Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Ten Commandment Politics

Stephen Lazarus


July 19, 1999

At a "God not Guns" rally held on Capitol Hill recently, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) offered his explanation for the school killings at Columbine High School: "I got an e-mail this morning that said it all. The student writes, 'Dear God: Why didn't you stop the shootings at Columbine?' And God writes, 'Dear student: I would have, but I wasn't allowed in school.'"

Last month, DeLay and his House colleagues decided to end God's expulsion by passing a bill that would allow states to mandate the posting of the Ten Commandments in school classrooms. But will introducing students to the Ten Command-ments—or as some suggest, requiring school prayer—really help prevent school violence?

DeLay is on to something. For too long, too many Americans have believed that education could be conducted without reference to God or to higher standards of right and wrong. They're wrong. A student's education shapes a student's character and actions as a citizen.

But DeLay's idea doesn't go far enough. By itself, it is more symbol than substance. A nicely framed wall copy of the Ten Commandments would not have stopped Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold from violating the Sixth Commandment: "Thou shalt not murder."

Instead, Americans need education that seriously nurtures our religious and moral commitments. If faith is what fundamentally motivates a person and shapes one's worldview and way of life, how can it possibly be desirable or wise to separate faith from education about history, science, government, and the whole terrain of learning? Advocates of strict secularism must explain how a model of public education that ignores our deepest commitments promotes true learning—or religious liberty.

In explicitly faith-based schools, the Ten Commandments are more than just another item on the teacher's bulletin board. They are part of a larger story integrated into the school's educational mission, the teachers' lessons, and the students' daily routine.

But Americans also need education that takes the religious diversity of this country seriously. The House proposal misses this point. It offers us the Ten Commandments as a minimum moral bottom line we can all buy into, without acknowledging that Americans belong to many different faiths. There is, fortunately, a better option.

Let's give all citizens the freedom to attend publicly supported schools that are genuinely faith-based and linked to particular religious traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. There is a long and successful history of public support for such schools in Canada and Europe. The environment and curricula of these schools demonstrate the importance of faith not only for shaping character (and preventing future Columbines), but also for a truly comprehensive education. And because this model of education provides equal treatment to all faith communities—and avoids America's one-size-fits-all secular approach—it is even more compatible with the First Amendment than our current system.

Parents bear the primary responsibility for educating their children, and they should be able to choose from a variety of locally controlled, faith-based or secular schools supported by the public. The best school-choice proposals call for expanding the public school system exactly this way.

Studies of these schools suggest that because they are united by a shared religious vision, they have enormous potential to become the communities of character and learning that Americans from all economic, racial, and religious backgrounds are seeking. It's time to move beyond empty symbolic actions to real education reform and justice for all.

—Stephen Lazarus, Policy Research Associate
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”