‘Hang Ten’ movement ill-advised

Sunday, February 20, 2000

From state legislators to presidential candidates, America's politicians are eagerly jumping onto the Ten Commandments bandwagon this month. Putting the commandments on the wall of every public-school classroom seems to be a politically popular move in the post-Columbine era.

But before school officials get out the hammer and nails, let's all take a deep breath and consider the consequences of the movement known as “Hang Ten.”

Here's the core problem: Giving the state the power to post religious messages in schools puts the government into the religion business. If this doesn't worry you, then you might want to look at what's happening in other parts of the world.

Governments in many nations currently operate under the assumption that the state has the authority to promote, denigrate or use religion at the whim of those in power. The Russian legislature, for instance, recently voted to give religious freedom to some groups and deny it to others. Chinese authorities require all government-sanctioned religious groups to register; disfavored groups are banned altogether.

Even democratic nations such as France can't resist the temptation to crack down on “sects and cults” that the state doesn't like. A bill now before the French Parliament would grant the government broad powers to shut down religious groups on the flimsiest of grounds and without due process in a court of law.

Just last week, The Washington Post reported that the Romanian government is funding a frenzy of construction to build Orthodox Christian churches in areas of the nation with huge ethnic Hungarian populations. The largely Protestant and Catholic Hungarians fear that the government is using Orthodox churches to build up the Romanian presence in their regions.

Government entanglement with religion, of course, is nothing new. It has been a leading source of repression and coercion throughout history.

America's founders were well aware of this danger. That's why the Bill of Rights opens with these ten words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ….”

The Hang Ten advocates tell us that posting the commandments in schools isn't “establishment of religion” because the commandments are part of our nation's heritage and promote moral values.

That may be. But the commandments first and foremost comprise a religious document, not a civic or moral lesson from the government. For millions of Jews and Christians the commandments are sacred scripture revealing what God requires of humanity. In the United States, it is left to faith communities — not the state — to proclaim the Word of God.

We're also told that posting the commandments will bring Americans together around shared values. But far from promoting harmony, this movement has created ugly fights and sparked bitter lawsuits.

The fact is, Americans disagree deeply about religion. Jews, Protestants and Catholics all have differing versions of the commandments and divergent interpretations of their meaning. Moreover, there are millions of Americans who adhere to faiths other than these or who have no religious preference.

If the underlying goals of the Hang Ten movement are to promote morality and to educate students about the religious meaning of the commandments, then there are better ways to do both.

We can begin by putting quality character-education programs in every school. Americans do agree on the importance of teaching honesty, caring, respect, responsibility and other shared moral and civic virtues.

And we can also do a better job of teaching about religion in the curriculum. Rather than putting a poster on the wall, why not teach about the meaning of the Ten Commandments as understood within Jewish and Christian traditions?

Not only are these approaches more effective than “hanging ten,” they are fully constitutional.

There's no quick fix for what many believe is a moral crisis among young people. That's why we must resist the temptation to use the power of government to promote religion and turn our attention to the hard work of building good character in each and every student.