Thou Shalt Post the Ten Commandments

Louisiana is right in privileging the laws inscribed by the Creator in every human heart

David French is one of a particular species of pundit, one who likes to trade on the gases of his erstwhile conservative credentials while reliably ending up where good liberals are expected to be. It was that imitation of the Colossus of Rhodes’ straddle that initially led to his famous debates with Sohrab Ahmari over whether a principled conservative, in the name of “free speech,” needed to support drag queen story hours in children’s reading rooms at local libraries. It’s why “David Frenchism” is not a compliment for a “conservative” who will be AWOL when you really need him.

The latest installment of David Frenchism is his June 20 New York Times column, “Thou Shalt Not Post the Ten Commandments in the Classroom” (link here). He starts with an obligatory reference to his “evangelical Christian” credentials, even though he and his old church parted ways (he calls it “cancelled”) because of the practical implications of his public positions. He then moves to the crux of his argument: an attack on Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry for signing legislation requiring the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools.

What’s his argument? Three points:

1. The Supreme Court struck down similar Kentucky legislation in the past. Well, how does the Left respond to precedents it doesn’t like? Just keep bringing cases to afford the Court the opportunity to overturn itself. Somehow, for David French, that’s bad faith. Given, however, that I don’t believe democratic norms require us to pretend that the Supreme Court is a judicial clerisy whose holdings are handed down ex cathedra, I agree with that approach. So, too, does French’s former employer, National Review, which argues (here) that the 5-4 Stone v. Graham decision (the 44-year old precedent French invokes which relies on the largely discredited “Lemon” tests) should be overruled.

Does French think it is impermissible to revisit Supreme Court rulings? Or is it just that he actually likes the anti-religious bias of its 1948-2017 First Amendment jurisprudence? He frames it as “an emerging Republican … culture-war-motivated” approach to rethinking that jurisprudence. Apparently, he doesn’t think that warping the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of religion into freedom from religion is a legal abuse demanding correction.

2. He also thinks supporting the display of the Ten Commandments law involves “a version of Christian mysticism.” By this French means that “the Ten Commandments have a form of spiritual power over the hearts and minds of students and that posting the displays can change lives.”

Well, David, I don’t think the Ten Commandments are a magic talisman that will change “hearts and minds.” I think the Ten Commandments are already written in normal human beings’ hearts, and you don’t need to be a Christian quoting Romans 2 to defend that. There’s something more basic, already shared by everyman. The Judeo-Christian tradition holds to a legal doctrine, espoused by extremists like Clarence Thomas and Thomas Aquinas (along with other suspect types, like Aristotle) called “natural law.” So, yes, in that sense, I think there is an innate coherence, not the product of “Christian mysticism,” that creates an affinity between the Ten Commandments and the human heart.

So, while not necessarily expecting the Ten Commandments to “radiate powers of personal virtue,” I do expect them to generate that affinity of which I just wrote. And, in a society where “diversity” secularism seeks to suppress, conceal, and eliminate every last vestige of the Judeo-Christian culture that was the formative inspiration of our society, it is not a bad thing to put the Ten Commandments squarely before people’s eyes and remind them of that.

It is a bizarre contemporary notion of man that imagines every person to be a tabula rasa who is supposed to construct his own ethics individually from scratch. That’s not how life or ethics works. It’s not an “imposition” to put those formative words that constitute the Ten Commandments before peoples’ eyes, just as we still put a flag in a classroom to remind students you are not a “global citizen” but the proud national of a particular country. (Is that a problem, David?)

3. French winds up by telling us he went to school in Kentucky back when the Commandments were on display and they “had no impact on our lives,” so we should not rely on “faded posters on the walls.” Well, having been in elementary school about ten years before David, I still remember the normativity of the painting of George Washington that hung in every Perth Amboy classroom. I remember sayings that were on posters and material we were expected to memorize back when folks believed in repetitio est mater studiorum, and when memorization was neither a dirty word nor child “abuse.” As a third grader, I did not appreciate Mrs. Gloria Patten drumming Sir Walter Scott’s “Lay of the Last Ministrel” into my head. Fifty-six years later, however, I can still recite it and can today grasp the meaning of deservedly being “unwept, unhonored, and unsung” for being coldhearted towards one’s “native land” and its moral-cultural roots.

Full disclosure: French already took issue with me (here) for a column (here) in which I criticized universities for tolerating collegians who marched on behalf of Hamas kidnappers, rapists, and killers. My solution was to expel them. As with his drag queens, French simply wanted “more robust free speech.” Well, no; a healthy culture has to be able to say that some positions are simply barbaric. Here free speech basically shows you the advocates of ideas that ethically should be out of bounds. If you can’t admit that, you are a cultural relativist, no matter how much you (or Mr. French) protest. As Robert George (I think) argued in response to the Minerva-Giubilini thesis that you should be able to kill a newborn right after birth for all the same reasons you can kill an unborn child right before birth: It is not just another “idea” that “discussion” and “debate” can tease out in pros and cons over tea and scones. Intellectual bacteria, like its physical counterpart, gets into the intellectual bloodstream, inducing cultural sepsis. Hitler didn’t start killing people after 1933 in an otherwise robustly culture-of-life Germany. The intellectual elites — German physicians and professors — were babbling about lebensunwertes Leben (life not worthy of life) more than a decade earlier and, instead of repudiating the discourse, the Frenches of the 1920s probably said something like “ja, ja, eine sehr interessante Perspektive.” 

French’s likely pushback would be “how can we know that your ethical position should prevail? Aren’t you just privileging your viewpoint?“ And that’s exactly where I would maintain that the Ten Commandments — far from being invested with magic “Christian mysticism“ — settle the question. They do so by appealing to what the Creator inscribed in the human heart, a notion not alien to the American Founding (see the Declaration of Independence) and why Louisiana is right in privileging those two tablets.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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