12/16/2014 06:10 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

Face It, Christians, You Don't Have Ten Commandments

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Countless American Christians, like Michele Bachmann and Anthony Miller, claim allegiance to the Ten Commandments. One wonders, however, whether such folks have actually read the Hebrew laws of which they are so apparently fond.

The first tablet of Moses's law might be summed up as "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Mt. 22:37). Let's assume, just for the sake of argument, that most Christians do their best to worship only one god and not to use that god's name in vain. Let's assume also that most Christians try to honor their parents, at least in theory.

But most Christians overtly ignore the commandment forbidding graven images of God. Christians have a deity who came in human flesh -- a fact that seems to invite adoration of images. What would Christmas be without the baby Jesus in a manger? What would the Sistine Chapel be without God in his pink gown, almighty finger extended? Even the Holy Spirit often gets dressed up in a dove costume. With some notable exceptions, most American Christians (unlike Jews and Muslims) have few qualms about making pictures, sculptures, and even sexy film versions of God.

Besides images, Christians have also radically reinterpreted the sabbath. For Moses it began on Friday at sundown and extended until sundown on Saturday. But beginning in the first century, Christians (among whom Gentiles quickly outnumbered Jews) celebrated "the Lord's Day" on Sundays in memory of the resurrection of Jesus, which is said to have taken place the day after the sabbath.

Even if we allow for Christians to celebrate a day late (and mind you, not all Bible-believing Christians do make such an allowance), do American Christians really keep the day holy in the way the lawmaker seems to have intended? The command in question says unequivocally that on the sabbath, "you shall not do any work -- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns," (Ex. 20:10). Honoring such a command would come directly into conflict with American Christo-capitalism. Imagine if the entire economy took Sundays off: no laundry, no mowing the lawn, no farming, no movies, no homework, no piano practice, no shopping, no eating at Cracker Barrel. Elsewhere God says, "whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death," (Ex. 31:15), but Christian commitment to a genuine day of rest gave way long ago to other demands.

Then there's the second tablet of the law: those commandments that might be summed up as "love your neighbor as yourself," (Mt. 22:38, Lev. 19:18). Let's assume, again for the sake of argument, that most Christians do their best to follow the common-sense prohibitions against stealing, committing adultery, lying, and murder. (Jesus reportedly said that anger was essentially as bad as murder, but never mind that now.)

But the tenth commandment of Moses is a different matter: "thou shalt not covet" your neighbor's home, spouse, servants, animals, or indeed "anything that is your neighbor's." Isn't wanting what our neighbors have the cornerstone of a healthy economy? Perhaps, when Christo-capitalists say they honor the Ten Commandments, they mean to say that coveting that leads to stealing is a bad thing, while coveting that leads to buying is simply patriotic and good for business.

Most American Christians systematically and shamelessly ignore at least three of the Ten Commandments, but it's difficult to imagine someone protesting over merely two or seven or eight commandments. It would be more intellectually and theologically honest, of course, but it just doesn't have the same ring to it. Genuine understanding requires nuance, and nuance is the enemy of sound bites and self-righteousness.