THE TEN COMMANDMENTS AND SECULAR LAW
The Ten Commandments form the basis of our secular laws, right? At least that’s what many people say, and most Americans seem to accept this concept as fact, without really thinking about it. But is this true, and really, does it even matter? Second question first: yes, I believe it matters, because there are those in this country who want to use this dubious “fact” to interject religion into public, civil life. Recently, an Alabama official, Jackson County Commissioner Tim Guffey, proposed erecting a Ten Commandments monument outside the County Courthouse, his rationale being that “the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence – they all stemmed from the word of God, from the Ten Commandments”. Some people might also remember the case of Roy Moore, who was dismissed from his post as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 for refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Judicial Building, despite orders to do so from a federal judge. So yes, I do believe this question matters, as this belief continues to be used to justify religious intrusion into what should be purely secular matters.
Now the second question: is it true? Do American laws, including the Constitution (our most important set of laws) really derive from the Ten Commandments? Let’s take a look. If that assertion is true, we would expect to see a high degree of correlation between the Ten Commandments and our laws. We’ll look at this from two vantage points. First, we’ll take a look at the Ten Commandments themselves, and assess their correlation to current law, especially the Constitution. Then we’ll take a look at some of our more important laws to see how those ordinances are treated in the Ten Commandments, if at all. Note that for the purposes of this essay, I’m using a fairly simple version of the Ten Commandments. There is some variation as to how the Ten Commandments are translated among different texts, sects, etc…, and so I think keeping it simple will help simplify our analysis as well. So let’s begin:
No. 1: “I am the Lord thy God; Thou shalt have no other gods before Me”. This statement comes from the Old Testament of the Bible, and so from the God of Jews and Christians, who both hold the Old Testament as a holy text. But the U.S. Constitution, in its First Amendment, guarantees the right to the free exercise of religion. Therefore, in our country, our most important law states that you can worship any god you please, be it Allah, Buddha, various Hindu deities, Apollo, Zeus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And so here we see that our Constitution not only fails to support Commandment No. 1, it directly contradicts it by allowing people to worship whatever god they want over and above the god of the Old Testament. Certainly the First Amendment, which is one of our most important civil laws, did not spring from the Ten Commandments.
No. 2: “Thou shalt not make idols” (sometimes stated as “graven images”). See the analysis of No. 1 above. United States law allows people to make idols and worship them as they wish. And so again we see no correlation between this Commandment and our Constitution.
No. 3: “You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain”. Ah, that pesky First Amendment again. Our right to Freedom of Speech guarantees our right to take the name of this or any other god in vain. Once again, we see not only a failure of correlation, but a direct contradiction of one of the Commandments.
No. 4: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”. While there are still a few jurisdictions in this country that retain some kind of “blue laws” (laws that mandate store closings on a particular day of the week, usually Sunday) they are few and far between. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, shopping is something they can do any day of the week, especially now with e-commerce so ubiquitous. And of course, some religious Jews and Moslems would say that the few blue laws that do still exist have the day wrong anyway. So while people are free to avoid commercial activities on the Sabbath day of their choosing if they so wish, for almost all Americans, there are no laws to stop them from working or shopping on Sundays. Again, extremely little correlation, if any.
No. 5: “Honor Thy Father and Mother”. Most people would say that this is the right thing to do, but this Commandment is nowhere reflected in our laws. No legal correlation whatsoever. And with efforts going on to cull back Medicare and Social Security benefits, in our country it would seem that not just the letter, but the spirit of this Commandment is regularly flouted as well.
No.6: “Thou shalt not murder”. Unquestionably, murder is enshrined in our local laws as one of our most serious crimes. So we do find full correlation here, although the prohibition against murder is seen in societies that pre-date the Bible, and so it is open to question whether our own current prohibition stems from the Bible’s Ten Commandments, or from man’s earliest moral practices that are simply reflected in the Ten Commandments.
No. 7: “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. Generally speaking, adultery is frowned upon in our society, at least publicly, but is frequently merely shrugged at in practice. It certainly happens often enough, if the tabloids are to be believed. But the important thing for our analysis is that adultery is not against the law. Grounds for divorce? Yes. A criminal offense? No. And so we have another Commandment that fails to fully correlate to our secular laws.
No. 8: “Thou shalt not steal”. See No. 6 above. Again, this Commandment does correlate to our laws, although it is open to question whether this Commandment really is the source of our laws against stealing, or if Commandment No. 8 merely reflects human tradition that pre-dates the Bible.
No. 9: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”. There is strong correlation here, as perjury (intentionally lying under oath) is a crime in all jurisdictions. Not one of our most important statutes, judging by the severity of sentence, but a crime never-the-less.
No. 10: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s possessions”. Are you kidding me? Coveting our neighbor’s possessions is practically our national pastime. Whole TV shows are based on this one concept; without it, our entire consumer-driven economy might fall apart. And there are certainly no laws on the books that forbid it.
So what do we see here? Of the Ten Commandments, there are three that have correlation to our laws, three that are directly contradicted by our most important law, the Constitution, and four that have no real application to our laws at all. Of the Ten Commandments, only three have correlation to our laws, while seven do not. Based on this analysis, is it reasonable to assert that our laws “stem from the Ten Commandments”? It certainly does not seem so from this analytic perspective.
But we’re not done yet. We still have to take a look from the other side. If our laws are based on the Ten Commandments, it is logical to assume that all, or at least most, of our most important laws would be contained in the Ten Commandments. Not enough commandments to hold all our laws, you say? Well then, God could have made (or could still make) 20, or 30 commandments, right? He is God, after all. He can make as many commandments as He likes. And of course we would expect that these Commandments would reflect our most important laws. No use wasting limited space on the tablets on mere trifles. Suppose, for example, that the Ten Commandments were as follows:
• Thou shalt not double park.
• Thou shalt not litter.
• Thou shalt not jaywalk.
• Thou shalt not step on the grass, as posted.
• Thou shalt not remove the tag on a mattress that says “Do not remove this tag”.
• Thou shalt not fail to pick up thy dog’s poop.
• Thou shalt not use fake ID to get into a bar.
• Thou shalt not honk thy horn in a hospital zone.
• Thou shalt not carry an open container of alcohol in the street.
• Thou shalt not co-mingle thy recyclables with thy regular trash.
If these were the Ten Commandments that Moses had brought down from Mt. Sinai, they would correlate perfectly with our laws, but you still wouldn’t consider them to be of great importance, no less the basis for all our jurisprudence, because they would not correspond with what we consider to be our most important laws. So let’s take a look at some of our most important prohibitions (based, at least in part, on the penalties attached to them) of which the Ten Commandments make no mention:
• Child abuse.
• Assault and Battery.
• Slave holding.
• Illegal weapons possession.
• Narcotics dealing.
• Improper handling of toxic waste.
How could the Ten Commandments be the basis of our laws when they don’t mention any of these very important prohibitions? When they contain a Commandment against coveting our neighbor’s new Mercedes, but not against rape or child abuse?
To recap: when we look at the Ten Commandments, we see very little correlation between those Commandments and our current American laws, and, in fact, we see a number of outright contradictions. And we also see that many of our most important laws are not mentioned in the Ten Commandments at all. Ergo, you can only say that the Ten Commandments are the basis for our laws if you have a supernatural worldview that is divorced from verifiable reality, or if you have a political agenda in which you are trying to subvert the separation of church and state in order to inject your own, personal religious beliefs into the public sphere, where they clearly do not belong. For people like Tim Guffey and Roy Moore, it’s probably a combination of both factors. But we don’t have to buy into that nonsense. So the next time you hear someone say that our laws are based on the Ten Commandments, call them on it by demanding that they prove it. I promise you that they can’t.