The Ten Commandments have a lot of religious significance for Jews, Christians, and even Muslims. In America, though, they also have a lot of legal significance — not because they are the basis for any laws, as many Christians claim, but rather because of all the lawsuits over Christians' attempts to get governments to endorse or promote the Decalogue. The Ten Commandments is a major source for legal and political fights over church/state separation and the reasons why are very interesting.
The Ten Commandments are a set of ten basic rules of behavior, mostly negative in construction, that appear in the ancient Hebrew scriptures and are directed at the Hebrews as God’s chosen people. Tradition holds that these rules were delivered to them by God via Moses, who climbed to the top of Mount Sinai during the Hebrews’ journey through the desert from Egypt to Canaan
. They are, then, God’s requirements for how the Hebrews are supposed to behave.
Most people know the Ten Commandments — or perhaps it is better to say that they think they know the Ten Commandments. The commandments are one of those cultural products that people imagine that they understand, but in reality, they frequently can't even name all of them, let alone explain them. People who already think they know all they need are unlikely to take the time to research the subject with any great care and precision.
Roy Moore is a genuine celebrity for the Religious Right in America — his perpetual court cases over his various displays of the Ten Commandment have become a popular cause for fundamentalists around the country. Because of this, the court cases involving Moore play an important role in the relationship not only between church and state, but also between separationists and America’s religious right.
Should displays of the Ten Commandments be allowed in public buildings? Should large monuments be erected on the grounds of courthouses or legislative buildings? Should there be posters of the Ten Commandments in schools and other municipal buildings? Some argue that they are part of our legal history, but others contend that they are inherently religious and, therefore, cannot be allowed.
The Ten Commandants are first and foremost a religious document, describing the covenental relationship between the Jews and their god. It is, however, a religious document with many social and religious implications. Such implications are obvious in the case of the Jews themselves since the commandments serve to constrain what sorts of social and political options might be available to them. There are also implications for societies in which non-Jews take the Ten Commandments very seriously and think that others should as well.
Because the Ten Commandments establish a covenant
between the Jews and their god, it must be approached first and foremost as a religious document. Because Judaism is an important basis for both Christianity and Islam, the Ten Commandments have religious implications for all three religions. Each religion treats them slightly differently, each religion draws different conclusions from them, and each even has its own versions.