The Ten Commandments are found in the Old Testament and are closely identified with the history of Judaism. But in recent years, they’ve been adopted by right-wing fundamentalist Christians eager to prove that the United States has religious underpinnings and wasn’t founded to be a secular nation.
This far-right obsession with the Commandments has legal and political ramifications because fundamentalists often try to display the Commandments at seats of government.
Federal courts ruled recently on the legality of Ten Commandments displays on public property in North Dakota and New Mexico—reaching opposite conclusions. And in Alabama, Jackson County Commissioner Tim Guffey wants to display the Ten Commandments at the county courthouse. Guffey told local media that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution “all stemmed from the word of God, from the Ten Commandments.”
Guffey’s argument is a common one: It’s OK to display the Ten Commandments at a courthouse, city hall or the state capitol because U.S. law is based on them. Thus, a government-sponsored Ten Commandments display isn’t really religious. It just makes a statement about the origins of our law.
But there’s one gaping flaw with this argument: American law is not based on the Ten Commandments. Here are five reasons why.
1. The Ten Commandments don’t provide a coherent system of governance.It would be difficult, if not impossible, to base a government solely on the Ten Commandments for the simple reason that they are not a governance document. Nor could the Ten Commandments have influenced the Constitution, the foundation of American law, because the two documents serve very different purposes.
The Ten Commandments make up a moral code designed to punish certain behaviors deemed offensive to the God of the Old Testament. They say nothing about a government or how one is to be structured.
The Constitution, by contrast, is a governance document that spells out, in detail, how a representative democracy is supposed to work. A wholly secular document, the Constitution does not attempt to establish a system of religious laws. On the contrary, its First Amendment guarantees religious freedom for all (Christians and non-Christians) and bars all laws “respecting an establishment of religion.”
2. Nothing in the Constitution makes it illegal to break religious laws.The Ten Commandments are very clear on certain religious matters: There is one God. You owe him your allegiance and you’re not to put other gods before him. You are not to take his name in vain or desecrate the Sabbath. Take care to honor your parents.
If the Constitution were based on the Ten Commandments, we would see some reflection of these religious precepts in that document. We don’t. In fact, the Constitution cuts the other way. Its freedom-of-religion provision grants everyone the right to worship, as Thomas Jefferson put it, 20 gods or no god. Nothing in the Constitution accords God or the Sabbath special treatment. In fact, they aren’t even mentioned. Furthermore, Article VI mandates that there be “no religious test” for federal office. That is, people can’t be required to hold certain religious beliefs as a condition of holding public office. Language like this opens the door for everyone to participate fully in political life, no matter what he or she may believe about religion. It’s curious language for a document based on the Ten Commandments.
3. The Religious Right’s main argument is based on a phony quote by James Madison.Virginian James Madison is known as the “Father of the Constitution.” Madison was the primary author of the Constitution and worked tirelessly to see it adopted. A decade later, he helped draft the Bill of Rights.
Madison was an advocate for religious freedom and the total separation of the church from the state. It’s inconceivable that Madison would have advocated for a theocratic society based on the Ten Commandments.
Yet some Religious Right advocates argue that Madison favored this. Furthermore, they claim that he once said, “We have staked the whole of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”
There are variations of this quote. All are false. Madison never said this. Back in 1993, the curators of the Madison Papers at the University of Virginia were asked if they could verify this quote. They could not.
“We did not find anything in our files remotely like the sentiment expressed in the extract you sent us,” curators John Stagg and David Mattern wrote. “In addition, the idea is inconsistent with everything we know about Madison’s views on religion and government, views which he expressed time and time again in public and in private.”
Although this quote was debunked years ago, it still makes the rounds on Religious Right website. As recently as last year, the Family Research Council used it to promote a conference.
4. Historians have listed the real sources that inspired the Constitution.If the Ten Commandments had inspired the founders, we would see evidence of that in the founders’ writings and speeches. It isn’t there.
Furthermore, the sources that did inspire them are no secret. About 10 years ago, church-state separation activists were fighting Roy Moore, Alabama’s infamous “Ten Commandments judge,” over his decision to display the Commandments at a state judicial building in Montgomery. Moore’s legal strategy hinged in large part on his assertion that the Ten Commandments were the font of all U.S. law.
That tactic imploded when 41 law professors and legal historians filed a brief that left Moore’s claim in tatters. The historians examined the debates and written records of the founding period and uncovered no significant references to the Ten Commandments.
The brief noted that “various documents and texts” figured in the development of American law, among them English common and statutory law, Roman law, the civil law of continental Europe and private international law. They also found numerous references to the writings of William Blackstone, John Locke, Adam Smith and others as well as the Magna Carta, the Federalist Papers and other sources.
Observed the scholars, “While the Ten Commandments have influenced some of our notions of right and wrong, a wide variety of other documents have played a more dominant and central role in the development of American law. No respected scholar of legal or constitutional history would assert that the Ten Commandments have played a dominant or major role, or even a significant role, in the development of American law as a whole. To insist on a closer relationship or to claim the Ten Commandments has a special place in the development of American law lacks historical support.”
Not surprisingly, Moore lost in court.
5. Many of the precepts found in the Ten Commandments are common-sense rules that have existed for centuries.Some Religious Right leaders fall back on the argument that, while the Constitution may not explicitly recognize the Ten Commandments, American common and statutory law surely does. After all, our laws say it’s wrong to kill, lie and steal – just like the Ten Commandments!
The argument fails a simple historical analysis. Activities like murder, theft and lying are detrimental to all societies. If these actions aren’t punished, they make it nearly impossible for people to live together in peace. Thus, they are always banned. Other ancient lists of laws, such as the Code of Hammurabi (which is older than the Ten Commandments), proscribe these actions as well.
Even the U.S. Supreme Court gives a nod to this fact. In the court’s main chamber, a frieze along the wall depicts historic lawgivers from many different eras. Moses is depicted carrying two tablets, but he’s not alone. Many other lawgivers from the ancient world, including Hammurabi, Solomon, Solon, Confucius and others, are there too.
Veneration of the Ten Commandments as the font of all wisdom and the source of all laws is a modern-day affectation of the Religious Right. It doesn’t go back to the founding period.
So when did it start? The origins may surprise you. If you root around public parks in many American cities, you just might come across a weathered granite monument listing the Ten Commandments. It may be covered with vegetation and forgotten, but there it is. Why is it there? Where did it come from?
There’s a good chance it was donated to the town by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the 1950s as part of a publicity stunt to promote Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments.”
In the early 1940s, a juvenile court judge in Minnesota named E.J. Ruegemer got it into his head that exposing youngsters to the Ten Commandments would fend off delinquency. Ruegemer was a member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles and lobbied the group to push for posting paper copies of the Ten Commandments in juvenile courts.
A few years later, DeMille learned of the project and adopted it to promote his film – with a twist. He worked with Ruegemer to produce larger monuments made of granite, and the Eagles were soon donating Ten Commandments markers to communities all over America. About 2,000 were placed before the campaign ended. In some cases, stars from the movie dedicated the monuments.
Thus, the attempt to link the Ten Commandments to the U.S. government does have founders. But they aren’t men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Rather, the craze can be traced to more recent times and laid at the feet of Cecil B. DeMille, Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner.