The Ten Commandments: Symbol or Substance?

Michael Craven | Center for Christ & Culture | Monday, July 4, 2005

The Ten Commandments: Symbol or Substance?

There is much consternation and understandably so, in reaction to the Supreme Court's recent rulings regarding the public display of the Ten Commandments. While this is a devastating blow to Christians and potentially the freedom of religious expression; this action has only accomplished symbolically what has already been accomplished substantively.

The American judicial system long ago rejected the Seventh Commandment when Adultery Laws were abolished and the Supreme Court rejected the Sixth Commandment when it legalized abortion. Countless courts and communities rejected the Fourth Commandment when they repealed "blue laws" prohibiting businesses from operating on Sunday. The Fifth Commandment was rejected when courts began to elevate "children's rights" over and against parental rights. Society in general accepted rejection of the Third Commandment when we relaxed, or failed to enforce decency standards on the public airwaves and the Tenth Commandment when we began to produce and watch such programs as The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and more recently, I Want to Be a Hilton.

American culture long ago rejected the Second Commandment when we openly promoted and embraced radical materialism, consumerism and careerism. Rejection of the Ninth Commandment (along with a few others) was firmly established when a sitting President openly lied to the American people and suffered no consequence. Lastly, the First Commandment was substantively rejected when we as a society gave supremacy to humanistic foundations for everything from origins to bioethics, to law and justice, to psychology and education as the solution for humanity's dilemma.

We have systematically denied, rejected or codified our rebellion against God's Laws and almost every step of the way too many Christians were either silent or compliant. And yet here we stand outraged and scratching our heads wondering "how could this happen?" Do not misunderstand me, I am deeply troubled by the Supreme Court's decision but there is more at stake here than cherished symbols. It is as Arthur Leff, the atheist and Yale Law professor wrote in 1979:

"If He [God] does not exist, there is no metaphoric equivalent. No person, no combination of people, no document however hallowed by time, no process, no premise, nothing as equivalent to an actual God in this central function as the unexaminable examiner of good and evil. The so-called death of God…seems to have effected the total elimination of any coherent, or convincing, ethical or legal system."

The removal of the Ten Commandments in those instances where they imply that they serve as the foundation of law and justice is merely the final and symbolic elimination of God in American public life. Subsequently "any coherent, or convincing, ethical or legal system" becomes impossible to establish and maintain.

This is what is being lost. This is the great tragedy that we must rise to remind the world [and ourselves] of. We must once again endeavor to teach God's commands, decrees and laws to our children with all diligence and establish for them a substantive foundation for these truths that transcend sentiment and tradition. This, I would argue, is why we are in the current condition that we are. We have neglected God's laws in our own lives; we have become unfaithful in the transmission of God's truth from one generation to the next and we are only offended by this present assault on our "traditions" and not our deeply held convictions. It is the neglect of OUR role in culture that has accommodated such a radical shift in public policy.

We cannot cling to mere symbols apart from the substance that these symbols represent and more importantly the authority upon which the principles represented by these symbols ultimately rest. If we, as a nation, carry our dismissal of God's authority for our legal and ethical system to its full conclusion then we are left with only three doomed options:

1. We can accept individual autonomy as the basis for right and wrong, otherwise known as anarchy which inevitably leads to chaos.

2. We can allow the legal codifications for right and wrong to be determined by the majority and hope for a benevolent majority but we can just as easily [and more likely] be left at the mercy of a malevolent majority.

3. We can trust in the "goodness" of a benevolent and representative minority or dictator to determine societal right and wrong but history has demonstrated that this trust is always misplaced.

In all three instances man becomes the ultimate and final authority. Apart from a moral, ethical, and legal system that is rooted in a transcendent source there is no overarching authority to which men can appeal in the face of injustice. We simply must resign ourselves to being ruled, not by God but by men. This then produces conditions which can and often do lead to revolution. It was this very situation that provoked the founding fathers when they found themselves under the tyranny of man. And to whom did they appeal when structuring this new nation's ethical and legal system as the means to protect themselves and their posterity from tyranny? They appealed to the "Supreme Judge of the World" and "Nature's God!" The very God that the Supreme Court just said is no longer relevant to this same purpose.

It is not the removal of Ten Commandments displays that threatens the nation it is the rejection of God's authority upon Whom these commandments rest!

© 2005 National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

S. Michael Craven is the vice president for religion & culture at the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families and leads the work and ministry of Cultural Apologetics. The Cultural Apologetics ministry works to equip the Church to assert and defend biblical morality and ethics in a manner that is rational, relevant and persuasive in order to recapture the relevance of Christianity to all of life by demonstrating its complete correspondence to reality. For more information on Cultural Apologetics, additional resources and other works by S. Michael Craven visit:

Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.

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The Ten Commandments: Symbol or Substance?