05/27/2014 01:53 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Whose Ten Commandments?

Eric Thomas via Getty Images

The Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which begins the eve of June 3, celebrates God giving the law at Mount Sinai by reading the Ten Commandments. Those who want more religion in American life should pay close attention: The text may not be what you think.

The Ten Commandments have played a starring role in a campaign to bring more religion into public life while, in a post-9/11 world, carefully distinguishing "our" religion from "theirs." In 2005, Justice Antonin Scalia called the commandments "a symbol of the fact that government derives its authority from God." That declaration came as the Court approved public display of the commandments in a "secular" context in a 5-4 vote, while barring it in a "religious" context in another 5-4 split. Social conservatives were unsatisfied.

The 2012 Republican platform called for public display of the Ten Commandments "as a reflection of our history and of our country's Judeo-Christian heritage." The platform added a clear message about "every citizen's right to apply religious values to public policy." Though the commandments were not at issue in the Court's recent 5-4 ruling permitting explicitly religious prayer at government meetings, the majority opinion reflected the same support of "ceremonial" religion, as Justice Anthony Kennedy phrased it.

But if ever there were an example of the slippery slope between "ceremonial" and sectarian religious symbols, then the Ten Commandments surely qualify. To understand why, consider what would have happened had Republicans gathered at their 2012 convention to read the commandments out loud.

The version used by Mormons (presidential nominee Mitt Romney), Catholics (Romney running mate Rep. Paul Ryan), Protestants (such as Senate Minority Leader John Boehner) and Jews (like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor) all differ. There's not even agreement on which command is which number. Should a committee on the Hill decide what God meant on the mountaintop? That could take a lot more than 40 days and 40 nights.

The identity of individual commandments is also a bit murky. Since the Torah scroll omits all punctuation, where a particular verse or section begins or ends can be open to interpretation. And here's where the "shared heritage" argument gets shaky.

The very basis of any religious movement is the claim to a unique understanding of God's word. Early Christians translated the Hebrew Bible with their own interpretations, which many English translations reflect. When Christianity splintered, the Ten Commandments reflected each new group's outlook. Most notably, the prohibition against false gods is part of the First Commandment for Catholics. However, Protestants and Mormons made the ban on graven images a separate commandment in a deliberate effort to portray the statues in Catholic churches as idolatrous. Catholics still get to Ten Commandments by dividing "don't covet your neighbor's wife or house" into two commands.

Numerous other translation and interpretation differences highlight the hazards of explicitly trying to mix religion and policy. To cite just one example, Protestants and most Jews (no surprise -- we have our own internal disputes) read the prohibition against taking life as, "Do not murder." Mormons and Catholics use "Do not kill." Even with identical language, the Catholic Church believes this command as prohibiting capital punishment, while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disagrees. What guidance is God providing here or with the other commandments?

The varying versions of the Ten Commandments should remind us that it's not just in the Middle East where being devout can be profoundly divisive. The differences I've cited are common knowledge among many who've taken the time to understand others' beliefs, not just scholars. Those who ignore the potentially inflammatory nature of faith-based disagreements disrespect real faith and, worse, risk irreparable damage to civil society.

Americans already have their own version of the Ten Commandments, and they sit just above the justices' seats on the east wall of the Court. At the center of a long frieze, surrounded by two seated male figures, are two tablets that contain the Roman numerals I through X. The numbers represent not the Ten Commandments, wrote Adolph Weinman, the frieze's designer, but "the ten amendments to the Constitution known as the 'Bill of Rights.'"

Shavuot reminds Jews of our religious roots and obligations. America, though, is anchored in a dedication to liberty for all citizens no matter what they believe. This is what unites us in a civic heritage no religious tradition ever can or should try to duplicate.