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FIRST-PERSON: Who really removed the Ten Commandments?

HAMPSTEAD, N.C. (BP)–The Ten Commandments are front-page news again.

They spent some time on the front page back in 2003, when Judge Roy Moore was making his stand for the granite monument that was installed in the rotunda of the state judiciary building in Montgomery, Ala. The state’s chief justice lost that battle and the nation moved on; the war in Iraq and the presidential election conspired to eclipse the story.

But the issue has surfaced again with a vengeance as the U.S. Supreme Court finally issued its long-anticipated rulings on the constitutionality of the public display of these ancient words of God.

To those who truly know American history, the Supreme Court’s rulings have a surreal quality. Can such an august body actually issue such confusing rulings with a straight face? The justices appear not only divided, but inconsistent in their divergent rulings on Ten Commandments displays in Kentucky and Texas. Justice Scalia admits as much in his strident dissent to the Kentucky ruling: “What distinguishes the rule of law from the dictatorship of a shifting Supreme Court majority is the absolutely indispensable requirement that judicial opinions be grounded in consistently applied principle…. Today’s opinion forthrightly (or actually, somewhat less than forthrightly) admits that it did not rest upon consistently applied principle.”

What I am afraid is lost on American Christians, however, is that the Ten Commandments were not first removed with a pallet jack in Montgomery in 2003. Nor was the first blow struck when the Supreme Court decided to take them down from the walls of our public schools decades ago.

The truth is that the Ten Commandments were first removed from the pulpits of our churches and thence from the hearts of our people. The image of Alabama state employees trundling the Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda to the backroom is just a visual reminder of what already had happened in this country at a much deeper level.

The proof of this claim is easy to come by. When was the last time you heard a sermon on the Ten Commandments? On any one of them? If your pastor’s messages are in a database, run a search and see how often they show up. I can guess what the results will show because I searched the last decade of my own preaching a few years ago. My silence on the Ten Commandments was deafening. Unfortunately, I have every reason to believe that my own case is representative of Southern Baptist pastors at large.

Or if you have the stomach for it, try this experiment: Next Sunday morning as your Bible study class is gathering for coffee and donuts, ask for a volunteer to recite the Ten Commandments. You will have no takers. Next, try to brainstorm as a group and see how many of the 10 your class can recall.

Sadly, only a few generations ago, virtually all Americans could have recited them by heart. Churched Americans not only could name them, but they had been catechized as to their meaning and significance. (Shocking though it may be to some, even Southern Baptists catechized their children a few generations back.) The primary reason our nation has been willing to let the Ten Commandments monuments go is that we have long ago removed them from our hearts and minds.

The Ten Commandments are a reminder that God has rights of ownership by virtue of His role as Creator (Exodus 20:11). They also form the essential backdrop to explaining the concepts of sin and salvation (Romans 7:9). Of course, I had hoped the Supreme Court would clearly rule for the constitutionality of the displays. But I also know that even favorable rulings in both cases would have amounted to a hollow victory if American churches and Christians do not rediscover them as well.
Paul Brewster Sr. is pastor of Barlow Vista Baptist Church in Hampstead, N.C. and a Ph.D. student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

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  • Paul Brewster Sr.