Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed a federal lawsuit against Giles County School Board to force the removal of a display which included the Ten Commandments, and to place a ban on further display of biblical documents.
The travel writer and filmmaker Rick Steves recently reprised his hour long tour of Iran, noting particularly the theocratic domination of all daily life and institutions in that country by the Shiite Islamic faith. Divisions within the Islamic faith itself have led to chronic sectarian violence throughout the Middle East. Americans tend to view these issues in terms of their non-Christian character, but the underlying message clearly is that religion in politics and governance presents many insoluble problems. The Founding Fathers, though clearly Christian in persuasion and habit, understood the dangers of installing any specific faith in the ruling body, and built secular protections against this in our documents.
People of faith can always be counted upon to lobby for the installation of their particular religious doctrine in official institutions and public affairs. They see a purely "secular" governance as a threat to the moral/ethical foundations of their beliefs. This is true whether one is Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindi, Buddhist, Shinto or whatever. Though tending toward Christian traditions and doctrine, America has managed to keep government and religion separate over the last two and a quarter centuries.
In Christian doctrine, the Ten Commandments are translated roughly as follows:
1 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
3 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain (swearing).
4 Observe the sabbath (on Sunday).
5 Honor your father and mother.
6 Thou shalt not kill.
7 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8 Thou shalt not steal.
9 Thou shalt not bear false witness.
10 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife or any of his property.
This list is astonishing in its brevity, its succinctness, and its confidence. Imagine summarizing the comprehensive moral imperative to daily living in so few words! It's an impressive achievement, even if you regard its separate commands as outworn, or ill-suited to our times.
Each of us, I'd wager, has his or her own set of commandments, which comprise an outline of our personal code of honor and behavior. As an exercise in application, I offer this set of alternative commandments, intended to improve the world as we know it, and to extend man's time on earth for a few more millennia--a potential which seems, these days, to be a rapidly shrinking possibility.
If I were making an itemized pyramid of prescription/proscription for humankind, these would be the priorities, in a descending order of importance:
1 Thou shalt not increase thy number beyond the capacity of the earth where thou dwellest.
2 Thou shalt not foul the earth, or the water, or the air that thou sharest with all of god's creatures.
3 Thou shalt not place thyself above any man (or woman), nor shall thee bow down before any other man (or woman) in wretched obeisance.
4 Thou shalt not enterprise the general commerce as a means to make thyself rich beyond purpose.
5 Thou shalt not betray thine oaths and allegiances to others by lying or giving false witness.
6 Thou shalt honor thy spouse, and support thy charges and obligations before all other commitments.
7 Thou shalt not do violence to others, except in defense of one's immediate security and safety.
8 Thou shalt labor to bring about peace and harmony among men, by whatever gentle means.
9 Thou shalt strive to live a virtuous life by example.
10 Thou shalt be tolerant of difference among thy fellows, and strive to encourage all men (and women) to thrive.
This list is biased towards the environmental priorities which seem uppermost in our consciousness these days. As we rapidly approach the precipice of total environmental degradation (on several fronts), our priorities appear clearer than ever. We're running headlong into disaster. If we don't (or can't) set our sights on manageable increase and use of resource, nature will solve the problem for us, by reducing our numbers drastically, and painfully, through mass starvation, disease or violent competition for dwindling sustenance. We all know what's needed. Only selfishness and laziness and complacence stand in our pathway. My ten commandments are designed to apply to our times.