar that first decided the statements in Exodus comprised 10 - and only 10 - commandments, said Richard Wilson, chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer University.

"Jews, Catholics and Protestants all agree there are 10," he said.

The popularly truncated versions that are used in wall displays likely stem from 17th century England, after the King James translation was written, he said.


Today's crusades to promote the Ten Commandments follow similar ones at the beginning and middle of the 20th century.

A group called the International Reform Bureau installed brass plaques at courthouses around the time of World War I. The perceived immorality brought on by urbanization and the invention of the automobile led a wave of morality crusaders, such as the Rev. Billy Sunday, to push for the prohibition of alcohol and other "moral" legislation.

According to court filings in a lawsuit over one of the plaques, the International Reform Bureau's founder, the Rev. Wilbur F. Crafts, considered himself "a Christian lobbyist." The IRB's commandments were an edited version of the King James edition text from Exodus.

The second great wave of Ten Commandments installations came in the 1950s, under the direction of the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The Cold War against the officially atheist Soviet Union led to a number of public religious displays, such as adding "Under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.

The FOE, following the lead of a Minnesota juvenile court judge who found delinquent youths were unfamiliar with the Decalogue, distributed thousands of framed versions of the Ten Commandments nationwide in the early 1950s.

The FOE's text, also taken from King James, was organized along the Catholic-Lutheran system, the most common in Minnesota. When that caused some dissension, they dropped the Roman numerals from the text, said Chuck Cunningham, assistant to the Grand Secretary at FOE headquarters in Grove City, Ohio.

"They decided that was too Catholic," he said.

The FOE got a boost from the 1956 biblical epic movie, "The Ten Commandments." Director Cecil B. DeMille was so impressed by the youth guidance project headed by Judge E.J. Ruegemeyer that he arranged theaters to donate one night's ticket proceeds to the Eagles to fund the production of granite Ten Commandments monuments.

More than 150 of these are known to still exist, Cunningham said, including the one at the Texas statehouse that the Supreme Court ruled could remain in a decision handed down in June.

The latest crusade got much of its impetus from Alabama Judge Roy Moore, who first refused to remove a Ten Commandments display from his courtroom. Moore was later named chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, and was forced from the bench after defying an order to remove a massive Ten Commandments monument that he'd had installed in the court's building.

Cobb County lost a fight over displaying commandments in 1993, spurring the brother of one of the commissioners to start a movement to put the commandments in private places as well as public.

"We did a survey of Cobb County, and of 15 Christian bookstores, there was only one place you could buy a copy you could put up in your home," said Charlie Wysong, president of the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based American Rights Coalition.

"We called 15 Christian schools, and only one had a copy on display."

Wysong started selling framed copies of the commandments and promoting them through a Web site, Among the purchasers was state Rep. Bobby Franklin, R-Marietta, who distributed 5-by-7 framed copies to each of his fellow legislators.

A Florida-based group called the Ten Commandments Commission has announced a national Ten Commandments Day, to be celebrated May 7. The commission says that a long list of national evangelical and conservative groups plan to participate, focusing on church services that Sunday and community events.

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