Broken Covenant?

The time to revise the Ten Commandments,some say, draws nigh.

Stone tablet surf board

AT a hearing conducted earlier this year under the auspices of the Episcopal Church in the matter of Bishop Walter Righter -- Righter, it will be recalled, was charged with heresy for ordaining a noncelibate gay man into holy orders -- the subject of the Ten Commandments came up more or less in passing. In response to a question from the prelates sitting in judgment, the lawyer arguing on Bishop Righter's behalf (successfully, as it turned out) made the point that "not everything we're going to find in Holy Scripture" constitutes an intrinsic element of formal Episcopal doctrine. Among the things that do not constitute doctrine, in the lawyer's view, are the Ten Commandments.

The idea that the Ten Commandments might be regarded as something about which the devout can reasonably disagree represents one more front in a battle that has been waged across sectarian lines for millennia. As everyone is aware, an enduring characteristic of institutional religion has been the tension between the stern forces of authority, rigor, and theological punctilio on the one hand, and the entropic tendency toward decentralization, squishy standards, and theological laissez-faire on the other. Whether this tension is greater today than it was in the past I cannot say, but the two camps -- the hard-liners and the accommodationists, as one might label them -- have during the past few years provided some memorable illustrations of their points of view.

The hard-line impulse makes itself apparent in ways great and small. A 1993 study prepared by an office of the Southern Baptist Convention indicated that a formula had been devised to predict what percentage of a given population was bound for hell; newspaper reports offered county-by-county estimates for Alabama along with a ranking of the top hot spots by county nationwide (Los Angeles County led the list with 6.9 million lost souls). In Israel the practice of posthumous circumcision arose a few years ago; the procedure had never been performed on many of the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jewish men who emigrated to the country. The Mormons continue to be assiduous in baptizing into their faith famous people who have died: George Washington, Joseph Stalin, and Elvis Presley are now officially Mormons in good standing. In England a chancellor of the Church of England has upheld a Lancashire vicar's decision to prohibit the use of nicknames on tombstones in Church-consecrated burying grounds. Such are the lengths to which the hard-liners will go.

Carving the stone tablet

Evidence of a countertrend comes from those who would take the easy route or would seek the succor of Mammon. In New England it has been discovered that some Protestant pastors have been delivering plagiarized sermons -- or, more precisely, sermons obtained from a homily mill called Pulpit Resources. (The author of the sermons observed in defense of this practice, "One definition of heresy is originality.") Jews visiting Jerusalem have long been leaving written prayers in the crevices of the Western Wall; now they can send prayers by fax to Jerusalem and someone else will put them in the crevices. The Vatican Library has decided to license its imprimatur for commercial purposes (museum knickknacks, T-shirts, greeting cards), and it has also revised some of the ascetic procedures for electing a Pope, forsaking the spartan cot-and-chamber-pot facilities traditionally provided for cardinals in the Apostolic Palace in favor of hotel-like rooms with private baths. Church discipline is also at somewhat of a remove from the time when the Emperor Henry IV was made to stand in the snow for three days outside the Pope's castle at Canossa, awaiting forgiveness. A French bishop, Jacques Gaillot, because of his ultra-liberal views was recently transferred from his position at Evreux, in Normandy, and given charge instead of the defunct diocese of Partenia, in southern Algeria, which has been covered by sand since the Middle Ages. Gaillot has retaliated by creating a virtual diocese on the Internet, which can be reached at

In a world where such things are possible, it is perhaps not surprising that some people gave credence to the report posted on the Internet two years ago that the Microsoft Corporation was acquiring the Roman Catholic Church. Under the terms of the agreement, according to what was said to be an Associated Press account, Pope John Paul II was to become a senior vice-president of Microsoft's religious-software division, and two Microsoft vice-presidents would be consecrated as cardinals. "If the deal goes through," the report said, "it will be the first time a computer software company has acquired a major world religion."

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It is against this contentious and freewheeling background that I confess to some degree of worry about the Ten Commandments -- a worry prompted by more than just the comments of Bishop Righter's lawyer. As individual strictures, the Ten Commandments have, of course, always been beleaguered, and as often as not honored in the breach. "Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst," Rudyard Kipling wrote, "Where there aren't no Ten Commandments, an' a man can raise a thirst." No doubt even those who manage most of the time to obey the commandments have inserted private "except for . . ." clauses after at least one or two of them. But amid the wrongdoing all around, the Ten Commandments have stood intact as a cultural and moral totem for nearly 3,000 years.

Pope online

Will they survive as such for another thousand? Some would use coercion to make sure that they do: the Tennessee senate recently passed a resolution that prods local schools, homes, and businesses to post copies of the Ten Commandments in prominent places. Needless to say, such a measure (sure to be struck down) is in itself a sign of the commandments' erosion. Two years ago a survey of 1,200 people aged fifteen to thirty-five found that most of those polled could name no more than two of the Ten Commandments, and they weren't too happy about some of the others when they were told about them. They also had clear ideas about how the commandments might be revised for modern times. Support was weak for keeping the sabbath holy and honoring one's father and mother, but "Thou shalt not drink and drive" and "Thou shalt care for the environment" would have appeared on any new list of commandments put together by this group. ("Thou shalt not commit adultery" somehow managed to survive, in the No. 10 position.) When the respondents were given a list of nonreligious figures, including Madonna and the rock group U2, and asked who might be entrusted with the task of drawing up a new list of commandments, the person receiving the most support was Oprah Winfrey.

Suggestions for replacing the Ten Commandments altogether are, in fact, becoming common. In Britain last winter the chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Nicholas Tate, called for the development of a modern, secular Ten Commandments, because so few people were familiar with the old set anymore, and he indicated that some of the ground covered by the new set might include "Punctuality," "Patience," and "A sense of fair play." The actual drafting of the new Ten Commandments was to be left in the hands of a team of businessmen, church and community leaders, and academics. (While they're at it, they will probably change the Day of Judgment to the Day of Assessment.)

Earlier this year a Silicon Valley industrialist named Orion Moshe Kopelman published a book called The Second Ten Commandments, which sets out a body of rules for the coming century. Kopelman argues that "the struggles we now face require a new universal code to help future generations survive in a global and planetary society, freed from individual or uni-cultural survival concerns." The first of the new commandments, supplementing "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other Gods before me," is "Maximize your time spent in flow and happiness." The third new commandment, supplementing "Thou shalt not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God," is "Develop greater self-acceptance by loving yourself unconditionally." The eighth new commandment, supplementing "Thou shalt not steal," is "Base your level of relationship commitments on bottom lines -- what you can't live with and can't live without." (Those two "can't"s are the only uses of any negative in Kopelman's code.)

Even organizations one would expect to take a relatively conservative stance have displayed a certain defensiveness on the subject of the Ten Commandments. In announcing his "Contract With the American Family," a ten-point legislative agenda for Congress, Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Christian Coalition, emphasized to reporters that his proposals should not be thought of as the Ten Commandments. No, no. Think of them as "the Ten Suggestions" -- a remark that prompts a slightly edited rendering of various passages in Exodus 20: "Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy, unless something comes up." "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor -- at least not on a regular basis." "Honor thy father and thy mother, usually."

Once the issue is raised, of course, it is hard not to wonder what the Ten Commandments really would be like if they were being promulgated today for the first time. I queried Charlton Heston, who played the role of Moses in the movie The Ten Commandments, about what he would add to the commandments if he were given the chance to add one more. His response was "Do your best; keep your promises. "Friends whom I've asked to contemplate a modern overhaul of the Ten Commandments have been less high-minded. A couple of cynics suggested that "Thou shalt not get caught" and "Thou shalt not get involved" would nicely complement the temper of the age. More than one person's immediate comment was "Do there have to be ten?" I heard some loose talk, derived from Republican regulatory philosophy, about "voluntary compliance." Someone wondered whether we might get to work on revising the Seven Deadly Sins as well.

In the Bible this kind of commentary always presages a date with fire and brimstone. Only time will tell whether "Thou shalt care for the environment" is enough to ward it off.

Illustrations by Tom Bloom

The Atlantic Monthly; November, 1996; Broken Covenant?; Volume 278, No. 5; pages 22-24.