There has been a fuss about posting the Ten Commandments in public schools and other public places.
A recent Kentucky case, McCreary County v. ACLU, went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the pro-posters lost. But in the same decision, about the parallel Texas case of Van Orden v. Perry, the pro-posters (or in that case, carve-in-stoners) won. The upshot was that if you want to post the Ten Commandments in a public building to make a religious statement, you lose; if, on the other hand, you post them as part of a series of legal codes, you win. SO, if you really want the Commandments in the courthouse, you can do it. Likewise, it is easy to post the Ten Commandments in public schools legally. All you have to do is teach about them. In fact, you post just about anything on the walls of schools, if you are willing to do the work of actually including the poster in the curriculum. Again, it is not hard to win, if that is what you really want to do.
I think we have had the fuss, though, because the pro-posters don’t really want to win – they want to lose so they can claim that the Christian majority is being religiously persecuted by secularists. Now, there is some truth to this. In my job I run across plenty of secularists who do want to drive all religion out of the public square. They want to do so not just despite massive public support for displaying the icons of biblical religion. They want to exclude those symbols because the majority supports them, so that the secularists, in turn, can feel persecuted by the backlash. Two can play at “oppression envy.”
But really, I don’t think that posting the Ten Commandments is about displaying the faith of the majority, or acknowledging a fundamental code of American law, or even of helping people be literate about a crucial building block of Western civilization.
Conservatives want to post the Ten Commandments as an act of magic.
I think that some people believe that if the text is physically on the wall of the courthouse or the schoolhouse, the people under its eye, so to speak, will behave better. This gesture is mostly futile. Worse, I think that treating the printed commandments this way violates the second commandment against making “graven images.”
If you want people to behave better, it would be more effective to post pictures of Mr. Rogers, or Mother Teresa, or even Barney. This would not be a great improvement, but the magical thought would be more out in the open.
I think there is a parallel kind of magical thinking for liberals. Conservatives think kids will be better behaved if we put the Ten Commandments in schools. Liberals think kids will be smarter if we put computers in schools. They expend much more effort in getting computers into schools than they do in making sure they that they work, that they have any kind of relevant software, that teachers and students know how to use them, or that the computers have anything to do with the curriculum.
The computer becomes a graven image for thinking, the way the Ten Commandments becomes a graven image for morals. Magic.