The Ten Commandments a Source of American Law…REALLY???

The geniuses of the legislature in my newly-adopted home state are proving their brilliance once again with regard to the Ten Commandments as a source of American law.  A bill has just passed our Assembly (unanimously, no less) and is now headed for the Senate, to make sure the “Foundations of American Law and Government” display can be posted, not only in judicial buildings and courthouses, but in any public facility in the state.  The “Foundations” display is itself prescribed in Georgia Code 45-13-51, enacted in 2006.  Here’s the description taken from the actual text of the law:

The Foundations of American Law and Government display contains documents that played a significant role in the foundation of our system of law and government. The display contains (1) the Mayflower Compact; (2) the Ten Commandments; (3) the Declaration of Independence: (4) Magna Carta; (5) “The Star-Spangled Banner”; (6) the national motto of the United States of America; (7) the Preamble to the Georgia Constitution; (8) the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution; and (9) a picture of Lady Justice.

The code has several provisions to make sure that no single one of these nine elements be given prominence over the others.  Though I’m not a lawyer nor a constitutional scholar, I find it interesting that this law appears almost identical to one overturned in the 2005 Supreme Court decision enjoining the display of the Commandments in a Kentucky courthouse.  Though I’m a staunch advocate of the separation of church and state, that is not the issue I intend to address today.  Rather, I’m looking at the ridiculous claim that the Ten Commandments actually serve as a substantial foundation for American law.

Here’s what the Georgia law states in its prescription for the “Foundations” display:

The Ten Commandments have profoundly influenced the formation of Western legal thought and the formation of our country. That influence is clearly seen in the Declaration of Independence, which declared that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Ten Commandments provide the moral background of the Declaration of Independence and the foundation of our legal tradition.

The law further elaborates on the Commandments’ influence in its description of the Declaration of Independence:

Perhaps the single most important document in American history, the Declaration of Independence was, as Abraham Lincoln stated, the “frame” into which the Framers placed the Constitution. The Declaration’s fundamental premise is that one’s right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is not a gift of government. Government is not a giver of rights, but a protector of God-given rights. Moreover, government is a creation of “the governed” and derives all its power from the consent of its people. As the Preamble to the United States Constitution states, “We the People” are the government. (emphasis mine)

The Georgia (and previously, Kentucky) authorities claim that they are setting out an educational display to educate the public about the “Foundations of American Law and Government.”  45-13-51(a)(4) of the Code actually states “A basic knowledge of American constitutional history is important to the formation of civic virtue in our society.”  It is rather astonishing, in this context (and the Supreme Court decision referenced above observed the same thing), that a display purporting to teach “a basic knowledge of American constitutional history” does not even include the U.S. Constitution among its documents.  On the other hand, it does include several components that cannot plausibly be said to have any bearing on United States law at all, including most significantly, our National Anthem, the national motto “In God We Trust,” and a picture of Lady Justice.  These things are American cultural traditions, but they are not law.

That aside, the portion I highlighted above makes the true intent of the display pretty clear…among the “Foundations” of American law, in the mind of this bill’s advocates, is the premise that our rights come from God, not from man, or law, or government.  This is a premise worthy of debate on its own merits, but it is not one I intend to engage in this post.  Nevertheless the premise must be acknowledged, because it makes clear that when the legislators claim a secular, educational purpose for laws related to the display of the Ten Commandments, they are in fact being disingenuous.

The claim that the Ten Commandments provide a foundation for American law would be laughable if so many people didn’t take it so seriously. Here’s a link to the full text of the U.S. Constitution.  Go read it.  There is no mention of God or religion in the entire thing.  Nor does the Constitution touch on any topic addressed in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17).  The two documents simply do not overlap at all. Now here’s a link to the first ten amendments to the Constitution, otherwise known as the Bill of Rights, and here are all the remaining amendments to the Constitution.  Go read those.  Note this important point:  The word “God” or any other name for (or reference to) the divine does not occur once in the entire Constitution of the United States nor its amendments.  Nor do the amendments allude to any subject also mentioned in the Ten Commandments.

Finally, let’s look at the Commandments one by one.  I’ve done a visual commentary on the Commandments in America before, but this time, we’re going to look at the actual text (taken from the ESV in this instance):

1. You shall have no other gods before me.

There is nothing in American law that specifies any God in particular, or any hierarchy of gods.  Even the Declaration of Independence only references a “Creator.”  Other than the Creator’s having given to humans the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” we are told nothing about that being.  Furthermore, as mentioned before, the Declaration of Independence, while an important historical document, is not actually a law.  Commandment One does not influence any law of the United States.

2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them…

The laws of this nation do not forbid idolatry, and they certainly do not forbid sculpture or photography, both of which create images or likenesses of many things.  For that matter, only very few Christians throughout history have had any objection to the creation of images and likenesses.  We have taken this commandment (correctly, I think) to enjoin idolatry, not art.  But neither is prohibited by American law.

3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

Whether or not this command contributes to American law depends on what one thinks it means.  Though I’m not aware of any law currently in force, there have certainly been legal prohibitions against public profanity, particularly profanity using God’s name, in various American states in the past.  Clearly any such laws that still exist have lost any force, given the ubiquity of profane speech, music, writing, and general discourse in our country today.

Most credible sources I’ve read suggest this command has more to do with taking an oath in God’s name and then breaking it…and possibly even making an oath with full premeditation that one intends to break it (hence taking God’s name in vain).  We certainly have laws against perjury in this country, though I’d suggest there’s nothing uniquely Judeo-Christian about them.  The material sense of such laws is the dishonesty of the oath, not the violation of God’s name.  To claim we get our laws against perjury from Moses is a stretch at best.

4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Many places in America used to have Sabbath laws.  We don’t any more.  Very few Americans, Christian or otherwise, come anywhere close to keeping any sort of sabbath law on any day of the week.  American business, pleasure, goodness and sin all proceed apace on a 24-7 schedule.  Nothing to see here…move along now…

5. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

We could debate exactly what this command means too.  One common interpretation is that we should provide for the care of our elders, which could easily devolve into an argument as to whether each family should care for their own, or whether Social Security and Medicare are our way of keeping the Fifth Commandment.  I’m not taking that bait, at least not today.  But whether it’s the question of long-term care, or the more immediate question of kids obeying their parents, our society has mores and expectations in that regard, but not laws.  A child can disown, disrespect, and even abandon his parents, and as long as he does not physically abuse them (and there are other legal bases against abuse), there are no legal grounds upon which to charge him.

6. You shall not murder.

Yup.  We have laws against that.  So does every society, whatever god it does or does not worship.  Even atheist, Communist societies have laws against murder.  There is a much broader Biblical case, particularly in the New Testament, for a standard on the protection of human life that goes far beyond the prohibition of murder.  The standard of Jesus, which our nation most certainly does not presume to follow, elevates the sanctity of all human life including that of fetuses, enemies, and criminals to a level that those who claim to be “pro life” completely fail to grasp.  Nevertheless, for the point at hand, to suggest that our prohibition against murder descends uniquely from the Sixth Commandment beggars belief.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

Obviously, we have no law against adultery in this country.  In many states, even adultery as grounds for divorce has lost much of its punch.  Whatever public moralizing we may do (say, an adulterous congressman trying to impeach an adulterous president, to pick a random example), nobody goes to jail or pays fines for adultery in the United States.

8. You shall not steal.

We have that one too.  So does everybody else.  Our laws against stealing come from our standards of private property, not from divine fiat.  As I said for murder above, there’s nothing unique about our prohibition of theft that shows any divine sourcing.  Theft did not suddenly become a crime at the revelations from Sinai.

9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

I already touched on the subject of perjury up in the Third Commandment.  This command is more particularly about false accusation and testimony that wrongly convicts the innocent.  The Code of Hammurabi has several provisions with a great deal more detail than Exodus, regarding the consequences for perjured testimony against another.  Hammurabi predates Moses by anywhere from 300-500 years, depending on what date estimates one accepts.  Moses didn’t inspire this law.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

Of all the Ten Commandments, I find the Tenth to be the most blindingly obvious evidence that American law and Mosaic law are two radically different things.  Without covetousness, the American market economy would not exist.  Advertising as a profession is the deliberate creation of covetous desire in the contented.  Far from reproving covetousness, our society stokes the fire under every human lust and turns it into a market opportunity.

In summary, there is very little material overlap between the Ten Commandments and any laws of the United States.  The most generous reading would see links only in the sixth (murder), eighth (theft) and ninth (perjury/false witness) commandments, none of which contain anything particularly unique, none of which were novel at the time of Moses, and none of which require divine revelation to substantiate them.  To display the Ten Commandments as prescribed in the “Foundations of American Law and Government” regulation is a statement of religious endorsement.  Advocates’ claims  of  secular, historic motivation are at best specious, and at worst  baldfaced lies.

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