When he tossed off a snappy answer to a query about the Ten Commandments last month, Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush may have thought he was responding to a seemingly clear-cut measure passed by the House.
But the Texas governor's assertion that the public could rally around a "standard version" of the commandments focused attention on a theological dispute that goes back centuries.
The details of that disagreement offer a case study in the risks politicians run when they attempt to opine or legislate on matters of religion. Few subjects are as personal and as freighted with obscure historical controversy. And few are so poorly summed up in the sound bites that are the coin of the modern political realm.
The Ten Commandments came up alongside gun control, regulation of the entertainment industry and other issues during Congress' debate on youth violence after the tragedy at Colorado's Columbine High. On June 17, the House approved, 248 to 180, the "Ten Commandments Defense Act."
Sponsored by Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.), the measure--an amendment to a juvenile justice bill--declared that states have the power to display the commandments in public places.
The amendment became a hot topic in popular political dialogue, even though the Senate has yet to be heard from on the subject and President Clinton would prefer the final bill be stripped of the measure. And even if it becomes law, the amendment would face a certain court challenge. The Supreme Court in 1980 struck down a similar effort in Kentucky.
Aderholt's amendment did not address a key issue: how to define the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue as they also are known. The Bible itself has two versions. One in Exodus 20 is written as the voice of God, and one in Deuteronomy 5 is in quotations from God related by Moses.
In addition, the Jewish and Christian faiths each order, edit and translate the commandments in accordance with their beliefs--and there are significant differences among the catechisms of various branches of Christianity.
During House debate on the amendment, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a foe of the measure, wondered which version states would adopt.
"Are our public buildings to be Catholic because the local Catholic majority votes that the Catholic version found in the Douay Bible should be in the public buildings?" Nadler asked. "Or perhaps they should be Protestant because the local majority decides for the King James version of the Ten Commandments, which is very different from the Catholic version. Or maybe the Jews have a majority in the local district, and they decide the Masoretic text should be in public buildings."
'Killing' Versus 'Murder'
As an example of the complications, religious experts point to the 6th Commandment, (or 5th, depending on who's listing them), which is most on point to the youth violence debate. A standard Jewish text renders it in English as "You shall not murder." Christian texts typically say, "You shall not kill."
The shade of difference between the two, said Robert Franklin, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, is relevant to discussions of war, law and capital punishment.
The various Judeo-Christian traditions generally agree on the commandments to honor fathers and mothers and prohibit adultery, stealing and bearing false witness against a neighbor. But Judaism, unlike some other faiths, emphasizes primacy to the story of the exodus from Egypt in the 1st Commandment. Meanwhile, in another commandment, the traditions of most Protestant and Greek Orthodox churches stress the ban on making graven images.
It is "well-intentioned but naive," Franklin said, for politicians "to simply insist that we can boil down what is in fact a somewhat complicated text."