Posting commandments in classrooms is a performative act


Louisiana passed a law last week requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom in an act of performative religiosity.

It is “performative” in contrast to “meaningful.” A way to signal what side of the nation’s culture wars one can find Louisiana’s political leaders.

Many supporters of laws like the one Louisiana passed say they believe putting up the Ten Commandments is a way to introduce a moral code in every public school classroom. What’s left unsaid is that these political leaders believe that the United States is a Christian nation and by doing this they are honoring God.

For the sake of argument and setting aside the important debate over the separation of church and state — the country’s founding generation resisted establishing a national religion, in part, because of the religious wars that soaked Europe in blood from 1517 through 1648 — let’s give Louisiana’s political leaders the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say they genuinely want to honor God.

What does the Bible say about honoring God?

The Bible says a great many things on the subject. But one can detect themes, and an overwhelming one is God’s freedom to be who God is.

When I heard last week’s news, I thought of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ explanation of the ancient Hebrew found in the book of Exodus when Moses meets God / Yahweh at the burning bush and asks, “Who are you?” This happens early in Exodus, the second book in the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament and in which the Ten Commandments are found.

God responds to Moses’ question with “ ‘Hayah asher hayah,’” Sacks explains to journalist Krista Tippett in her book, “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.” “Those words are mistranslated in English as ‘I am that which I am.’ But in Hebrew, it means ‘I will be who or how or where I will be,’ meaning, Don’t think you can predict me. I am a God who is going to surprise you.’ ”

God is not fully contained in a book, or a list of commandments, but transcends them.

Isn’t posting the 10 commandments on public school classrooms across a state a way of making God into an idol to suit one’s own purposes?

The irony, then, is, one could argue, requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom is a violation of the second commandment, which prohibits the creation of idols. An idol, by definition, is an image or representation of a God used as an object of worship. It’s one thing for the Ten Commandments to be posted in one’s home or church or synagogue. But if the Ten Commandments were to be posted on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, I’d argue the list, and by extension the Bible, have been turned into an Idol.

I’ll let you decide whether you agree with me or not.

Another theme in the Bible is that honoring God requires more than words and empty symbolic acts: it requires taking care of the vulnerable and poor, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, housing the homeless.

Since I was a youth in Georgia, one of my favorite biblical passages is from the sixth chapter of Micah in the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. In it, the prophet Micah asks if God prefers burnt offerings or animal sacrifice, which was common in the Ancient Near East, as a form of worship.

The answer is an unequivocal no.

God has told you what God prefers, Micah says: “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Posting the Ten Commandments, one could argue, is nothing more than a contemporary iteration of the ancient rite of offering burnt offerings that the prophet Micah spoke of 2,700 years ago, while not alleviating poverty and hunger.

If you accept that interpretation, a check to see how Louisiana’s political leadership is honoring God is in order.

How many Louisianans live in poverty? Nearly one in five, or 18.6 percent, the second highest in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

How many Louisianans regularly go hungry?

“… the prevalence of food insecurity was higher (i.e., statistically significantly higher) than the national average in 6 States (Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas) …” according to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And Louisiana’s public schools? How do they compare to the rest of the country? They rank 40th out of 50 states, according to the latest report from U.S. News and World Report.

It would seem that Louisiana confronts serious challenges.

Will posting the Ten Commandments change all that?

We’ll see, but I’m skeptical. However, it does remind me of a saying I often heard from family and friends growing up in the deep south. They’d quote the verse from the book in Matthew in the New Testament in which Jesus tells his followers that faith is so powerful that it can move mountains.

Then they’d quip, “And God often gives you the shovel.”

To move mountains, the implication is, is going to take a lot of hard work.

I’d suggest Louisiana’s leaders aren’t honoring God so much as leaning into political marketing. Instead of easy, performative symbolism, however, they should read their Bible more, roll up their sleeves and do the hard work.

Trip Jennings is a career journalist and executive director of New Mexico In Depth. He also holds a master’s degree from the Columbia Theological Seminary.

Trip Jennings, 10 commandments, classrooms, opinion