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Which rules should we live by?

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It's a good thing no one has asked me to help hang a copy of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse or other public building. First off, I wouldn't know what version to post. There are five ways of numbering the decalogue in current use. Using any one privileges a particular religion. We could even say that it establishes a religion.

The Jewish one is numbered quite differently from the one most residents of Utah are used to. It is quite literal, "10 words" or "10 sayings." And following the practice of Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5 (the two versions in the Bible differ) doesn't even use the word "commandment." Most English language Bibles don't use "commandment" either.

I suppose if I chose the Jewish version of commandments I'd have to list all 613 Mitzvot from the Jewish Bible where they are called statutes and judgments, but the real reason I don't want them posted isn't because the list would be long. Truth is I can't live all of them even though I try. And besides, I don't want them all as the law of the land. We are a bit different here in Utah, but not different enough that we can live all of the big Ten.

First off, there is trouble for many from the get-go. The First Commandment establishes a religion, which the First Amendment is pretty specific about not doing. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" establishes the God of the Old Testament as the law of the land. All gods but the one who wrote the commandment would be against the law because no other gods are allowed.

That commandment makes it illegal for me to worship my motorcycle, or my house, or any New Age crystals or potions. There goes Native American religions, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism because they worship other gods.

Also strong is the part that punishes the children of those parents who worship other gods. The commandment says that a jealous god visits "the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation." The kids here in Utah have it tough enough without being punished for the sins of their parents who may worship a snowmobile.

The worst part for me is the last one on the list, "thou shalt not covet." Who exactly are the thought police that will decide when I covet my neighbor's ox, ass, wife or servant? Coveting is in the mind. It is also what makes our economy go. We see something, covet it and buy it. I wouldn't own a motorcycle if I didn't covet.

If someone were to ask me what universal law to hang on a public building other than the Constitution, I'd opt for the one that seems to be the most universal. Even though stated in different words, the law that Jesus gave to fulfill or replace the Ten Commandments is the most universal and could replace lists on courtroom walls. We call it the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

From Kant (philosophy) to most of the religions of the world, this seems to be the constant. I have a six-page list of chapters and verses from the world's scriptures for anyone interested. I think we may even have something an athiest could like.

Maybe the reason we don't post the golden rule is because it would be so much harder to live than the Ten Commandments that we already make a hash of. But then difficulty begs the question: What rule would we rather have the law of our community, Ten Commandments or golden rule?


Roger Baker is an associate professor of English at Brigham Young University.